The array of silken, brocaded uniforms — row after row of spangle, fringe, plumage, and bedazzling — at South Philadelphia’s 43-year-old Mummers Museum would make RuPaul teary.
Containing decades of New Year’s Day parade pageantry, the museum and its wealth of feathery costumes, large-scale props, victor’s prizes, rare instruments, and old photos are there for anyone who’s curious about the art, tradition, and sociocultural background of mummery.
“We are, at heart, a research library for differing sorts of historians and students,” says curator Mark Montanaro, a stand-up bassist for several Philly string bands — until his back gave out.
Montanaro discusses the upkeep of feathers as a botanist would the necessary humidity for orchids.
“I treat everything here with care, like an old friend,” says the curator, who is pretty much a one-man band at the museum, located at the intersection of Washington Avenue and South Second Street.
Whether smoothing out colorful satins in storage drawers or leafing through the display pages of the Mummers’ Hall of Fame, you can sense Montanaro’s love for this collection. He marched us through a fact-filled tour, detailing the history of America’s oldest continuous folk parade — official and city-sponsored since 1901.
Astronauts. Beatles. Native American chiefs. Elvis. Gangsters. All of these and more have been portrayed (sometimes sans political correctness) by Mummers troupes, be it comic, string band, wench, or fancy brigades. Montanaro gestures at the lineup of costume-clad models, which show how their uniforms have evolved.
“You can see how in 1949, how simple it used to be,” says the curator. The plain gold satin and sequins of the Durning String Band and the red woolen kilts of the green-coated Greater Kensington String Band segued into more complex designs, like modern-day winners who wore giant bumblebee or Pirates of the Caribbean designs.
Over time, elaborate back pieces — ornamental enhancements strapped onto one’s shoulder — became standard for Mummers of all ranks. Then, they faded away. “Now you’re lucky if just the captain wears one,” Montanaro says. “Today, most of the clubs’ costumes are made for entertainment rather than just show, as they’re moving and dancing more.”
This pale-gold outfit, fitted onto a on a vintage, child-size mannequin, is one of the rarest, oldest displays in this collection. The miniature Mummer is encased in glass, a relic of the 1940s, when young attendants flanked their brigade leaders.
“There used to be upwards of 120 page boys who would assist the Fancy Club captains with their long, ornate capes — some of which were over a block long,” Montanaro says with a laugh. “In the early days, they would get a cup of soup, a sandwich, and 25 cents. As time went on, they got a can of soda and a hot dog.”
Done up in sheets of gold lamé and bright-red velvet, bejeweled with glitzy, handmade appliques, this 1975 costume weighs 150 pounds. “And this is the small one,” Montanaro says.
A getup like this — a frame suit — is worn by one Mummer, then pulled or pushed by one or two more. This particular example, from the Crane String Band, sports a “Mummers Parade in Heaven” theme. “It acts as a memorial and bears the names of those Mummers who have passed away.”
One Mummers prize found only here is the collection of aged (but well-preserved) captains’ badges — as long as 30 inches, done up in the finest satins and chiffons, adorned with broad, sparkling medallions. In their time, these were decorated with photos of the very men who wore them.
“For example, these are from Joe Ferko,” says Montanaro, pointing at a handful of platinum- and gold-toned badges, representing the captain and founder of the Fralinger String Band (as well as Ferko’s eponymous troupe).
In this black-box space, a rack filled with colorful costumes is available for anyone who wishes to live out their Broad Street marching fantasies. On one side of the room, a 1975 clip plays on several screens, showing Frank “The Clown” Stermel doing the “strut,” triple-decker parasol in hand.
The strut — a highlight of the Mummers balls held along Two Street — is a take on the cakewalk, a pre-Civil War dance which started on Southern plantations and was made popular via minstrel shows. Yet, despite its roots in other prominent promenades, there is nothing like the Mummers strut anywhere.
Calling it a bouncy march is an oversimplification of this deceptively difficult dance. With its puffed-out chest and bobbing head motions, it has the feel of victory and pride. “Don’t be shy,” Montanaro says to a group of women sitting along the periphery of the Strut Room. “It’s easy.”
This display includes drawings of James Bland, the African American composer of “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers” — the ultimate Mummers theme song — and memorabilia (parasols, walking shoes) from the O. V. Catto String Band. Made up of members from the O.V. Catto Elks Lodge at 16th and Fitzwater, the string and brass band marched in Mummers processions in the 1920s, “one of only a few African American organizations to ever parade here,” Montanaro adds.
One thing you won’t find at the Mummers Museum is any display or reference to blackface. “We know it’s a controversy and a horrible time in our history,” Montanaro says. “We know that it still rears its ugly head from time to time, but that comes from individuals looking to make trouble. Mummers? We’re not having it.”