Our Love-Hate Tradition With the Mummers

The power of the fancy, dancing men.

The first words I read yesterday were “‘TWO STREET’ TRAGEDY’ Fire destroys Fralinger String Band’s props & floats.

I gasped. “Oh my god,” I said to my boyfriend. “Did you see this? This is horrible. It’s … it’s … ” I couldn’t continue; I was getting too emotional. I even had to take my glasses off so they wouldn’t fog up.

The emotion was completely involuntary, unexpected and out of character. Had you aksed me 10 minutes before I read the story if I could even name a Mummers string band, I woud have said no, and added with just a soupçon of disdain, “I don’t exactly keep up with Mummers trivia, you know.”

Yet the story felt like a very specific punch in the gut. I was so distressed, I was ready to drive to Second Street to put the fire out myself.

I think this buried, atavistic response to Mummers in Crisis points to conflicted feelings a lot of native or longtime Philadelphians have. On the surface, we’re jaded and annoyed. We’ve seen the spectacle too many times to be awed by its weirdness. Whereas it seemed thrilling and vast when we were children, adulthood revealed the distinct drawbacks of leering, beer-breathed come-ons from big-bellied men dressed as frogs.

The more progressive among us also feel uncomfortable with the parade’s unenlightened history regarding race, gender and sexuality—all of which, it must be said, continues to change for the better. Philebrity blogger Joey Sweeney phamously spoke for that contingent when he wrote in 2007 that “the culture of Mummery is just another one of those places where Philly’s ugly ghosts hang out,” citing the specters of racism and homophobia specifically. He was the avatar of a class-based truth: If you want to project an air of enlightened cool, it’s best to suggest disinterest in the Mummers. Pure, unalloyed adoration? Very uncool.

Yet there’s no question a deep connection exists even for people like Sweeney, who, in his diatribe, paid homage to the “admittedly majestic and wild music of the string bands.” I had to surrender some of my own well-worn disdain when my boyfriend moved to Philly from Chicago eight years ago and was blown away—not only by those jangling melodies and the very talented musicians who play them, but by the entire Mardi Gras/Carnival extravagance of the parade. “What is this?” he asked the first year he was here, and all of a sudden I saw its bizarre and gritty majesty through his eyes. That sense of wonder has mostly faded again, but surfaces in odd moments.

The other day, for instance, I went to the movies at Riverview, and as I was pulling into a parking spot, a husky man with a brush cut in an Eagles jacket did a graceful, Twyla Tharp-style swoop in front of my car—and then did it again, his face set with determination. I sat for a moment and watched him. In another city, I thought, this man would be a lunatic. In Philadelphia, in late December, he is a Mummer. There was something beautiful about watching him inhabit feminine gestures, even though I don’t trust him not to pee on Broad Street on New Year’s Day.

Later in the afternoon, I checked the news again, and learned the props have been saved—they got wet but not destroyed. I’m relieved the string band that I apparently have etched upon my soul will be able to strut their stuff, as they should. Will I be out there watching? Please. I’m way too cool for that.