A Philly Tradition Gets New Followers

A century-old New Year's Day tradition in Philadelphia is starting to get hip. The Mummers Parade has always been a day when mostly working-class men don elaborate dresses and dance down Broad Street with parasols. It has historically been an enclave of families with deep labor-union ties. But now young artists are adopting the tradition as a creative vehicle.

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Tomorrow, for the 111th time, the Mummers will strut up Broad Street in Philadelphia to celebrate the New Year. The annual parade of extravagant costumes is as much a part of the city as cheese steaks and the Liberty Bell, a time-honored tradition.

From member station WHYY, Peter Crimmins reports.

PETER CRIMMINS: The Mummers are a little like Mardi Gras, a little like the Macy's Parade, and a little like a morning-after walk of shame. Brigades of clowns, banjo string bands and decorated floats are conceived, constructed and performed by the city's working class.

Rich Porco has been involved for 55 years and he says it's not cheap.

Mr. RICHARD PORCO (President, Comic Association, The Mummers): In the Comic Brigades, you could have somebody spending $5,000. A string band, you can have somebody spending a hundred thousand dollars and have to raise that money in various ways, you know, some people have raffles, some people run beef and beer parties.

CRIMMINS: Brigades are anywhere from 25 to a hundred people performing a single routine. Fifteen brigades form a club. Four clubs form a division. So there are tens of thousands of people involved with this. Porco says some groups drop out because of the cost, which leaves space for new groups to come in.

(Soundbite of cutting fabric)

CRIMMINS: Aryon Hoselton, who is 32 years old, is at the helm of one of the newer clowning groups. He's cutting up salvaged hospital curtains to sew them into Mummer costumes. It's not unlike a scene from "The Sound Of Music."

Two days before the parade, he is still hustling volunteers, silk-screening 80 costumes by hand and working out the choreography.

Mr. ARYON HOSELTON (Costumer): Because you never stop. You know, it's like an art project that you never - you're never finished.

CRIMMINS: Hoselton is cutting costumes for people to dress as hurricanes, tornados and earthquakes.

Mr. HOSELTON: In a fun way, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOSELTON: You know, because these - hurricanes can be funny.

CRIMMINS: Absurdity is part and parcel of the Mummer tradition. Every year thousands of guys, big union guys - like pipefitters and dockworkers - they don fancy dresses and they call themselves wenches. Sometimes, the absurdity goes too far.

The city of Philadelphia once had to proactively ban the use of blackface in the parade, because there was a time when that was the norm.

Hoselton says some people see the parade as an embarrassment to the city.

Mr. HOSELTON: I think, you know, it's a hundred-year-old parade. It's a great folk art tradition that has some bad history, but it's like - it's evolving.

CRIMMINS: Hoselton is an outsider - he didn't grow up a Mummer; his father didn't grow up a Mummer. There is a cultural divide between the working-class families in South Philly row houses and fringe artists living in North Philly in retrofitted industrial warehouses.

Elisa Ruse is of the latter. She has always lived in or around Philadelphia but never bothered to watch a Mummers parade.

Ms. ELISA RUSE: It didn't seem like something that was like for me. It seemed like a lot of like, you know, people who have been, like, living or from Philly, living in South Philly forever who were part of the clubs and everything. It sounded like there's all these clubs that, like, it was hard to get into.

CRIMMINS: This year Ruse is one of Hoselton's tornados.

Mr. HOSELTON: Everybody line up in the back. We're going to run through it.

CRIMMINS: Hoselton is readying Ruse to twirl like a dervish.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HOSELTON: You know, when you hear the air horn, dance with other disasters. Do a disaster dance-off.

CRIMMINS: Hoselton wants to get as many people like himself involved in what he calls the biggest art-making community in the city.

For NPR News, I'm Peter Crimmins in Philadelphia.

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