COULD this year's Mummers Parade be half a parade?

Or even less?

An answer may emerge this afternoon, following a meeting between the city and the Mummers, who have been meeting frantically in recent weeks to discuss how a scaled-back version might rescue the 107-year-old Philadelphia New Year's Day tradition.

Two certainties, stemming from the city's financial crisis, have emerged over the past month:

* The city will provide no prize money, which would have been $336,000 this year. The last time the city failed to come up with prize money was in 1933. In 1934, the Depression canceled the parade.

Happy Days are here again?

* The city will cap its contribution to city services - such as police, emergency medical services, sanitation, public property - at $300,000, says Doug Oliver, spokesman for Mayor Nutter. That is the city's last and best offer.

When the budget cuts were announced in early November, the city was asking the Mummers to pick up the entire cost of city services, estimated at $760,000. That sent Mummerville into a tailspin, because there was no way in the world our cake-walking friends could raise that kind of money on such short notice.

After some meetings, which I'm sure featured bared fangs and heads banging against walls, the city relented and pledged $300,000, about half of what it paid in the past. That's like getting socks for Christmas.

Meanwhile, as hush-hush meetings between city officials and Mummers dragged on, rumors flew like Silly String in Mummerville.

The Broad Street parade would be bagged, it was whispered, replaced by a parade up or down 2nd Street, the main artery of Mummery.

Another was that the parade would originate at Broad and Oregon, head north to Washington, then turn east and terminate at Two Street, bypassing Center City.

Yet another said the parade would be limited to six hours. Made sense. A truncated parade would cost less.

Anything remains possible.

The decision is in the gloved hands of the Mummers, who will be liable for anything above city costs of $300,000, according to Oliver. If costs run to $500,000, for example, the Mummers will be on the hook for $200,000, which would be a financial disaster for our fine-feathered and sequined friends.

The city ponied up $1.1 million for the Phillies World Series parade, Oliver explains, because amusement and wage taxes generated $1.5 million in revenue.

If the Mummers get half as much as they expected from the city, that suggests a parade half as long as in recent years. To do that, a shorter route is almost inevitable.

The deadline for the Mummers to make a decision, Oliver says, is Jan. 1.

Actually, it really has to be made before then. This mammoth parade doesn't organize itself like a Transformer, and New Year's is just 2 1/2 weeks away. Previous plans may have to be torn up, depending on which way the Mummers choose to strut.

Oliver acknowledges that the mayor received a letter from Center City attorney George Badey, who represents the String Bands, Fancies and Comics, along with an economic-impact study showing that the parade generates more revenue for the city than it costs. The situation is "dire," Badey wrote, and without relief "the Mummers Parade will cease to exist as we know it."

Unless a financial angel with a fat checkbook emerges at the 11th hour to underwrite the parade, something has to give.

It's hard for me to envision a Mummers Parade that spurns Center City, but that could happen. It's even harder to imagine no Mummers Parade, but that could happen, too. *

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