Update: City officials announced Saturday that the Mummers Parade will be held as scheduled.
This story will be updated. The original version follows.
It was so cold that the saxophones froze solid. People’s glasses cracked in the frigid air. It was 14 degrees out, but it was Thursday night, just a few days before the Mummers Parade, and the Hegeman String Band needed to get in one last practice.
So they wheeled for hours in the night air, playing unplayable instruments. And, like so many other string band clubs around the city, they hoped, somewhat guiltily, that someone would call off the parade on Monday.
“If it was all on my shoulders, I’d just wait till the following week,” Carmen Maniaci, the captain of the Avalon String Band, said Friday afternoon. “Look – it’s New Year’s, we know it’s going to be cold, but we’re in uncharted waters here.”
Since the New Year’s Day forecast – a high of 19 degrees, a low of 12, a wind chill as low as minus-2 – the string bands have been particularly worried about how they will fare.
It’s mostly about the horns, band members say. Brass instruments don’t do well in cold temperatures: On particularly dire days, some Mummers carry plastic spoons to break icicles off their saxophones. Accordion bellows can freeze up, too, and banjo players can’t play with gloves on.
All this makes for some deeply conflicted string band players, who say they’re excited to showcase the acts they’ve been working on all year but dreading the temperatures. The city will meet with leaders of the various Mummers groups to make a final decision Saturday about whether to postpone the parade until next week.
Since 1901, the Mummers Parade has been canceled twice, and postponed 22 times; the most recent postponements, in 2007 and 2003, were because of rain.
Some Mummers are more sanguine about the forecast: “Oh, it’s not bad outside. It’s brisk,” said Ed Solecki of the Saturnalian Fancy Brigade, sweeping his stoop sans coat Friday afternoon.
And the string bands were pressing on. At Avalon’s clubhouse Friday afternoon, Maniaci presided over last-minute preparations. Feathers and glitter carpeted the floor. A pair of costumers, wielding hot-glue guns, worked furiously over the last few sequins. Maniaci looked longingly at a floor-length Cleopatra costume he’d worn in the parade a few years ago; its fabric was a half-inch thick and felt like home insulation.
“I wish I could wear that,” he said. “It’s like having a mattress wrapped around you.”
At the unmarked South Philadelphia warehouse where several string bands put together their props, John Wright, who’s been playing the banjo with a variety of string bands for 51 years, said he envied other units like the fancy brigades, who perform indoors, and the wenches: The wenches “are going to get hammered. They have nothing to lose,” he said, laughing.
(The string bands say they tend not to imbibe, at least before the march, so as to not mar their performances. “A little brandy does help here and there,” Wright conceded.)
At Fralinger String Band’s clubhouse on Two Street, board member Bob Hamilton said the club was stocking up on water, soup, and pretzels for its marchers, and had rented heating devices to thaw out the brass section if necessary. They, too, had spent Thursday night practicing outside.
“We’re ready to go, whatever the decision,” he said. “Do I want to go? No. But I believe it’s not New Year’s Day without the parade.”
Back on the warehouse floor, Sue Gorman, who plays the alto saxophone for Hegeman, painted props and chatted with bandmates. It was her glasses that broke Thursday night, and also her saxophone, which she rushed to a repair shop the next morning. She was nervous about the cold – she recalled a similar cold snap in 2009, when her saxophone froze and she had to pantomime an entire performance – but backing out was out of the question.
“If the band’s doing it, I’m doing it,” she said. “And if we’re going, everyone’s going.”