Mummers 2017, diversity on display in a multicultural comic club

First year mummer Gabriella Cora (left), 22, of South Philadelphia readies her costume in the Spartans Fancy Brigade clubhouse on Second Street as they prepare for competition at the 2017 Mummers Parade Jan. 1, 2017. The brigade's theme this year was "Tropical Island."

Embarrassed by last year's viral online videos of Mummers doing a homophobic skit and an ethnically insensitive one, Mayor Kenney vowed to make the 2017 Mummers Parade as diverse and prejudice-free as possible.

With one brief exception, his vision of an enlightened Mummers Parade was a resounding success.

Administration spokesman Mike Dunn said, "City officials reviewing the divisions as they assembled Sunday morning found that approximately five Mummers had makeup and signs that did not conform with previously agreed-upon standards.

"After being notified of this," Dunn said, "the division leadership asked their members to remove the material, and the members readily complied. No further problems were encountered on what was otherwise a flawless and enjoyable day."

The city's diversity point man turned out to be Landi Comic Club president Chuck Tomasco, 62, an old-school Mummer who began his New Year's Day strutting in 1970, but embraced the multicultural Philadelphia of 2017.

So when the San Mateo Carnavaleros (a Mexican band and dancers), the Miss Fancy Brigade (an LGBT troupe billing itself as "Philly's Phinest Drag Queens"), the Philadelphia Pan Stars Steel Orchestra (a Trinidadian band), and the Second 2 None Drill Team (African American drummers) needed a comic club to parade with, Tomasco remembers saying, "Listen, my arms are open. Everybody's welcome. We'll take all of them. The parade is evolving. They have every right to be in it. It's a no-brainer."

Suddenly, Landi grew from two brigades to eight, and from 200 members to 550.

Tomasco's big concern was teaching his new rainbow coalition to strut and schmooze with the crowd in the time-honored Mummers tradition.

On Sunday, the Miss Fancy Brigade, led by Captain Ian Morrison as the green-faced Wicked Witch and carrying a banner that read, "Together we can beat the big bad wolves," didn't do the Mummers strut, but it did spend a lot of face time taking selfies with dozens of very young, star-struck girls jammed against the police barricades at Broad and Walnut.

These included Abby Doyle, 6, and her sisters Jaylyn, 7, and Sarai, 10, who were there with their great-grandmother Rita Baldini, 88, from South Philly, and about 20 family members.

Sarai held a sign that read, "Awarding Outrageously Aging Clowns" and was rewarded with bead necklaces from several Mummers Comic Brigades, along with her prized possession of the parade, a silver plastic prop sword.

The San Mateo Carnavaleros and the Second 2 None Drill Team had the huge crowd dancing to their different but equally irresistible beats. Carnavaleros Captain David Pina said his 80 musicians and dancers don't practice. "We just start playing, and we feel the music. We like to get lots of people dancing."

Tomasco said the new Landi groups had a long way to go before they become strutting, parasol twirling, skit-performing Mummers who score high with the judges for theme, costumes, and comic performance, but that wasn't the point this debut year. Making diversity part of the Mummers tradition was the point.

"If your band is on the street New Year's Day and the people on the street watching you are having a good time, I don't care if you get zero points or 100 points," he said. "We're trying to make this thing work."

The diversity of Mummerdom appealed to Fred Smith, an African American former Marine from Mount Airy and his Vietnam-born wife of 16 years, Thai, who spent her first Mummers Parade delightedly snapping hundreds of photos.

"I like the togetherness of people here," Smith said. "I'm tired of hearing about people shooting each other. I wanted her to see everybody being together, enjoying themselves, and she loves it."

Smith, who wore his black leather Marines jacket, served in Vietnam from 1959 to 1960 as an adviser but, he said, "we still got shot at by snipers." He returned decades later to see how the country had changed and fell in love with Thai.

Smith said he wasn't bothered by hearing about the intolerance several Mummers displayed at last year's parade.

As a Marine in Vietnam, he said, "I've seen too many dead bodies and children without homes" to be upset by verbal insensitivity.

"Some people carry hatred in their hearts forever," he said. "They never let go. If the hatred is not directed toward me or someone I know, I let it go."

After the parade, Tomasco said his first year presiding over a diverse Landi Comic Club had worked. "This is where we're at and this is where we're headed for diversity," he said. "You're talking about a parade that's over 100 years old. This is 2017. I believe we're making history."

geringd@phillynews.com

267-443-3540

@DanGeringer

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