Before dancing and marching, Mummers' prep work starts in dark of morning

Members of the Mummers troupe are being shuffled through a rotation of slapdash makeup stations cobbled together with folding tables and bar stools. Most have been there since 5:15 a.m. getting their eyes lined and their face paint sealed with hairdryers. (Alex Wigglesworth/For

The sun hasn't yet risen on New Year's Day and most of the city streets are populated only with last night's plastic party hats and crumpled confetti trails. But the Avalon String Band's Two Street clubhouse is buzzing with activity.

"Where are the grass skirts?" one man yells. Another pops in to say a lead scarecrow has thrown out his back: "He can't even pull his pants up."

Members of the Mummers troupe are being shuffled through a rotation of slapdash makeup stations cobbled together with folding tables and bar stools. Most have been there since 5:15 a.m. getting their eyes lined and their face paint sealed with hairdryers. The finishing touch, of course, is a healthy dousing of glitter, affixed to their faces with blasts of hairspray. One woman doing the bedazzling calls it "getting Mummified."

It's an organized chaos, a routine they've been rehearsing all year.

"I think most people feel this happens just one day a year and no work or effort goes into it," Avalon String Band marshall and president Jim Ervin Jr. said. "People think you just go up to Broad Street and then you get drunk on Second Street. It's a lot more than that."

Avalon's preparations for this year's parade actually started mere weeks after the end of last year's parade, according to Avalon captain Jack Hee. "We have a committee that decides what theme we're going to do," he said. "Then we start with sketches and pictures. And by the summer, music is being written."

The string band's 2014 theme is titled "The Fields Are Alive," billed as "a day on the farm from the scarecrows’ point of view."

"We wanted to do a theme that was high-energy, that we could have fun with," Hee said. "So the theme is scarecrows, and that's pretty much as fun as you can get."

But before the fun comes the work - and there's a lot of it. String band members solicit services from a pack of professionals: a sketch artist to mock up the suits, a costumer to create them - even a makeup artist to design the face paint.

"We put the design on a mannequin head," said Mike Jacobs, a 27-year Avalon member tasked with handling the performers' elaborate makeup. "Then we have the girls go in and take a class that's taught by a professional makeup artist. He supplies me with most of the makeup and we put it all together." Though the members' wives and girlfriends do the majority of the maquillage, Jacobs' son this year also pitched in.

The feathers, sequins and greasepaint come with a cost. Hee said Avalon this year spent $80,000. Members raise the money by paying $450 in dues, as well as each year performing at 65 to 75 jobs, including parades, concerts, weddings and the opening Sixers game halftime show. 

Aside from funds, members must put in time - a lot of it. "I don't think an outside person would realize it's a yearlong commitment - the hours, the money that goes into it," Avalon member Frank Albano said. "You have to have a very supportive family to let you commit this much time from October to now." He estimates he spends a minimum of 200 hours each year with the band. "You're looking at 4 a.m. every Sunday from September and two to three hours Tuesdays throughout the year."

Joe Connelly, whose father introduced him to mummery 12 years ago, said the sweat equity sometimes baffles his Temple University classmates. "My roommates are like, 'dude, you're at rehearsal twice a week. You don't come back until one in the morning. What are you doing?'" he said. "But then when my buddies see the thing, they realize it does require a lot of preparation."

Like Connelly, Albano's father first brought him into the fold. He's now been performing in string bands for 19 years - first Trilby, then Avalon. His grandfather was an original Quaker City String Band member in the 1930s. "That's whose saxophone I'll be using today," Albano said with pride. "It's 100 years old." 

"It sounds like it, too," a fellow Mummer quipped.

Back stories like those told by Connelly and Albano aren't uncommon at Avalon, which has more than a half dozen father-son combinations and many legacy members.

"I was at my first parade when I was about 9 months old and I've been doing it ever since," said Hee, whose great grandfather James Durning in 1935 founded the Durning String Band. Hee's own son, 14, will march with Avalon for the third time this year. So will the teen's godfather.

In fact, ask nearly any member and they'll tick off scores of relatives who are past or current Avalon performers. "My dad, my brother, my sister's boyfriend — we had eight people riding down in the car this morning," third-generation member Brian Kinnier said.

"My dad, Jim — this is his 20th parade — my brother Tim and my uncle Stan," Ervin said. "They've actually been in it longer than me. They drug me into it. Probably half of our band is made up of family members."

And, even if they're not related by blood, club members coalesce into family. "We consider this a brotherhood," Ervin said. "Without a doubt, these are the people you go to war with."

And they do wage an annual war of sorts. Because despite the camaraderie within the string band, the Mummers Parade is still a competition.

"Winning is very important - it's our number-one priority," Jacobs said. "We try to do everything we can to put the best product on the street. It's in the hands of the judges but what we strive for is to be the best."

The judges record each troupe's performance, which the clubs then pore over like football players reviewing past plays. "We'll have a tape night at the club," Ervin said. "We'll review everything, along with our scores, and then we put that into working on what's going to happen in the following year and how we can make it better."

But Avalon members for the most part manage to strike a balance between wanting to win and enjoying the ride. "It's a competition today, but we're here every week," Hee said, listing the practices, performances and community events that regularly bring the band together throughout the year. "So yeah, winning's important today but when we wake up tomorrow, we're all going to be back together doing our thing."

"As long as there are no doubts and no regrets then we did a good job," Ervin echoed. "That's first and foremost. And then the results just determine how big the party will be afterwards."