Mummers strut in Philly despite cold, money woes

Friday, January 2, 2009
JOSEPH KACZMAREK ~ Associated Press
A member of Polish-American string band performs Thursday at the city hall judging area during the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia.

PHILADELPHIA -- Musicians dressed as Wild West gunslingers and comics dressed as bullfighters, knights and Mexican wrestlers strutted in the annual Mummers Parade, celebrating New Year's Day and the holiday tradition's escape from the city's budget ax.

Thousands of people endured temperatures in the low 20s to celebrate 2009 Philadelphia-style, watching the participants in elaborate costumes of satin, sequins and feathers.

"Philadelphia is one of the few cities where New Year's Day is bigger than New Year's Eve," said resident Brian Castello, 48, who turned out early Thursday to watch the parade.

The more than six-hour parade featured about 15,000 people dancing two-and-a-half miles through the heart of the city.

The Mardi Gras-like festivities almost didn't happen this year after the cash-strapped city withdrew more than $400,000 in support. It was saved through last-minute private fundraising and an agreement to shorten the pageant.

The comics are one of four divisions of Mummers, which also includes Fancies, with the flashiest outfits; Fancy Brigades, with choreographed theatrical works and massive props; and String Bands, the dancing musicians. Many clubs work on the elaborate costumes all year long, and spend upward of $100,000.

"It's colorful. That's what I love about it. It's very colorful," said parade watcher Cassie Prichard, 56, who dressed for the cold in a fur coat and fur hat and had a blanket wrapped around her legs.

Some Mummers routines paid tribute to the city's World Series championship, including a "luau" during which hula dancers held up Philadelphia Phillies pennants. Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino is nicknamed "The Flyin' Hawaiian," after his home state.

One Mummer apparently had a heart attack during a performance in front of the judges at City Hall around 11 a.m. Emergency service workers said the man went into cardiac arrest and took him to the hospital, parade director Leo Dignam said. No other information was available late Thursday afternoon.

Rich Porco, president of the Murray Comic Club, said the uncertainty in the weeks after the budget cuts were announced made it hard to focus on parade preparation. The Mummers understand the city's economic woes, he said, but they also generate millions of dollars in revenue -- not to mention "a little happiness."

"The Mummers Parade is synonymous with the city of Philadelphia, like Geno's Steaks is, like soft pretzels are, like the Liberty Bell is," Porco, a Mummer for 51 years, said on the eve of the parade. "We're goodwill ambassadors."

The word "mummer" comes from the German word for "mask." The parade has been canceled only twice since 1901: in 1919 because of World War I, and in 1934 due to the Depression and a lack of prize money.

There was no prize money for this year's parade because of the city budget cuts.

Speaking at the festivities Thursday, Mayor Michael Nutter noted the city did contribute $300,000 toward the event.

"We want to keep this tradition going, but we have had to make some tough choices," Nutter said. The city is facing a $1 billion deficit over the next five years.

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