"IT NEEDS a bigger horn and more eye makeup," Tip Flannery said, eyeing a 5-foot-tall pink My Little Pony on wheels.
Flannery is the captain of the Vaudevillains NYB, a 4-year-old Comics Brigade that is headquartered out of the art collective Space 1026.
The pony's name is Seymour.
And, he will be ridden by the spirit of William Penn. Naturally.
The Vaudevillains' theme this year is the Philly Phantasy Phorest and, along with Billy Penn and Seymour, their motley crew will include trees made of purple dip-dyed stretch velvet with neon-yellow leaves and a menagerie of real and imaginary animals.
If the Vaudevillains aren't your father's Mummers' brigade, then they're the Mummers' brigade of your cousin who went to art school and explained to you what postmodern means. It is the kind of troupe that knows they want to include unitards (think: Spandex body suit) and synthpop (think: cheese-tastic New Wave-influenced music) in their sketch before they decide on a theme.
"A lot of people are born into [the Mummers]. . . . Since we haven't been a brigade our entire lives, we just make up what we want to be," said co-captain Jay Roselius, who remixed the music the Vaudevillains will perform to, a piece by New Age prog rocker Mike Oldfield. But Roselius admitted, "We're becoming less unique because there are more groups like us sprouting up."
Daily News columnist Dan Gross, who was a first-time strutter with the Vaudevillains last year, said there are two contingents within the group that mix and mingle: The legitimate artists who see the parade as an elaborate collective art project, and the other members who just want to put glitter on things and party. (Gross is part of the latter faction.) But all strutters make their own costumes, beginning with a big push at a noon-to-midnight "sew-a-thon," which takes place in Space 1026's Chinatown studio.
Groups of Vaudevillains gathered in the freezing studio on a recent Sunday to stitch, cut and screen-print their costumes. Members floated in and out, helping paint elaborately-colored banners. Others sat in a circle chatting while cutting patterns from donated fabric.
In a hallway that reached to the back of the studio, Jesse Goldstein and Molly Fair were screen-printing. Instead of getting to be an animal or a tree, Goldstein and Fair will represent the evil ooze army that exists as a result of fracking, the controversial method of extracting natural gas.
This is the second year that Goldstein and Fair are villains - for the 2010 parade, they were the corn syrup lobby in a food-themed sketch. Neither are fazed by their nefarious roles.
"We're in gold spandex unitards. How villainous can we be?" asked Goldstein, who has been with the Vaudevillains since its debut on New Year's Day 2008.
Goldstein was present when the Vaudevillians was just a zany idea. After the 2007 parade, Goldstein was walking down Two Street, watching the post-parade revelry with a couple of friends, including Sonja Trauss. "The general consensus was, 'We could do this too,' " said Goldstein."It went from a funny idea on New Year's Day to reality."
Trauss, who grew up in Germantown, said she loves Mummery because it's controlled chaos.
Since their initial parade - with a global warming theme - the reins of power have changed hands several times. Trauss moved to St. Louis to get her master's in economics, but she comes back to strut. Goldstein and Fair moved to New York City but come down for the parade. It's not unusual for Vaudevillains to participate via e-mail and only show up at the final practices and the parade.
The Vaudevillians have spawned other Comic groups, too. Trauss' founding co-captain, Aryon Hoselton, splintered off to create Nerd Island. Another group, the Rabblerousers, also spun off from the Vaudevillains.
"There are at least 200 people out here that wouldn't be involved in this party without us," said Trauss.
For many of us, the Mummers appear to be an impenetrable society. But Trauss said that it was relatively easy to navigate the bureaucracy once she found the right person to talk to - Richard Porco, the head of the Murray Comic Club.
Many Vaudevillains never expected to be Mummers when they watched the parade as kids, or when they were given an explanation of Mummery by a native when they moved into the city.
"A lot of my friends say bad things about the Mummers or that it will never change," said current co-captain Hillary Rea, whose childhood memories of Mummers included watching grown men in sequins urinating on her street. "But it already has."
"It's not totally off-base that there's a feeling of exclusivity, say, down on 2nd Street, because I do think that exists," said Trauss. "But it's really amorphous and it's the kind of belief that only exists in the air. If you ask a particular person, no one can articulate it."
Flannery and Rea echoed her sentiments. They never feel like party crashers, even if they haven't been marching for decades. "Once they saw that we took it pretty seriously, [the other Mummers] were encouraging," said Flannery. "We got heckled last year because they said we did well because we had hot girls in unitards. It was good-natured Mummer heckling."
The Vaudevillains do take it seriously. Their first parade, they came in 17th in the Comics Division, but have come in fifth the past two years.
"They've learned to adapt to what the comics really do," said Murray's Porco, about the infusion of new blood. Porco doesn't see a difference between the Vaudevillains and the more established troupes. "We're trying to preserve the tradition of Mummery. To do that, we have to look back on where we came from. I'm not saying there's no room for change. You still have to have that base there."
"There's a reason that these guys who are Mummers do it for decades," Goldstein said. "But it's cool that we can do it our way while respecting their traditions. It's just a nice way to stay connected to Philadelphia."