When controversy rises in the wake of the Mummers Parade — as it did last year after marchers with the Froggy Carr Wench Brigade were spotted wearing blackface — leaders of the parade’s various clubs and divisions often attempt to distance themselves from the objectionable behavior of the handful of marchers who generate the headlines.
This year, they’re doing it ahead of time.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Mayor Jim Kenney has canceled the parade for just the third time since the Broad Street spectacle became a city-sanctioned event. And as they did in the previous instances of the parade being officially called off, rogue Mummers are vowing to strut anyway, prompting a rebuke from the parade’s organizers.
“We just want people to be safe,” said Sam Regalbuto, president of the Mummers String Band Association. “The five divisions have gotten together a lot in the last two months to try to do everything in our power to squash any type of protest or event that they want to hold on New Year’s Day.”
A Facebook page started by two anonymous hosts had declared a “Mummers/New Year’s Day protest against Mayor Kenney” that will take place on South Second Street, not along the South Broad Street parade route. About 2,700 people have signaled they intend to participate, while an additional 8,300 expressed interest.
Regalbuto, who said that his mother died from COVID-19 in May and that he recently lost a close friend to the disease, hopes people will ignore the temptation to demonstrate.
“A lot of these things on Facebook, these protest things are not even Mummers that are doing it,” said Regalbuto, who is also the vice president of Quaker City String Band. “It’s people that are using us for an opportunity to party that day or to push their political thing. And that’s the sad thing. Because this is more than a political issue. This is life and death.”
That isn’t stopping Michael McGrail, who has marched for Froggy Carr for the last 15 years but is not an official member of the club.
McGrail, who is a semiretired advertisement copywriter and has a penchant for the sensational, is promoting the unofficial event with a plan to distribute hand sanitizer and satirical pins that lampoon Gov. Tom Wolf for the Democrat’s coronavirus safety restrictions.
“I want to take a little stab at the governor because God knows these guys have been dictators,” McGrail said. “So I’m thinking about presenting him as a king, and he’s throwing us a bone. I anticipate some people will find it not in good taste. They won’t have a sense of humor. But I think that, in stressful times, sometimes a little humor will distract you and get things off your chest.”
More than 87,000 Philadelphians have contracted the coronavirus, and more than 2,300 have died. Public health officials say large gatherings can spread the virus, especially those where people won’t be wearing masks and where they don’t have room to keep at least six feet away from one another.
As the site of the annual post-parade boozefest, the Second Street party isn’t likely to attract many mask-conscious attendees, and McGrail said he doesn’t expect much social distancing.
“No way, no way. I mean, six feet difference between everybody? No, not at all,” he said.
Kenney has said that the city will not forcibly break up an unofficial Mummers gathering on New Year’s Day because of coronavirus safety concerns, which was also the city’s policy during the summer protests.
Nonetheless, the mayor is discouraging people from taking part in any large gatherings that could spread the virus.
“The message for New Year’s Day is to stay home and stay safe,” Kenney spokesperson Lauren Cox said. “As we have said since the start of the pandemic, the city urges all Philadelphia residents to … avoid large crowds. Anyone leaving their home for any reason should act responsibly, wearing a mask and maintaining a safe distance from others. It is especially important to remember not to eat or drink around crowds since it requires the removal of masks for prolonged periods of time.”
The city’s tradition of mummery dates to the 19th century, a melting pot of traditions and revelry amalgamated from the city’s many immigrant communities. City officials long tried to stanch the New Year’s Day festivities in the name of public safety before finally sanctioning the event.
Philadelphia first sanctioned the Mummers Parade in 1901 in an attempt to safely organize a rowdy bunch of revelers known more for shooting off guns in the air than obeying the law.
History shows that canceling the parade will not stop Mummers from marching. The first two attempts to do so were in 1919 due to World War I and in 1934 due to the Depression. In both of those years, Mummers still took to the streets to celebrate.
The Inquirer’s front-page headline from Jan. 2, 1919, was “Shooters frolic downtown as of old despite rain.” That story focused more on the poor weather conditions, making only passing mention of the 1918 Spanish Influenza that killed thousands of Philadelphians.
“Instead of the big formal parade, with its months of long and tedious preparation to give the city its big annual show, there were a hundred small parades, and they reached every street in the downtown district, instead of marching up Broad Street in one procession,” The Inquirer reported then.
The Inquirer cast a remarkably similar headline on the front page for the Jan. 2, 1934 newspaper — “Mummers frolic before neighbors in rain for fun.” Again, The Inquirer noted a lack of a formal parade on Broad Street.
“They did for fun in their own bailiwicks what in other years they have done for fun — and substantial prize money — on Broad Street,” The Inquirer reported. “There being no valuable awards to entice the Shooters to the city’s widest thoroughfares this season, the main artery of a mile-long parade of the past split up into rivulets of merriment flowing into the north, east, west and especially the southern sections of Philadelphia.”
In July, Kenney announced his intention to cancel the 2021 parade — and all other large permitted events. After a court challenge to the policy that was backed by U.S. Attorney William McSwain, a federal judge ruled Wednesday that the city can, in fact, ban official parades, denying a request from a veterans group to force the city to issue parade permits.
Casting the impromptu parade as a protest gives participants the constitutional cover of the First Amendment, which protects the rights to assemble and to exercise free speech.
Serving as a virus superspreader event would be the latest in a long history of controversies surrounding the parade, which has attracted headlines for racist, sexist, or homophobic gags. The Mummers officially banned blackface in 1964, but the practice continues to appear. Kenney, a former Mummer, threatened in January to end the parade if the practice persisted.
Regalbuto said much of the bad behavior comes from “one-day Mummers,” people who march in the parade with the permission of a brigade but are not official members or organizers of the club.
“They’re giving us the bad name,” he said.
Regalbuto said he fears unofficial Mummers will cause more havoc this year and is hoping there are no incidents of blackface or other insensitivities.
“That stuff is just wrong and shouldn’t happen in today’s parade,” he said.
McGrail said he believes that the panic over the pandemic is overblown and that the virus is only a serious threat to older people and those with underlying health conditions. (He is wrong: Throughout the pandemic, young and healthy people have consistently had severe, lasting, and sometimes deadly outcomes from contracting COVID-19.) But asked about the impact the event may have on the residents of the Second Street area, many of whom are of advanced age, McGrail briefly paused from his sales pitch for the event.
“You know, that’s a good question,” he said. “It may not be the most responsible thing. But at the same time, I think people feel comfortable that they’re not going to spread it. If you don’t feel comfortable, don’t come out.”