Ellen Gray: For WPHL17 anchor Steve Highsmith, Mummers Parade is far more than a one-day event
* 2012 MUMMERS PARADE. Pre-parade coverage begins at 9 a.m. Sunday, followed by live coverage of the parade. From 8 to 10 p.m. the Fancy Brigade Finale show airs in a tape-delayed broadcast from the Pennsylvania Convention Center. WPHL17.
* 2012 MUMMERS PARADE.
Pre-parade coverage begins at 9 a.m. Sunday, followed by live coverage of the parade. From 8 to 10 p.m. the Fancy Brigade Finale show airs in a tape-delayed broadcast from the Pennsylvania Convention Center. WPHL17.
THE MUMMERS Parade is more than a New Year's tradition to Steve Highsmith.
The longtime anchor for PHL17's parade broadcast will spend at least eight hours on the air Sunday - assuming the weather cooperates and things go off as scheduled - but he's been prepping for this day for months.
"The unique thing about this parade is that it is not something you can just be handed a book on - even though we have a book - and say, 'Here is So-and-So, and this is what they're doing,' " said Highsmith, of WPHL 17 and NBC 10, who doesn't want to "dis any other parade," including that sunny extravaganza with the roses in Pasadena, Calif., but can't resist pointing out that the Mummers' strut is "not homogenized, it's not cookie-cutter.
"It's not put on by any cause or corporate, you know, entity." (This year SugarHouse Casino is sponsoring both the Mummers Parade and the fireworks at Penn's Landing.)
Thus preparation to broadcast it "is somewhat year-round, and then there's sort of like a sports season, there's a really intense period, and we're in the intense period now," he said in mid-December.
And he was already looking ahead to 2013.
"After the parade there are a series of events where I still go to the clubs for various award presentations. They have a lot of banquets that they do to honor their best performers throughout the year. Occasionally there'll be charity performances I'll go to," he said.
"Then there's the Show of Shows [in Atlantic City] . . . That's the last Saturday of February. Then there's the Summer Mummers down in North Wildwood and the Wildwoods. And there are other events that happen. And then as the fall comes around, that's when the string bands and the fancy brigades in particular really start ratcheting up what they're doing. And then in November, you kind of [do] a little bit more and then in December, it's all Mummers, all the time," as he spends weekends visiting bands and taping interviews for parade previews.
That's a lot of Mummery for a guy who encountered the parade "first as a citizen" when he moved here in 1981.
"I lived in Old City, and so on New Year's Day, I would just walk a few blocks and there I was, just watching this thing that I didn't understand," said Highsmith, who now lives in Bucks County but who, growing up, "lived in Korea and Germany and all over the United States" thanks to his father's military career and whose one tie to Philadelphia was a set of grandparents who lived on North Broad Street "about the time of the Depression."
It may be a convert's zeal or merely a reporter's curiosity, but it's hard to imagine there's much about the Mummers that Highsmith doesn't understand now.
And where some people may see only sequins and feathers - and maybe the occasional disorderly wench - he sees an "expression of freedom."
"Some people say to me, 'Well, Steve, you do have some guys that get a little rowdy. What do you think about that?'
"And I say, 'Well, as long as
they're peaceful, I don't think anything bad about it. And the reason is that a core part of being a Mummer is loving liberty, and freedom of expression. So if you think about how this started in the late 1600s and developed in the 1700 and 1800s, you had people who were working-class people, who had a day of the year or a handful of days of the year after Christmas to just basically let loose and go door to door and have fun and just be themselves. It even at times developed a political aspect to it, where it was their day of the year when they could go up to City Hall and say, 'Today we're in charge,' " he said.
The parade's political expression these days tends to be confined to comics and wenches, who can afford to be more spontaneous than the string bands or fancy brigades, but Highsmith wouldn't speculate on whether, say, Occupy Philly might find itself the focus of Mummer commentary.
"I would expect that there are a number of things that might be related to the upcoming presidential race or to the end-of-the-world predictions of 2012 or something sports-related, because there's always something that has to do with the Phillies or the Eagles that somebody does, somewhere," he said. "Sometimes I know about that stuff ahead of time and sometimes it's, 'Hey, look what's coming.' "
Highsmith shares airtime with color commentators Ron Goldwyn (the former Daily News writer is the broadcast's comic club expert) and U.S. Magistrate (and string-band expert) Jacob Hart. "He takes off the robe and he's just Jake Hart . . . an emeritus member of the Avalon String Band," said Highsmith.
But it's become more and more his baby.
"When I initially started, I was on for a couple of hours here and there. But the last couple of years, I've been on all day. I didn't get a break. Two years ago, they didn't even let me leave the booth," he said, laughing. "And they didn't even feed me. I said, 'Excuse me, I'll do this again. But can you at least bring me lunch?' "
The grind, he admitted, is "partly my own fault."
Having done his homework - and bonded with so many Mummers in the course of his research - "I don't want to not talk about them. Because I feel guilty that I've gone out to talk to them and for me to just leave" the booth and perhaps miss something would bother him.
"It's just something that I feel responsible for."