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STRUT! in the News

Philly's Mummers Strut Their Stuff

October 2001

 

Strut garners its first rave review in the small yet hugely influential East Hamton Star.

 

Philly's Mummers Strut Their Stuff

by Robert Long

The East Hampton Star, October 11, 2001

Each New Year's Day the City of Brotherly Love becomes the Surrealist capital of the universe. The instrument of that change is the centuries-old Mummers Parade, a daylong procession of men and boys in extravagant costumes who march and dance up Broad Street, Philadelphia's main drag, to the music of banjos, glockenspiels, mandolins, drums, and bass saxophones.

Mardi Gras has a great parade but it is largely an excuse for a tourist-driven citywide orgy. The Mummers Parade, for all its wild abandon, is a specific celebration that originates, both spiritually and physically, from a specific area, the working-class neighborhoods of South Philly, the city's center of immigration.

The names of Mummers clubs sometimes reflect their ethnic composition - there are Ukrainian-American, Polish-American, and Irish-American clubs - but more often they take their names from neighborhoods - Greater Kensington, Broomall, South Philly. The membership is largely white, working class, and blue-collar - longshoremen, electrical workers, telephone company employees - but there are city council members as well, and African-American marchers, and even, in recent years, a handful of women.

"STRUT", a finalist for the Golden Starfish award for best documentary, is an ebullient, colorful record of the 2000 parade that brings to the screen all of the joy that surrounds the event, telling the story of the Mummers in interviews, new and vintage footage, and still photos and following two fancy costume brigades as they prepare for the big day.

The film was directed and produced by Max L. Raab, a Philly native who came out of retirement to make it. Mr. Raab, an apparel manufacturer who stumbled into the film business when he supplied the wardrobe for Frank Perry's film "David and Lisa" in 1969, went on to executive producer credits on films including "Walkabout" (Nic Roeg's directorial debut), "End of the Road" (the debut of James Earl Jones and Stacy Keach), and "A Clockwork Orange".

The parade has precolonial roots; its origins have been traced to the New Year's celebrations of Northern European and African-American settlers in the mid-1600s. Later, it is said, the English and Welsh added their fondness for liquid refreshment and the recitation of rhymes, Swedes and Finns discharged firearms, and Germans introduced Belsnickle, a sort of Santa Claus who was the precursor of the costumed comics who constitute one segment of the parade. The influence of Southern plantation life is evident in the cakewalk-like "strut" that is the Mummers' signature dance - usually the strut is performed to "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers," a minstrel song that is played and sung all day long.

The biggest impact of the parade is visual. Everyone wears a costume, and they can be extraordinarily elaborate: never have there been so many feathers in one place, and "back pieces" that can weigh 200 pounds - 10-foot-wide structures covered with feathers and other decorations - are worn by many marchers. Most of the comics dress in "wench suits," a kind of caricature of women's clothes.

"A wench suit is a dress, with bloomers, a bonnet, the wig," explains one man in his late 20s. "There's a smell to the wench suit, a fresh, satin smell. There were a couple of years when my father made me go out as a clown and it just wasn't the same without the dress. It's funny to say that, but when you're lifting your skirt and strutting, well, you've just gotta have the wench dress. It's a great day. There are no troubles, no credit card debt. There's such a sense of community and belonging."


Ed Rendell, a two-term Philadelphia mayor in the early 1990s, is seen in his wench dress, Rapunzel-like braids hanging nearly to the street, wielding his golden parasol, ready to march. A quartet of King Tuts in detailed blue and gold costumes pass half a dozen Gumbys. Three beautiful black and white angelfish trudge by. "I'm supposedly a wildebeest," says a truck driver enclosed head to toe in a frightening mass of red and white costume.

Fancy brigades spend the whole year, and up to $70,000, preparing for their performances, which one captain characterizes as "a Broadway show condensed to four and a half minutes." One brigade is seen in rehearsal in a huge gymnasium, its captain blowing a whistle and shouting encouragement like a football coach as men propel floats around the room and Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" fills the air.

"I was a normal Mummer. Then when I was 18 I went to New York and studied dance," says the young man in charge of the brigade's choreography. "The plus is that the guys don't know what they can't do. I can tell them to walk through a wall and they'll do it. A professional wouldn't do that, they'd say, 'I can get hurt.' But down here it's kind of bizarre. 'If I work real hard I can dance in the middle of the street with sequins and eye shadow on. And win!' It's competition. They're out for blood. It might as well be the Super Bowl."

Winning brigades get a small cash prize that is far exceeded by the bragging rights. "Every step I took was better. Food tasted better. Sex was better. It was the best year I every had," says one past winner.

"The Mummers can look past anything. It doesn't matter what color you are or who you sleep with. It's just the competition they don't like," says one captain.

Mummery is a family thing, and young boys march in costume alongside their fathers and grandfathers. One man relates how proud his grandmother would be if she knew that he played in a string band, and another remembers "one of the happiest days of my life. I was 7. It was after Christmas and I didn't have a suit for the parade. Three days before New Year's my mother finally laid me on a bedspread, drew my outline, and made me a suit out of the bedspread." Years later, when his mother lay dying of cancer, "I thanked her for putting me in my first parade. It taught me how to dance, to laugh, to love."

"STRUT" is a beautifully edited, funny, and touching window onto an institution that, for all its specificity to Philadelphia, is quintessentially American in its overturning of conventions, its renegade spirit - not the America of George Bush but the America of the soul.

"STRUT will be shown on Friday, Oct. 19, and Saturday, Oct. 20, at the United Artists Theater.