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Judging the Mummers: Not for the timid

To the uninitiated, rankings for the Mummers Parade can seem as arbitrary as the tax assessment on a South Philly rowhouse.

To the uninitiated, rankings for the Mummers Parade can seem as arbitrary as the tax assessment on a South Philly rowhouse.

Honestly, who's to say which fancy brigade's plumage is the pluckiest or which string band sounds "best"?

As it turns out, the city Department of Recreation maintains a reserve corps of 60 seasoned and unusually discerning judges - pageant officials, orchestra directors, lighting designers, choreographers and what have you - 35 of whom will be called up for active duty to adjudicate this year's parade.

They are recruited from as far afield as New York and Maryland to make sure that none "associates" with any Mummer in any way, except to score the New Year's Day performance.

Regimented scoring guidelines require them to judge every conceivable aspect of every performance for dozens of peculiar qualities - "stamina" and "appropriate Mummery effects" are two key metrics for string-band captains - that they're taught to recognize and quantify in an annual pre-parade training session at City Hall.

On parade day, an accountant in the judging booth validates their score sheets "so there's no hanky-panky," said parade director Leo Dignam. "There were allegations in the past that the parade was fixed, so we have the accountant. At one point, we had two."

While the judges' identities are kept secret, the Daily News was able to interview one string-band judge by phone - let's call him Deep Strut - to shine some light on what goes into picking the winners.

Deep Strut hails from North Jersey and is a music educator by day and a pageantry judge in his downtime.

Besides teaching music and conducting youth orchestras (he won't say at what grade level because it might give him away), "I have done voice work and I am a practicing musician," he said. "That's how I qualify to judge it. That's the beginning.

"Then, I have spent the last 15 years judging pageantry events all up and down the East Coast: high-school marching bands, dance teams, step teams, several other things . . . the Elks, the Shriners.

"All of us - all of us - have had years of background judging other events," Deep Strut said. "Broad Street is no place for a rookie."

What he looks for in a Mummers string band depends on what aspect of the performance he's asked to judge on any given New Year's Day. The city assigns two judges to rate each band in six categories: captains, music-playing, music effect, visual effect, visual performance and costume.

"If I'm judging music, I cannot be worried about what color the costumes are," Deep Strut said. "I can only be concerned with the music."

Within their categories, judges are given a sheet of adjectives to consider when a band performs. "Tone, dynamics, key change . . . there's a whole litany of terms like that," he said. "Idiomatic interpretation."

He scores these on paper during the parade and also tape-records his impressions - as all judges do for the string bands and the fancy brigades, so that the performers can go to the tape later (copies go to the Mummers clubs) to know what the judges were thinking.

"When people see the judges out on the street, that's what's in their hand," Strut said. "Tape recorder in one hand, the sheet in the other.

"I constantly go back to that list of words," he said. "That terminology is important to me. If you stray from that sheet, you have a problem. You hold onto that sheet for dear life."

While the adjectives on Deep Strut's judging sheets vary from year to year, depending on his appointed task, he's always on the lookout for variety. "If it's a country-music theme, is there music from the bayou? From the Old West? Hillbilly music?

"Is everything in one key or are you going to step up and try other keys?"

Creativity and crowd appeal count for a lot, too, Deep Strut said. "We keep saying: 'Don't just look at the judges. Keep the audience in mind.'

"The advice I would give: 'When in doubt, entertain. Give it to me in a new, creative way,' and the Mummers always do."