A warm parade in more ways than one

The Fralinger String Band struts up Broad Street. Fralinger finished fourth among the string bands, behind Quaker City, Ferko, and South Philadelphia. Its captain, Thomas D'Amore, placed third.

It all happened so fast: the passing comic, the stuffed-monkey handoff, the friendship among strangers on the sidelines of the annual Mummers Parade.

"We got a birthday boy - can we get a monkey?"

The voice belonged to Tracy Williams, a 50-year-old Norristown man who had gone to the parade alone on an incredibly warm New Year's Day and was in a crowd near City Hall when a comic in yellow satin strutted past.

The wench (he was not just a comic, you see) was with the Bryson New Year's Brigade, a South Philly troupe that had just dispersed up Market Street after putting on its "Monkey Business" performance for the judges. ("Yes, we have no bananas, we have no bananas today" was a musical feature, of course.)

The wench was holding an infant - a real, live youngster in a toasty, furry outfit. But what had caught the attention of Williams were the stuffed monkeys dangling from the man's costume.

Hearing the request, the wench walked over, ripped a stuffed monkey off his satin-draped belly, handed it to Williams, and faded from sight.

Williams handed the monkey to the alleged birthday boy, a youngster from Media named Will Larson, a stranger who, with his corporate executive father and family, had become friends with the painter from Norristown.

"This is the family right here," Williams said, singling out a beaming Don Larson; his wife, Terri; and their children, Will, Brent, and Cassie.

"We just met."

Then Williams turned reflective about this parade of absurdist decadence, in which generations mingle in Mummers sequins, and in the stands, too.

"The good thing about Philadelphia," he said, "it's the friendship. It's the camaraderie. And it's just good people having fun. We're just blessed by this event."

The unseasonable weather drew sizable and sustained crowds up and down South Broad Street, where comics, fancies, string bands, and fancy brigades paraded with parasols, beaded necklaces, feathers, and golden slippers all day long.

It was the 111th year for the Mummers Parade, and as though its symmetry with the date, 1/1/11, were working psychic magic on the scene, kindness and good cheer were as abundant as the balmy air. (That's no small feat for an annual spectacle often stung by frigid weather and notorious for alcohol consumption.)

"I was a two-time winner," said Harry Weissinger, 51, of South Philadelphia, his face oddly expressionless as he slowly formed the sentence. A long, white, braided wig dangled beside his painted face as he and three fiftysomething buddies from the Riverfront Wench Brigade wobbled down 15th Street in black satin hobo costumes after performing.

What's your name? one of them was asked.

"Ray Stahl," he said.

"That's his name," one of the buddies interjected, pointing out a prank in the works.

So, OK, what's your name? the prankster was asked.

"Ed Hall," said the 57-year-old wench from Pedricktown, N.J. "Soon to be a grandfather!"

All the while, Weissinger, a wench of towering and broad proportions, lifted his skirt to reveal white support hose on beefy legs not usually stuffed like sausage into gauzy women's undergarments.

"I had to go to the big-girl store to buy these," he said, slapping a thick thigh. Then he took a sip out of a canteen, matching the spout to his lips with considered effort.

Mayor Nutter, who touted portable toilets this year for making the parade more family-friendly, estimated the crowd was among the largest in recent years. The temperature was a stroke of good fortune, he said.

"It's nice to be lucky," Nutter said. "What is it, 50?"

Financial troubles brought on by the recession, which led to the city's elimination of $335,000 in prize money three years ago, caused a handful of clubs to drop out of the parade this year, said George Badey, chairman of SaveTheMummers.com.

Undeterred was the Fralinger String Band, whose rich saxophone-and-banjo orchestrations wafted down Broad Street like the comforting aroma of a holiday roast in the kitchen.

"We've gotten first prize eight years in a row," said captain Thomas D'Amore, 22, of South Philadelphia, who led an elaborately choreographed tribute to Ukrainian independence, in honor of the band's longtime musical arranger. (Quaker City finished in first place Saturday, ending Fralinger's streak.)

"The size of the crowd has definitely improved from the past," D'Amore said. "The feedback we're getting from the fans is fantastic."

The Larson family rued having waited so long to attend for the first time Saturday. Don Larson, 47, is a Chicago native who brought his family to suburban Philadelphia six years ago.

Larson and his family befriended strangers like Williams. And while it wasn't his son's birthday (his wife is the birthday girl, on Monday), the miscommunication sparked a festive exchange.

"This is fun," Larson said. "I'm sorry I hadn't come here before."

The parade would likely be the family's last. In a few hours, Larson and two of his children were scheduled to fly to Mozambique as part of a work transfer on the part of Hershey, his employer.

"I'm going to build a chocolate factory there," he said. His wife and their other son would soon follow.

After just one parade, it became clear, Terri Larson said, what the Mummers fuss is all about.

"Fun and frolicking," she said. "I'd say sharing the love, too."

And with that, the painter from Norristown added:

"Yes. Absolutely."

Contact staff writer Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com.