Novice Mummer is put through the paces

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Drummer Steve Ropsky, 42, catches a smoke during a Greater Overbrook String Band practice session under I-95, near Front and Morris Streets in South Philadelphia.

After 108 years, the Mummers are in trouble.

Sure, attendance and participation at the annual New Year's Day parade are down. The real reason I say this, however, is because Mummers in one string band recently welcomed me - a 51-year-old non-Italian woman who has not touched her tenor saxophone since "Disco Duck" topped the charts - as one of their own.

My early November phone call to one of only two South Philadelphia string bands that accept women was encouraging. "Come on down!" gushed Greater Overbrook president and business manager Ben Narducci, after I told him I played tenor (tenor players, I subsequently learned, are as attractive to Mummer string band honchos as triple-D-cup wearers are to Hooters hiring managers).

Later I discovered another reason Narducci was so welcoming: Since 2004, Overbrook has been trying to crawl its way back from a dead-last finish.

Music director Rich Johnson blames a "despot" leader for Overbrook's 2004 collapse. Mummers string bands experience as many power struggles and political coups as the average developing nation. The typical Mummer has been in anywhere from three to eight groups.

Despite Overbrook's lower standing (or maybe because of it), the band seems to be pretty far along in its preparations. By the time I show up, the band is halfway through learning the moves for its scarecrow theme.

"I know some people say that scarecrows have been done to death," says captain Perry DiMatteo, swatting flies from the hay-bale props one evening at Overbrook's Second Street clubhouse. "But we've got scarecrows inside pumpkins, scarecrows inside sunflowers - even inside farmers! It's a twist."

Traditionally, the string bands are the most beloved marchers in the parade, probably because they wear as elaborate costumes and do as complicated moves as the fancies, but while plucking a bass fiddle strapped to a sunflower stem.

At least, some people are doing complicated moves; I'm certainly not. "Because you're not a sunflower," another sax player answers impatiently when I ask why I'm the only female who is not prancing around front and center. Apparently petrified about a virgin Mummer's potential to screw up, DiMatteo has placed me in the back of the formation with the old guys.

We are given only about four moves beyond the basic Mummer nursing home-like shuffle, which we "cornstalks" promptly learn, then stand around bored. To pass the time, the cornstalks tell jokes that are as old as our songs and as corny as our theme (think "Is your refrigerator running?").

The old-timers also reminisce about past new years. There was the year they portrayed hillbillies marching out of outhouses. The time a Gay '90s-costumed banjo player's handlebar mustache fell to the ground at the judges' feet gets lots of laughs.

Such wardrobe malfunctions won't fly this year, I realize, as tensions increase post-Thanksgiving; any offenders would have to steer clear of the club for at least a year.

On Dec. 4, Johnson stalks off mid-rehearsal over some infraction about which we backrowers remain clueless. That same day, the Captain's Dinner fund-raiser is called off - no money to put it on. The monthlong countdown, with all the attendant drama, has begun.

To pay for costumes (commonly $700 to $1,200 each), string bands engage in more money-making schemes than you'd find in a whole season of The Honeymooners. Overbrook's business strategy seems to consist mostly of pleas from Narducci for delinquent dues. Members are also bombarded with "opportunities" for paying band jobs that eat up the few nights and weekends not taken up by rehearsals. (Don't expect thoughtful Christmas presents from a Mummer.)

The organization has kept me in the dark about costumes and props, although a list on the clubhouse bulletin board offered some clues. Its "things to be done yesterday" list include "barn to be assembled," "Captain Pumpkin," and "purchase and build leaf cannon" (whatever that is). Linda Rorer, a 12-year Mummers string band vet, says bands rarely rehearse with all their props before New Year's, the only exception being "the fire pits the time we were cavemen" (understandably).

By Dec. 11, we are cramming for the big exam. DiMatteo adds five major new unison movements to our routine, including one high-step sequence that has me flummoxed. But the accordion player who appears at my right about 30 measures earlier is as calm as a Buddhist monk. He tells me that he's in the band for "relaxation," which also has me flummoxed until I find out his day job is investigating arson cases.

Of course, there are plenty of opportunities for stressed Overbrookers to let off steam, i.e., drink lots of beer. There's the Captain's Crawl on Dec. 16, where the "Two Street" clubs honor a retiring captain with free drinks; the Drunken Santa Parade on Dec. 23, where string bands in Santa hats drink and play as they march up the same street; and this Sunday's Hat Parade - a Drunken Santa redux, only with hats related to band themes.

And these are only the informal parades involving string bands. The fancies and comics clog Second on other weekends, making me think that Casino-Free Philadelphia shouldn't be battling the Pennsport Foxwoods. What other neighborhood in Philadelphia has more experience with drunks and traffic tie-ups?

On Dec. 20 comes the long-awaited costume unveiling - though my excitement is tempered by the realization that the only outfit that has ever been tailor-made for me makes me look like a clown with a corn fetish. "Once you get your hood on, you'll look more like a Klansman or somebody going to the guillotine," offers another band member, comfortingly.

Speaking of pep talks, almost every rehearsal ends with one, along with predictions about how much better we're going to place this year. Narducci has publicly promised to shave his head if we don't crack the Top 10. Providing I don't screw things up with 2008's equivalent of the "mustache drop," it might just happen.


Carolyn Wyman is a Philadelphia-based author and journalist. Her most recent book was "Better Than Homemade: Amazing Foods That Changed the Way We Eat."