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Ready to strut: Bacon Brothers and Mummers looking for ways to keep a tradition going

IN SOME WAYS, it was sort of an imperfect storm - a bad initial set of circumstances that seems like it is coming out sunny.

Members of the Riverfront Comics cavort in front of City Hall as they face the judges during the 2009 Mummers Parade. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)
Members of the Riverfront Comics cavort in front of City Hall as they face the judges during the 2009 Mummers Parade. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)Read more

IN SOME WAYS, it was sort of an imperfect storm - a bad initial set of circumstances that seems like it is coming out sunny.

"We were thinking of ways to promote 'New Year's Day,' which we thought was the most commercial song off our CD," said Bacon Brothers older sib Michael Bacon, from his studio in New York. He is primarily a film-music composer, while his brother, Kevin, is known mostly as an actor. "I came up with a storyboard for a video, and we thought we should get real Mummers into that video.

"Then comes the credit crunch and the idea of coming to the city of Philadelphia for financial help was surely off the table," said Bacon, who grew up at 21st and Locust streets, the son of famed city planner Edmund Bacon.

But then he realized there could be a win-win. The brothers could work with the Mummers, at once giving good play and a video for the song, and then using that to help the Mummers raise needed funds.

It all culminated earlier this month in a Bacon Brothers benefit concert at the Electric Factory and the pressing of 5,000 DVDs that it is hoped will contribute thousands of dollars to keep the Mummers in boas and sequins.

"The Mummers are one of the great folk-music traditions, but since they aren't professionals or commercial, they don't get the publicity that Memphis or Muscle Shoals or Nashville musicians get," he said. "I'm hoping we can attract other celebrities here in the coming years. It's just a fun thing."

While the Mummers are now permanently down more than the $336,000 in prize money that the city has traditionally paid annually, they hope to reach a compromise on expenses for cleanup, preparation and policing the parade. Still, it will mean more internal and external solicitations and cajoling for money.

"I think people are stepping up, though," said George Badey, of the Fralinger String Band, a lawyer who does a lot of the Mummers negotiations. "Geno's Steaks, they are now big donors, and Peco, which has always done something. But mostly it's just regular people going to www.savethemum and giving what they can."

Jim Julia, a member of the Downtowners and the Fancy Brigade Association president, said that his division has done some soul-searching and is doing a sort-of collective dieting, cutting back on what they now all believe has been excess in recent years.

"We were seeing some clubs become really strapped and we don't want to lose any clubs. That would be self-defeating," said Julia.

So the association now has a goal for clubs to cut back their spending 30 to 50 percent over the next two years. The bigger clubs were spending $100,000 for the New Year's shows at the Convention Center. They now plan to do more repurposing of props, cutting down a bit on costumes, and seeing what clubs could share year to year.

The Cahill club, he said, is not marching this year, taking what is hoped will be only a temporary break, so there will be only 10 Fancy Brigades marching.

"Any fewer than that and people won't want to come to the show," he said, noting that the Fancy Brigades have been drawing good crowds to their two indoor shows at the Convention Center, a tradition begun 13 years ago.

Julia said that Peco, Crown Holdings and Independence Blue Cross have contributed about $60,000 each year, which has been 50 to 75 percent of the amount needed to produce the show. This year, the unions at the Convention Center suggested that the brigades set up during weekdays, thus avoiding paying holiday working rates. Liscio's Bakery, in Sewell, N.J., whose owners include several Mummers, has also signed on to be a major sponsor. Each sponsor, Julia said, gets some privileges, such as signs at the shows or mentions on TV. "We're always happy to give them their due," he said.

No comic clubs or string bands are opting out this year, but all are doing their best to come up with more funds. There have been a lot of beef-and-beers and silent auctions in South Philadelphia in 2009, said the String Band Association's publicity director, Joe Leso.

"Every little bit helps," he said. "I think you will see smaller props and more of the traditional plumes, feathers and smaller backpieces. You can reuse a plume, but the clubs have no storage, so props get taken apart right after the Show of Shows."

The comics, being generally impromptu kind of folks, have never spent all that much on costuming, but it still does cost something. Most of their efforts have been small donations and grass-roots soliciting.

"I now give $100 in my father's name," said Mike Stermel, a Murray captain and director of the Comic Division, who is dedicating this, his 65th parade, to the memory of his father, Frank, who was called "Mr. Clown" during the many years he marched with the Purul Comic Club.

"I'm not rich, but I can give something. The Mummers are part of the backbone of what makes Philadelphia, and we can all give a little bit more to keep it going."