The New, Sanitized Mummers Parade in Philly

The corporate parade has lost its spontaneous character and patina. The "fun" in today's Mummers is dispensed like those building passes you get once you pass through security at the lobby desk. But sometimes real fun involves a little bit of messiness and the unpredictable.
01/09/2014 08:34 am ET Updated Mar 11, 2014

I didn't expect to attend the 114th Mummers Parade, but there I was with friends Tara, Walt and Bob walking up Broad Street to the Union League, the only place where the string bands stop and play during their long strut up Broad from South Philly. Having watched the Mummers in the late 1970s and in the early 1980s, the fact that string bands like Aqua, Woodland, Quaker City, Fralinger and Avalon only play in front of the Union League (and then later in front of the judges and TV cameras) is just a little bit shocking.

In prior days the string bands were quite generous when it came to the number of tunes they belted out. If they saw a highly appreciative crowd, say at Broad and Locust or Broad and Spruce, they would offer a song and a strut. Unfortunately, those crowd-pleasing days are over. Since the Mummers sold out to Sugar House (the parade is called the Sugar House Mummers Parade), money is the operative word; and since time is money and money is everything, little or no attention is paid to the appreciative crowds along the way. Of course, there is always the outdoor Mummers party on 2 Street, where the string bands still let loose, but 2 Street, compared to Center City, might be compared to a small fishbowl. There's no escaping the fact that what happens today on 2 Street used to happen on Broad.

In the new world of Mummery, the string bands save their heart and soul for the TV cameras. They will, however, play a tune or two in front of the Union League because, as Tara told me, the Union League allegedly gives the Mummers huge annual cash donations to do so.

Money talks!

The result of all this is that the city has a far different parade than it did in the days before corporate sponsorship. Before the Mummers sold out to Sugar House, New Year's Day in Philly had a decidedly New Orleans feel, but that party-hardy ambience has been reduced to an event that feels like it was created by Walt Disney.

The new, sanitized, "Disney" Mummers is just a little more exciting than watching a 4th of July parade in a small town in Utah. In fact, compared to what the parade was like in the 1970s and early '80s, the parade has become a practice run for performances before TV cameras and for those special shows in the Convention Center. In prior years, the parade usually lasted until midnight. There was an exhilarating feeling on Broad Street then, an actual atmosphere of joyful revelry and personal involvement as people on the street camped out or huddled curbside, staying late into the night or until the last Mummers marched on past. It was that one day of the year when you were allowed to take the party mentality to the limit, stay out late and drink on the street, or sit on a lawn chair by an alleyway while dressed in Mummers glitz. This healthy venue for letting go was great for Philadelphians everywhere. It provided an air of spontaneity and freedom. People would host all-day parties along South Broad Street, and guests would come and go until the late evening hours knowing that the parade would still be happening when they went back outside.

The new corporate parade ends at 5 o'clock like the rollup of a security gate in front of a retail store. By 6, the sidewalks are as clean as they were before the first Mummers set foot on Broad Street. While this has an antiseptic, "clean Jean" feel to it, it's also somewhat spooky. The corporate parade has lost its spontaneous character and patina. The "fun" in today's Mummers is dispensed like those building passes you get once you pass through security at the lobby desk. The truth is that sometimes real fun involves a little bit of messiness and elements of the unpredictable.

Big money was certainly on Mayor Rendell's mind when he rerouted the parade to include Market Street so that it could "play to" the proposed Disney entertainment center. But both the rerouting of the Mummers and the Disney complex proved to be complete failures.

Despite the parade's corporate veneer, our group still managed to have fun. After listening to one string band play outside the Union League (thanks to that hefty cash donation), we headed into the Ritz Carlton bar where the atmosphere was as lively as a 1920s speakeasy. Walton, generous to a fault, bought rounds of red wine as two women sitting next to him proceeded to comment on his British scarf, which resembled something The Who would wear. The women prodded Walton with questions. "That's an English scarf. We're Irish. Where are you from? I'm American," the younger of the two said. For some reason, she thought that Walton was a recent immigrant, so he had to tell her that his Dutch family came over on the Mayflower. You can't get more American than the Mayflower.

Conversations sometimes get skewed at bars, especially on New Year's Day. Before we left the Ritz and headed to a place called Time, our Irish friend cushioned her good-bye with a warm handshake and some political comments: She told us that she hates Congress, supports Hilary Clinton for president, and is in love with the views of Rick Santorum. That's quite a stretch.

In days past, the Union League stayed open late on New Year's Day. Walt, a member of the League, brought us there before our trek to Time, but we were informed that the League had just closed. It was barely 7 p.m. and the League was closing its doors, causing Walt to do a mental somersault and recall the days when the League stayed open as long as the parade was on the street.

Walt's brother Don, who happens to be an airline pilot for Delta, told us a lot of stories about flying as we headed into Time and met an exuberant New Year's reveler named Dan. Dan, who hails from New Jersey, where he works in the restaurant industry, latched onto us as if we were long-lost friends. Shaking our hands numerous times over and squeezing our shoulders while jabbing us playfully in the ribs, he boiled over with a passion for people and life, telling us of an almost fatal accident he was in several years ago in which he was paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. For a long time he was at the mercy of caregivers until he unexpectedly recovered. "I'm a new man because of that experience," he told us many times, while challenging Don to an arm-wrestling match. "Today I know what real life problems are, so when I hear whiny customers at the restaurant complain that there day has been totally ruined because some little thing about their meal isn't just right, I want to scream at them, 'How would you like to be paralyzed and in a wheelchair for a year? Then you will see what can ruin your day!'

"We are a nation of wussies," Dan said, a comment that got us thinking of the nanny state with its sanitized rules and regulations, because where there are nannies there are wussies.

Leaving the bar Time -- where there was a live band, and where one guy was happily dancing with himself -- we were once again on the streets of Center City, the quiet, dead streets of Center City where there was no evidence of a parade at all as the sanitation squads, out in force, did their corporate best to erase all the rustic reminders of the Broad Street strut.

Certainly not like the old days when you'd see groups of stragglers limping home or huddled on stoops and street corners while blowing the last silver paper horns of New Year's Day.