Mummers brace for coldest New Year's strut in decades

The Hegeman String Band’s theme for the 2018 Mummers Parade — a mime-based performance they’re calling “Shhhhhh!!!!!!” — turned out to be prescient. At a Sunday morning rehearsal, the band’s 35 saxophone players could only pantomime playing their instruments as they practiced drilling in formation around a South Philadelphia parking lot.

Don Morrissey, 67, the band’s music director, said the 17-degree chill was just too cold to play. At a Thursday night rehearsal, several of the players’ saxophones had frozen up, tearing pads off of the keys and requiring last-minute replacements.

“Our biggest problem, and every other band’s, is trying to keep the saxophones able to play. Once you get down around 25 degrees or so, it gets tougher,” he said. “A couple of us had some problems a few nights ago. I don’t want to take a chance on that today.”

Morrissey, of South Philadelphia, has been strutting for 51 years, but believes Monday’s anticipated cold and wind will bring the worst conditions he’s faced on Broad Street. Temperatures were expected to be a brisk 12 degrees — but will feel even colder — when the parade begins at 9 a.m., but organizers opted to press on with the 117-year-old tradition anyway.

According to Morrissey, the String Band Association had voted against going ahead with the parade. He said that he, personally, was concerned about members’ health. But, he said, “We’re only one vote. We got outvoted.”

Backup procedures, however, are in place. Hegeman has warming buses and will make use of city-provided warming tents. They’re contemplating hooking up a hair dryer in the lead car to warm up instruments, as needed. And they’re hoping they’ll have a chance to tune up right before getting in front of the judges.

John Baron, the club captain, called everyone in for a pep talk. “Maybe we should have done a sunny Florida theme,” he conceded, but urged them to carry on. “The quality of the music will be affected, but what cannot be affected is the performance.”

Fortunately, members have their own ways of warming up. Sara Ropski, 20, who has been playing saxophone with Hegeman since she was 12, dropped to the ground and did a few push-ups. “At least my arms are warmer,” she said. Her preparations included obtaining hand warmers and latex-lined gloves at the suggestion of her father, who is also a Mummer.

Tim Stein, 51, said his plan was even simpler than that: “Just a lot of layers — and a lot of prayers.”

A few blocks away, members of Golden Sunrise, the last Fancy Club remaining in the parade, were wheeling a colorful sequined lobster out of their clubhouse.

The captain’s theme this year is a pirate ship, with a gold-glitter-covered steering wheel up front, and a tiki bar in the back.

“It’s a fitting day for it,” club captain Mike Rubillo, 41, said dryly as the wind whipped through the old garage where club members were using a pulley to lower props from a second-floor space down to street level.

Club president Jack Cohen, 56, said that out of particular concern for participants in the juvenile division, the club rented two buses where performers can stay warm. The youngest is just 3 years old. Those precautions cost a few thousand dollars, but postponing to next weekend would have been even more expensive, he said — and the forecast didn’t look much better.

The club also made preparations to deal with the wind, including extra ties to secure the elaborate, sequined props and feathered back pieces that accompany some costumes.

“The wind chill is supposed to be minus-1 degree when we step off. But we’ve taken steps to make sure our members are safe,” he said. “We’re going to be all set to go at 9 a.m. tomorrow, to make the city proud.”

Across the city, residents were buying up chemical hand warmers, gloves and scarves all weekend. By Sunday, the CVS at 23rd and South Streets was sold out of hand warmers. At Walgreen’s on Chestnut and Broad Streets, only gloves remained – selling for $15.99 a pair.

Walking through Rittenhouse Square, one past member of the Froggy Carr, a wench brigade, said aiming to stay warm on New Year’s Day has prompted many male Mummers to wear pantyhose underneath their costumes over the years.

“Guys in the Mummers have been doing that since the ’50s,” he said, declining to give his name. “You grab whatever your wife’s got and wear those. Besides, you’re so worked up from the adrenaline and the excitement of the day, you don’t really feel the cold.”

For those who just can’t bear the idea of hours outside on Broad Street on Monday, the Kimmel Center and the High School for Creative and Performing Arts will be open to provide relief from the cold.

There is another option: staying home and watching the parade live on PHL17.

Staff writer Erin Arvedlund contributed to this article.