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Under the gaiety, Mummers are in grim fight to survive

Joseph Kaminski is broken up. He couldn't keep Trilby on the street, and the oldest name in Mummery is on the brink.

The Woodland String Band holds its first full dress rehearsal of the season outside their warehouse on Oregon Avenue on Dec. 21, 2014. ( TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer )
The Woodland String Band holds its first full dress rehearsal of the season outside their warehouse on Oregon Avenue on Dec. 21, 2014. ( TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer )Read more

Joseph Kaminski is broken up. He couldn't keep Trilby on the street, and the oldest name in Mummery is on the brink.

The Original Trilby String Band, a troupe that has strummed and strutted annually on New Year's Day since 1898, will not march in this year's Mummers Parade because of a shortage of cash, members, and miracles.

"I don't even have words," said Kaminski, 48, who as club captain told members this month he was pulling the plug. There was no chance, he concluded, of mounting a show with unfinished music, no costumes, too few musicians, and but a few props.

"It was," said Kaminski, his voice cracking, "the worst decision of my life."

Trilby may be down on its luck, but the Bridesburg club is no outlier in Mummersland. The same pressures kicking Trilby to the curb are behind a much-shortened parade route this year that eliminates a two-mile stretch through South Philadelphia, where the working-class parade was born.

Declining membership and soaring costs are building a story line of stress within Mummery that goes something like this: If only Dem Golden Slippers could be melted down and sold for cash, the feathered folk tradition might feel more secure.

"They are the oldest name in string bands," Tom Loomis, president of the Philadelphia String Band Association, said of Trilby, whose disappearance on South Broad Street is, for now, only temporary.

"That name will not disappear," Loomis vowed. "We will find a way to get them back onto the street next year."

Vanishing, however, has been a phenomenon for some time as the years-long drumbeat of an underwhelming economy has pummeled the Mummers.

City Hall has eliminated prize money, productions have become more elaborate than ever, and fewer people have taken on the challenge to join the self-funded folk parade.

The numbers are stark. In 2001, for the Mummers' 100th anniversary parade, 12,000 comics, wenches, fancies, and string band players marched on Broad Street.

This year, about 8,000 will march, said Bob Shannon, president of the Mummers Association.

"We've gone from six fancy clubs down to one," Shannon said. "We've gone from four or five big comic clubs to three. We went from [27] string bands, now we're down to 16."

In the words of 70-year-old comic division president Rick Porco, whose Good Timers, Murray, and Landi comic clubs account for about a third of this year's parade participants: "It's challenging, trying to raise money to participate in this parade."

The parade, whose roots date back hundreds of years, has always been of the people. A celebration produced not by glitzy professionals but, rather, by families and friends within the city's formerly ethnic neighborhoods.

For generations, Mummers sewed sequins and stitched feathers onto their own costumes, banding together as clubs to celebrate the New Year in ostentation coupled with pride of ownership.

In recent years, many neighborhoods long dominated by Mummery have gentrified as older families have moved to the suburbs. Membership is no sure thing.

Those who still march shell out more money than ever as costumes have become more expensive, musical arrangements are outsourced, and a pot of prize money historically given out by City Hall is no longer on the table.

"There's some bands spending $80,000 to $100,000 on costumes alone," Shannon said.

Smaller clubs have vanished or consolidated, but larger ones have remained more vibrant, if also in need of funding.

In 2003, Trilby went the way of consolidation. Then headquartered in Berlin, N.J., it merged with the Joseph Burke String Band in Bridesburg, Kaminski said.

Trilby did well for a few years after. But members of the original Trilby squad began defecting to other string bands, weakening the troupe.

In late 2008, the Great Recession battered pocketbooks as the stock market went into near-free fall.

The city eliminated the $150,000 in prize money that every Mummers club would share in some way. Nowadays, groups compete before a panel of judges outside City Hall for only bragging rights.

Also falling on hard times: the string bands' annual fund-raiser, the "Show of Shows."

For years, the showcase of Mummery thrived at the Civic Center in University City, routinely selling out of tickets. It moved to the Spectrum when the Civic Center was demolished, and, later, to Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall. This year, it was canceled, Loomis said. Drawing crowds to the Shore in February was just too hard.

The string band association has resorted to a Plan B, recently announcing a Mardi Gras fund-raising parade planned for February in Manayunk.

Even clubs that consistently won top prizes at the parade, such as the Woodland String Band, of which Loomis is president, are looking for new ways to raise money.

No longer is it enough to play at festivals or parades for a fee. Woodland is following the lead of about a half-dozen other string bands by forming nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporations to pursue philanthropic grants.

"Our paperwork is being filed next week," Loomis said in an interview before Christmas.

It is against this backdrop that city officials have cut the parade route.

Instead of a daylong affair in which string bands march three miles from Broad and Oregon Streets to City Hall, this year's parade begins at 10 a.m., ends at 5 p.m., and starts with performances at City Hall followed by a procession south to Broad and Washington.

Mummers themselves had grown weary of desolate sidewalks on Broad in South Philadelphia.

"The Mummers came to us and asked us to change because . . . the areas in South Philly weren't heavily populated," said Leo Dignam, city deputy commissioner for parks and recreation. "Most of the parade watchers were in Center City."

The shortened route, one mile long, will save taxpayers money by reducing the number of police needed, Dignam said.

"I don't think any of us are overjoyed about it," said the comic division's Porco, "but a lot of us are willing to give it a try."

There will be several spots along the route where string bands will put on performances, including at the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, at Broad and Carpenter Streets. The school will be open for anyone needing to use a bathroom, food trucks will be outside, and so will a Jumbotron, showing City Hall performances.

Trilby players will be on the ground helping out, Kaminski said, hoping to be back in costume soon enough.

Still, Kaminski worries. The number of string bands is getting smaller and smaller.

"They just keep dwindling and dwindling," said the man whose children are as passionate about marching as he is. "I hate to even think about 10 years from now."

215-854-2431 @Panaritism