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Marching in their father's footsteps: For many, Mummers Parade a family tradition

WHAT KIND of guy swaddles his infant son in sequins and carries his sparkly, innocent little bundle up Broad Street amid the PG debauchery of the Wench Brigades?

WHAT KIND of guy swaddles his infant son in sequins and carries his sparkly, innocent little bundle up Broad Street amid the PG debauchery of the Wench Brigades?

In the case of Chalie McKenna, it's a guy who loves the Mummers Parade with his entire being - a guy who, when he dies, wants to be buried in his Riverfront Wench Brigade gear - and who loves his son maybe a thousand times more than he loves even his beloved parade.

McKenna's son, also Chalie without the "r" (it's a South Philly thing), first went up Broad Street at 7 months old with the Froggy Carr Wench Brigade in 2001.

And it was then that Chalie Sr. realized that the boisterous 800-wench fraternity of his bachelor days might not be the ideal playgroup for his infant. "There were so many guys trying to hold the baby," he recalled. "You could get trampled."

Since then, both Chalies have marched with the Riverfront club. "It's more for the kids here," McKenna Sr. said.

Young Chalie is 10 years old now, with his 11th Mummers Parade appearance scheduled for Saturday. "I'm the same way," McKenna said. "This my 39th parade. I'm 38."

For guys like McKenna who grow up on and around 2nd Street in South Philly, the Mummers Parade isn't about carousing and cross-dressing and kissing pretty girls along the route. OK, not entirely.

It's a father-and-son tradition (and occasionally but increasingly a father-daughter one) that's handed down from generation to generation, like a sequined and feathered family heirloom.

"Guys I work with think it's a joke - a bunch of drunks," McKenna said. "But it's not that. It's something you're brought up in."

Between dress rehearsals and frenzied glue-gun work to secure feathers and sequins to costumes, fathers and sons from three venerable New Year's clubs let the Daily News into their lives and their clubhouses this month to get at the soul of these Mummer family values.

Chalie and Chalie McKenna: "Pick 'em up and put 'em down"

Among the 200 wenches parading up Broad Street this year with Riverfront, 35 fathers will be going up the street with their sons. Some families will have three generations lacing up their golden slippers for the 2011 parade.

"Pick 'em up and put 'em down" is the McKenna family mantra for the long strut from South Philly to City Hall.

McKenna Sr. chokes up a little when he talks about how it's been passed down from Chalie to Chalie for three generations, starting with his father, Chalie, now deceased. "My dad would say, 'It's cold? Keep dancing. Pick 'em up and put 'em down.' "

McKenna's son graduated from being carried up Broad Street as a babe in arms to strutting the full route under his own power at age 3, but in the kinder, gentler world of modern-day Mummery. These days, a Winnebago accompanies the brigade so the littlest wenches can pop inside for a bathroom break or to warm up with some hot chocolate.

The kids-eye view from within the wench ranks is absolute pandemonium. "It's fun. It's crazy. They're going nuts," young Chalie said. But it's also the view from within a watchful cocoon of relatives and friends from the neighborhood.

"I have a huge family. Most are in the parade," McKenna Sr. said. "You're all together in that one-block radius, so he's not going to walk off."

Bill, Bill, Billy and Finn Burke: A fine-feathered brood

Like any grandfather, Bill Burke thinks his 2 1/2-year-old grandson, Billy, is delicious. "He says, 'I love you pop,' gives you a kiss. Greatest thing in the world," Burke said.

Unlike any other grandfather that we know of, Bill's morning routine when he watches Billy and his 1-year-old brother, Finn, is to grab a coffee on South Street then stroll through Pennsport down to the Mummers Museum. If they get there before opening time and big Bill keeps on walking, Billy objects. "He says, 'Pop-pop! Museum! Museum!' I have to show him that the door is locked."

Saturday's parade will be Billy's third, Finn's first and Pop-pop Bill's 52nd. "I was a late bloomer, actually," he said. He started when he was 9.

"When I was a kid growing up in South Philly, I loved the parade. I said, 'I want to do that,' " Burke reminisced. "But my father worked a lot, driving a truck. He wasn't into the Mummers at that point. Then, for my 9th birthday, when I opened the card, he had joined the Mummers for me."

Burke was a scrawny creative type. His dad, also Bill, was a big, strapping athlete. They found common ground glueing sequins and mirrors onto costumes, and playing to the crowd on New Year's. "We didn't do sports together, but we did the Mummers," Burke said.

When he and his wife had their own son (this would be Finn and Billy's dad, also Bill), it was the same story all over again. "I was never good at sports. My son was an all-star, the captain of the team," he said. So they, too, bonded over feathers, sequins and showboating. "It's something we could do together: get out there and have fun."

Both march with the Golden Crown Fancy Brigade, where the elder Bill was captain for 28 years. His daughter, Beth, also enjoyed a short stint (by the family's yardstick) with Golden Crown, parading from age 3 until her sophomore year of college.

The younger Bill, who's 31 and an accountant at Pricewaterhouse, has always been the ham of hams, Burke said: "He jumps the highest. He smiles the biggest. He loves it." A Golden Crown hambone from the time he was 3 years old, he recently strutted with the Fancy Brigades at the Convention Center two days after tearing his ACL.

"And now there's little Billy. Once he could get out of the coach and walk, he was out there with the guys," Burke said. "When the music comes on, he starts dancing. . . . The guys are like, 'There's no doubt. He's going to grow up to be captain.'"

The jury is still out on little Finn, who couldn't parade last New Year's because he was too busy that day coming home from being born at the hospital. He'll celebrate his 1st birthday tomorrow and is scheduled go up Broad Street on Saturday, most likely riding a float.

"I'm hoping Finn likes it," Burke said. "He has a great personality."

Fran and Brandon Rothwein: I was a teenage Mummer

At the Quaker City String Band, "off the top of my head, I can think of at least 15 fathers and sons in the band," said Harry Brown Jr., Quaker City's president. He thinks harder and realizes there are 25 father-son pairs among the 148 active band members, accounting for more than a third of the group.

Fran and Brandon Rothwein are typical. Fran, the father in the father-son duo, came into the Quaker City fold in 1981 as a 12-year-old, on accordion.

Brandon debuted in the 2004 parade as a nonplaying "band aid." At that point, he hadn't yet started the years of private music lessons he'd need to qualify as a String Band percussionist - and would have struggled to haul a snare drum up Broad Street in the first place. "I was 8," he said.

"I think that first year you carried my umbrella," his dad recalled fondly.

Brandon, now 15, "earned his suit" this summer by passing a series of tests and will parade in full dress for the first time in 2011, playing the cymbals, cow bell and other "auxiliary" percussion.

His paternal grandfather will be going up the street with Quaker City, too, along with an uncle, a cousin and Brandon's little brother, Kyle, who's 11 years old and a second-year band aid. Their maternal grandfather, now deceased, was also with the band. "It's a big family," Fran Rothwein said.

Brandon is part of a transitional generation in Mummering that's growing up across the river from Two Street in the diaspora townships of South Jersey. At Gloucester County Institute of Technology in Sewell, where he's a freshman, he's one of two students that he's aware of who march with a String Band.

Anthony Trombetta, 14, is another young Quaker City mummer growing up in the Garden State. Trombetta attends Ann Mullen Middle School in Sicklerville and said the String Band tradition has also gained a golden-slippered foothold there: "My science teacher is with Avalon."