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The Mummers are making room for some new blood

If a Mummers float could be powered by enthusiasm alone, Aryon Hoselton would not need to fret about recruiting members for Nerd Island, one of the newest entrants in Philadelphia's annual Mummers Parade.

Hamidah McCorkle works on her head piece as she adjusts her costume as a Sugar Rush Mummer. She is part of the Rabble Rousers.  ( Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer )
Hamidah McCorkle works on her head piece as she adjusts her costume as a Sugar Rush Mummer. She is part of the Rabble Rousers. ( Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer )Read more

If a Mummers float could be powered by enthusiasm alone, Aryon Hoselton would not need to fret about recruiting members for Nerd Island, one of the newest entrants in Philadelphia's annual Mummers Parade.

But instead, he's pounding the pavement, calling in backup from a local performing-arts high school, community groups, fire-baton twirlers, and even the Puerto Rican Day Parade.

"At times I feel like I am running a Mummer Awareness campaign up here in Kensington," said Hoselton, 34, a Web designer and the chief organizer of Nerd Island.

Instead of crafting costumes from sequins and feathers, the traditional ingredients for a Mummer costume, Nerd Island's recruits are using screen-printing ink on salvaged hospital shower curtains. And instead of a formal clubhouse, Hoselton invites all takers into a makeshift workshop in his Kensington living room.

Along with a few other young Comic brigades manned primarily by artists, crafters and their bohemian-minded friends, Nerd Island has become part of a movement that is helping to transform this blue-collar tradition into something with much broader appeal.

Whole brigades operate on budgets of just a few hundred dollars, and with themes like "Natural Disaster Dance-Off" and "Post Apocalyptic Nuclear Winter," it's quite obvious these are not the Mummers you grew up with.

But it turns out they have plenty in common with old-school Mummers - typically, men who were bred into the tradition of Philadelphia's white, working-class neighborhoods. That common ground includes a love of Philadelphia rituals, a passion for their craft and, of course, a solid appreciation of partying.

"We recognized that [mummery is] a collaborative art-making process, and we wanted in," Hoselton said.

The first group to make that connection was the Vaudevillains, who formed in 2007 out of the Chinatown artists' collective Space 1026.

But when they initially contacted the Mummers, they did so with trepidation.

"There's this mystique and insider aspect to the Mummers," said Jesse Engaard, 28, a former Vaudevillain who is organizing an offshoot group, Rabble Rousers, for this week's parade. "But then you realize that there's nothing stopping anyone from being a Mummer if they want to."

The Vaudevillains, whose theme that first year was "Global Warming-Induced Perpetual Summer," were welcomed into the parade under the umbrella of the Murray Comic Club, a 74-year-old Mummers group based in South Philadelphia.

What the Vaudevillains discovered: They actually fit in. "It's a community-based collaborative project for everyone," said Vaudevillains captain Tip Flannery, 33, "and the definition of community is not that different."

Jessica Porco, 31, who runs Murray with her father, Rich, said she had no qualms about admitting the group of artists and crafters in their 20s and 30s. "I thought they would definitely bring life to the Comics, and it would be something new and different," she said.

It helps that - while their costumes differ from standard parade fare - the newer groups take the parade very seriously.

Flannery, whose brigade will have about 65 people marching on New Year's Day, has said some assume they enter the parade as a joke, but they couldn't be more wrong. "It's the most sincere project that I work on," he said.

Hoselton, who split off from the Vaudevillains to start Nerd Island last year, sees the Mummers Parade as a potential bonding agent for the community as a whole - which may be the case with almost 50 confirmed participants so far. (He's aiming for 100.)

Still, time is on his side. While traditional Mummer costumes can take hundreds of hours to complete, Nerd Island's fliers advertise a more economical approach: "Three hours to make a costume. Three hours to make it fancy. Three hours to march on New Year's."

Downstairs from Nerd Island headquarters, in the same converted Kensington warehouse, Engaard's Rabble Rousers also are motivated by the communal aspect - as well as the lure of a challenge.

"Our friends have this motto that we've lived by for a while," Engaard said. "It's 'Adventure, togetherness and mayhem.' And that pretty much is exactly what the Mummers Parade is all about."

Still, these nouveau Mummers bring to the day their own twist, including a strong dose of satire, not something the parade was particularly known for in years past. The Rabble Rousers' inaugural theme, "The Big Rock Candy Bailout," sounds a lot like a 4-year-old's interpretation of the evening news, blending jabs at the Parking Authority, SugarHouse Casino and city government with a trip to big rock-candy mountain.

"We don't want to be too provocative," said Garrett Van Reed, 29, a Rabble Rouser. "We just want to have a good time but still be topical."

Their costumes and props are no joke, though. They have assembled 40 marchers plus a 10-piece band, and they have racks of elaborate hobo costumes made from thrift-store purchases and found materials. They also called on friends who are carpenters, welders and puppeteers to help build their elaborate sets, including the candy-colored patchwork mountain.

Hillary Rea, 28, a cocaptain with Vaudevillains, says the proliferation of new Mummers is encouraging.

"It's good to know that it's not just us that wants to make the parade better, and to help it evolve over time," she said. "Hopefully it will become even more diverse and include more performance artists."

After all, as the parade's numbers dwindle, more participants - even alternative ones - are increasingly welcome.

"The parade is shrinking," said Jim Dotzenroth, 54, of South Heidelberg Township, Pa., a 43-year Mummer and the director of the Goodtimers Comic Club. "Economically, people don't have the money to put up as they did at one time."

Likewise, brigades are downsizing. Some are losing members, and others are considering downgrading from the parades Fancy or String Band divisions - which may demand more lavish costumes and complex choreography or musicianship - into the more laid-back Comic brigades. To the uninitiated, it's a little like skipping the marathon in favor of a 5K fun run.

Dotzenroth says at least one string band is looking to join the Goodtimers as a Comic brigade. And the Oregon New Year's Association, a 75-year-old Fancy mother club, has downgraded to a Comic Wench Brigade.

Even among the Comics, the ranks are shrinking. Three of seven Comic mother clubs, Liberty, Hammond and Purul, have folded in the last decade, Porco said.

That's why new groups are so vital. Of Murray's current brigades, nearly half have been with the comic club for less than a decade.

The alternative, artist-driven brigades also are joined by Philadelphians who grew up watching or marching in the parade and want to put their own spin on it.

Eddie Tully, 37, a member of the six-year-old Jesters Comic brigade, said his group was looking to technology to update its presentation. For example, the group is using a more elaborate sound system and creating a photographic backdrop with an extra large-format printer for this year's jungle theme, rather than hand-painting it.

"We got into this because of a love of the tradition," he said. "But we're trying to keep up with the times and be modern and fresh."

Now, some traditionalists who once marched with established Mummers are joining the younger clubs.

Hoselton said he recently recruited a former Fancy brigade member to Nerd Island: "She said, 'I like what you're doing. It's a little different.' And we want to be different. This parade is big enough to be different."