Nothing fancy about the maestro of the Mummers

Leo Dignam (right) oversees the Mummers Parade for the city as deputy parks commissioner, assisted by Jim Marino (left), who also plans the Broad Street Run.

The Mummers Whisperer wears no sequins, golden slippers, or face makeup. He prefers an off-the-rack shirt with no tie. Zero flash.

This is fitting, since the passions of Mummery require that a fixer like Leo Dignam be nearly invisible. The get-it-done maestro of Mummers logistics doesn't ruffle feathers, because the only stars in Philly's fabled New Year's parade are the feathered and fancied-up Mummers themselves.

Dignam is the civil servant leader of a parade he never watched as a kid. As an outsider, he has helped tame the famously unwieldy folk spectacle in such a way that he's also, somewhat incredibly, become adored by the fractious folks for whom Mummery is religion.

"I get along with these guys," Dignam said. "Guys and gals."

In theory, the flamboyant wenches, banjo strummers, comics, and fancies who will mosey down South Broad Street on Friday might resent the deputy parks commissioner. He engineered the drastic shortening of the parade a year ago and, over the last 12 months, was integral in efforts to diversify the all-volunteer clubs of predominantly white, male Mummers.

Since being named parade director 11 years ago, Dignam has wooed and won over the strutters with a touch so deft, it's touching.

"We love Leo," said Bill Burke, vice president of the Fancy Brigade Association, whose Broadway-like productions are a hallmark of the century-old parade.

"On a scale of one to 10, he's an 11," Burke said. "He's our guy."

The Fancy Brigades gave Dignam their highest honor in 2014, even as he tightened the parade route, changed its direction, and entirely excluded South Philadelphia - the cradle of Mummery.

"He's just got this way. Magic, whatever it is," Burke said. "It works. Something about him."

In March, Dignam will receive another of the Mummers' highest honors: induction into the String Band Hall of Fame.

"He understands us," said Tom Loomis, president of the Philadelphia String Band Association, whose strummers are the spine of the southward march from City Hall to Washington Avenue on New Year's Day.

Dignam is the non-Mummer whose biography alone seems ripe for Mummery.

Now 56, he grew up in a three-bedroom Tacony rowhouse, sharing a bedroom with four brothers. He was one of nine kids, his dad a salesman. He graduated from Father Judge High School and La Salle University.

No one in his family, however, was a Mummer.

About 20 years ago, his boss at the Recreation Department asked Dignam to start helping out with the string bands. The parade had been an afterthought to the department, with little more than a day or two of attention paid at the end of each December.

By the mid-2000s, the parade that once boasted 27 string bands had become a bear of an affair. Few spectators lined South Broad Street anymore. Dignam was named parade director.

"I think the Mummers like direction," Dignam likes to say.

The performers embraced their first truly centralized leader.

"He comes up with ideas for us, we come up with ideas for him," Burke explained. "He thinks about how we can make it better. He doesn't say, 'You can't do this, you can't do that.'

"He does what's right for everybody."

Dignam's wing man in the department, Jim Marino, has worked with him on the Mummers even though his major gig is the 10-mile Broad Street Run.

"That's a bigger monster than this," Marino said recently at the Mummers Museum, after he and Dignam held a parade planning meeting there.

"Wait till you see him on New Year's Day," Dignam said, tweaking his partner about the stress just around the corner.

Dignam greets the end of every Mummers Parade with a single phrase spoken to all leaders of Mummers divisions.

"He looks around and says, 'We did it,' " Burke said.

Hours later, messages begin to stream in with ideas Mummers are cooking up for next year.

"They send me themes on Jan. 2," Dignam says. "I'm ready to kill myself."

But not really, of course.

"Leo sees the passion, and I think he's almost like one of us now," Burke said. "He's an honorary Mummer, and he doesn't even wear a suit."

mpanaritis@phillynews.com

215-854-2431 @Panaritism