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Mummers Parade says 'Arrivederci' to South Philly

Long gaps in the parade and dwindling South Philly crowds have inspired radical changes for the 2015 strut along Broad Street.

Pennsport – Egyptians “Mummies in De Nile”String Band captain Charlie Nicholas, right, perform during the 113th annual Mummers Parade in Philadelphia, Tuesday, January 1, 2013.  (  Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer )
Pennsport – Egyptians “Mummies in De Nile”String Band captain Charlie Nicholas, right, perform during the 113th annual Mummers Parade in Philadelphia, Tuesday, January 1, 2013. ( Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer )Read moreSteven M. Falk

CONSIDERING the supersonic pace of change in today's world, it's comforting that some local traditions endure, especially those indigenous to this time of year. The holiday light show at Macy's in Center City. The Penn's Landing fireworks at 6 p.m. and midnight on New Year's Eve. And, of course, the Mummers march up Broad Street.

Well, at least we still have Macy's and the fireworks. But for 2015, our signature New Year's Day extravaganza is moving in a new direction.

After more than a century heading north on Broad Street - with but five years of exceptions - the annual cakewalk has changed course. The String Bands, Comics, Fancies, Fancy Brigades and Wenches will strum, pluck, preen and careen in a southerly direction from City Hall.

What's more, the parade route ends at Washington Avenue, which means that South Philly, the event's spiritual homeland, will be shut out of the festivities. And, further upsetting a century-plus of tradition, judging sessions will be conducted at the beginning of each unit's appearance and not the end.

So, what in the name of Froggy Carr is going on here?

"The leadership in the Mummers has seen what happened over the years," offered Leo Dignam, the city Department of Parks and Recreation deputy commissioner, who also holds the title of parade director.

"There are less and less people [watching the parade] in South Philly. The demographics have changed. [The Mummers] see the largest crowds and most interested people are in Center City."

Equally important, Dignam continued, was how the parade has evolved, from entertaining the folks on the street to getting to the judging area on time.

"I've heard this for many years, that people didn't like being rushed up Broad Street to get judged," Dignam said. "They couldn't interact with the spectators along Broad Street. The fun used to be walking up the street, doing performances wherever you wanted to do. They wanted to get back to the true meaning of the whole thing, which is to celebrate New Year's and celebrate the tradition."

Craig MacCorkle, a veteran member of the Woodland String Band, seconded Dignam's assertions.

"The competitive end of the parade has gotten very complex, it's gotten very elaborate, and we seemed to be getting a lot of negative feedback because of it," MacCorkle said. "As our production is moving, so is the band, and we were getting lost and not getting that crowd interaction. The tradition was kind of taking a back seat."

Mummers troupes perform all year long, he continued, "and some of the best parts are when we get to stop and say hello to kids, and answer questions about what it is we do, and the music we play and things like that. This is an opportunity to get that into our [New Year's] parade. I'm glad we're gonna be able to do more of that this year."

Not a first

Mummers fans of a certain age will recall that this isn't the first route change for the parade, the history of which dates back more than 200 years and officially sanctioned by the city since 1901.

Because of Avenue of the Arts construction, Mayor Ed Rendell forced the 1995 parade onto Market Street, much to the chagrin of the Mummers and their fans. In an attempt to shorten the event, Rendell again countered popular opinion and returned the parade to Market Street between 2000 and 2003. What makes this year's route change unprecedented is that its genesis lies not with the city, but with the Mummers.

According to Jim Julia, president of the Philadelphia Mummers Brigade Association (Fancy Brigades) and a member of the Downtowners Fancy Brigade, the decision to make the U-turn was pre-emptive. The Mummers, he explained, were afraid that the many empty patches along Broad Street between Washington and Arg'n (as the natives call Oregon) avenues would lead the city to make unilateral changes.

"The feeling [among rank-and-file Mummers] is, they want to see something change rather than to keep going back and doing the same thing and hoping for a different outcome," he said.

"It became a great TV show but, unfortunately, a poor parade show. When the people didn't come out to Broad Street in South Philadelphia, I didn't blame them. I thought it was our lack of entertaining them, not their lack of going out there."

Change is good

Although he admitted to being a sentimentalist with decidedly mixed emotions, Bob Shannon Jr. gave his blessings to the change. This is a not-insignificant endorsement, considering Shannon's exalted place in Mummerdom. His father spent 78 New Year's Days with Quaker City String Band. Shannon Jr. has logged 55, 37 as the unit's storied captain.

"Nobody likes change," acknowledged Shannon, also president of the Mummers Association. "It's going to be tough, but I think it will work out.

"The old story is, 'We're Mummers, we can do anything.' But it's a gonna be a tough thing. But I think it's gonna be a good change."

Steve Highsmith anchors TV coverage of the parade for PHL17. From his perspective, the new course should be viewed for what it is, simply the latest wrinkle in a perpetual evolution.

"It's important to remember, Mummers were here before there was ever an official parade," Highsmith said. "So when you look at it from that standpoint, and from the standpoint that the route itself has evolved - there was a time when it went up to Girard [Avenue] - change on the route is nothing new.

"I think it is important that a significant portion of the new route is still on Broad Street. Broad Street is really important to Mummers, and it should be appreciated that it's basically in [their] DNA."

Highsmith is optimistic about the future.

"My sense is, the majority of Mummers want to give this a try because they recognize that the 21st century is not the early part of the 20th century," he reasoned. "I think, for the most part, the majority of Mummers - even the ones that have some concerns about it - want it to work.

"Because, if it works, that means more people on the street, it means a more successful parade and, at the end, that's what they want: They want to have fun, they want to go out and entertain people."