At the end of a string

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"There are no generation gaps in a string band," says James "Rip" McDonald, rehearsing with the Irish American String Band.

He almost didn't have a chance to become a Mummers legend.

Back in 1938, when James "Rip" McDonald was 15 and had just one parade under his belt, he and his fellow string band members played the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. He got home in the wee hours, still chugging milk from a bottle he had taken from a deliveryman. His mother met him at the door.

"No more string band for you!" she said to her clearly delinquent son.

Fortunately for generations of Philadelphians, she relented.

McDonald, 84, walked in his first Mummers Parade on New Year's Day 1938, playing banjo with the Uptown String Band while his mother and other friends from the neighborhood screamed "Hey, Rip!" from the sidelines.

He plans to take his final Mummers strut Tuesday, blowing a saxophone with the Irish American String Band, his two sons with him.

Save for a few years spent overseas during World War II, McDonald has paraded every year in between, stepping out with at least eight different bands and cofounding three of them: the Rising Sun String Band, the Northeast Philadelphia String Band, and the Irish American String Band.

"You couldn't give me a million dollars for all the friends and all the fun I've had in string band," said McDonald, of Bridesburg.

No one calls the octagenarian anything but Rip, the nickname he earned playing centerfield as a boy, growing so bored waiting for the ball that he'd fall asleep like Rip Van Winkle. That aside, those who know McDonald talk about how active and energetic he is. Although retired, he still works part time delivering flowers, occasionally pulling out his banjo and playing a song when making a birthday delivery.

"I feel young. I think young. I think it's all because of working with the young people in string band," McDonald said. "I'm playing next to a 16-year-old kid. There are no generation gaps in a string band."

He has had almost every job there is in Mummery: president, vice president, music director, drill director, arranger, banjo and saxophone instructor, and mentor. In 2005, he was named honorary cocaptain of the Irish Americans, meaning he could finally chalk that off his list.

"It was a great honor to be up there with her," McDonald said, gesturing to Kelly Mahon, Irish American String Band captain.

She shushed him. "It's really the other way around. It's an honor to be here with him," she said.

McDonald has been a part of Mummers history. In 1975, he was a member of the band that allowed two women to strut for the first time. As McDonald remembers it, it was a natural decision: "The girls had been helping us all year," he said. Only later, he said, did four of his fellow Mummers reveal that they had been carrying guns in case anyone had hassled the women.

"I'm glad I didn't know," he said.

McDonald was also one of those who sued the Mummers and the city to allow new bands into the parade after a band he started was banned. In 1981, a federal judge ruled the parade had to be open. McDonald doesn't like to talk about this, feeling it's the one thing that will keep him out of the Mummers Hall of Fame.

Over the years, McDonald has seen a man die along the parade route, slipped in the snow and broken his saxophone, encouraged a police officer bandmate to handcuff a drunk marcher to a car. (Those were the days when car doors had handles, he said.) Only once has he played in a band that finished in first place, and, boy, does he remember that night. Or most of it.

"I celebrated like you wouldn't believe," he said.

But, he added, "I've been in the last-place band and in the first-place band, and there's just as much pleasure being last as being first. The greatest pleasure is entertaining. The thrill is getting people laughing and clapping and having fun. There's nothing like it."

He loves talking about playing in nursing homes and hospitals, describing how the patients at one hospital were too weak to clap so they tapped spoons against their metal bed rails, filling the room with a tinny sound. He talks about the Mummers miracle he witnessed, "The Magic Drumsticks":

About 10 years ago, McDonald said, he was part of a string band performing at a rehabilitation center. A boy, maybe 7 or 8, was in a wheelchair near the drummer. The musician handed the boy a drumstick and told him that if he struck the drum four times, the band would start playing.

The boy did so, and the band started up, delighting the child. The drummer handed over the second drumstick and told the boy to try it again. The boy did more than that.

"He stood up and took a step out of the wheelchair and hit that drum with both sticks," McDonald said. "To me, that was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen in my life. The nurses got so excited, they ran to call the doctors to see the miracle that had taken place."

McDonald said he wouldn't be able to give up the Mummers completely. While he won't play in the 2009 parade, he will be active throughout the year, playing the charity events, and has every intention of being on Broad Street as 2009 dawns.

"I'll be in the truck, handing out props," McDonald said. "You couldn't keep me away."


Parade Viewing Tips

Times: Comics start up Broad Street near Washington Avenue about 9 a.m. Fancies go off about 10 a.m. from Snyder Avenue, and string bands about 10:30 a.m. from Oregon Avenue. The judging area is at City Hall. The Fancy Brigades have indoor shows at noon and 5 p.m. at the Convention Center, 12th and Arch Streets.

Best corners: There is no guarantee, but clubs generally perform at Broad Street's intersections with Shunk, Ritner, Mifflin, Tasker, Washington, Locust and Pine.

Tickets: Bleacher seating at City Hall is $14.50; tickets are available at the Independence Visitor Center, Sixth and Market Streets (215-965-7676). Tickets for the Fancy Brigade show at the Convention Center - $19 for adults and $14 for children - are available at the Kimmel Center box office, 260 S. Broad St. (215-893-1999) or online at www.ticketphiladelphia.org.


For the Inquirer's special coverage of the 2008 Mummers Parade, go to, http://go.philly.com/mummers


Contact reporter Natalie Pompilio at 215-854-2771.