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STRUT! in the News

MUMMER'S the WORD in 'STRUT!'

April 2002

by Ron Goldwyn

Philadelphia Daily News,
Thursday, April 4, 2002

Finally, in cinematic form, we get an answer to that age-old befuddling Philadelphia question:

What's a Mummer?

Yeah, we all know Mummery when we see it. But have you ever tried explaining it to an out-of-town relative or a clueless newcomer?

Let's see–men in feathers and sequins? "String" bands that are mostly saxophones? Blood feuds in a place called Two Street that you can't find on a map? "Wench" brigades that bar women? Trio pantomime clowns?

Golden slippers?

"Strut!" opening the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema tonight, fills in the blanks, both sociological and scatological.

The film, which runs about 70 minutes, is the first real documentary treatment of Mummery, and it's a terrific piece of work.

"Strut!" confronts, in a curiously anonymous and nonlinear way, the issue of: Who are those guys?

The parade footage, both archival and present-tense, is at times hysterical, touching and toe-tapping.

But producer Max Raab's real triumph is portraying Philadelphia's grand tradition away from the parade route on Jan. 1, during Mummery's 364-day off-season.

Here are beefy guys in sweats and Lindros jerseys rehearsing intricate dance steps. There's a longshoreman, along the Delaware River, explaining where Mummers come from, and how it's a life.

The Mummers Mass at Our Lady of Carmel has priests, in vestments, clapping to "When the Saints Go Marching In." Another priest eloquently blesses the Polish American String Band as it heads to the parade route New Year's morning.

Mummery's tradition of anonymity is honored, almost to a fault.

No one – not even former Mayor Ed Rendell, resplendent in a white and gold wench dress, or Ferko historian Curly Connors, laid out in a coffin, or mob Mummer Angelo Lut – -is identified.

But Mummers aficionados will recognize many faces. Dueling good-buddy captains Mickey Adams of the Shooting Stars and Fred Keller of the Jokers, whose clubs battle for fancy brigade dominance, describe how the competition for "bragging rights" trumps all.

There's Adams, in full plumage, gracefully saluting Keller and the first-prize Jokers. It happens during Serenade, a tribute parade on Two Street, little known by outsiders, a week after Jan. 1.

Pete Ciarrocchi, of Polish American String Band, is a riot, in and out of his geisha girl make-up, as he describes his year-round obsession and work ethic. His wife, he says, will give him grief. ("You have time for the string band, you don't have time for the Christmas lights.")

When he dies, Ciarrocchi says, he wants to be buried in his Mummers suit. Then he thinks about the geisha outfit and amends, "This is not the suit to get laid out in. Use last year's suit."

Choreographer Dennis Quaile expresses the "quite bizarre" tradition that has cops and carpenters declaring, "If I work really hard, I can dance in the middle of the street in sequins and eye shadow."

Ed Kirlin, a Comic veteran who behind the scenes guided Raab & Co. into deepest Mummerdom, describes on-camera the beer and urinary imperatives of the Froggy Carr wench brigade.

Over and over, it's the faces and voices of the working people of Philadelphia who steal this show.

It works for me, a self-taught outlander who's been trying to explain the Mummers for a quarter-century. You got a problem wid dat?

Ron Goldwyn has covered the Mummers for the Daily News and other news media since 1975.