Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

A Mummer of a headache?

New parade route works, but racial gimmicks cause controversy on social media.

THE NEW YEAR'S Day parade played out like a holiday dinner with family - some nice, heartwarming moments mixed with some unbelievable, cringe-worthy ones.

For months, the focus had been on the debut of a new route that called for the 115th annual parade to start where it normally ended - City Hall - and finish at Washington Avenue, cutting out the Mummers' traditional South Philly stomping grounds.

Many performers were on board with the shorter route, noting that the parade needed to evolve in order to survive.

Despite some scheduling hiccups, the new approach seemed to go over well yesterday.

But the parade still managed to stir up controversy.

Photos shared and reshared on Twitter and Facebook showed a Wench Brigade performer standing in front of City Hall in what appeared to be blackface, while other performers were shown toting signs that read "Wench Lives Matter," a not-too-subtle reference to the "Black Lives Matter" signs that protesters have carried at rallies and marches across the country in the wake of fatal police encounters with black men in New York City and Ferguson, Mo.

Another, dressed as President Obama, carried an "Illegal Aliens Allowed" sign.

The gimmicks presented headaches that city officials and other Mummers could have done without.

"That's banned. If we had seen that, we would have pulled that person from the parade," Leo Dignam, the city's parade director, said of the performer who was spotted in blackface.

"We've been talking about this for 20, 30 years," he said. "It can't be allowed, and it's not right."

Dignam said the matter will be discussed when city officials and Mummer leaders have a post-parade debriefing.

Of the "Wench Lives Matter" sign, Dignam said: "In terms of the political commentary, that's a freedom of speech issue. While we may not agree with it, we can't stop somebody from doing it."

Controversy aside, performers and attendees seemed to spend most of the chilly day trying to get adjusted to the new route.

When all was said and done, Fralinger edged out Quaker City to win the String Band Division, while Murray took the Comic Division.

Mummers started off their morning by appearing before the judging stand on 15th Street near JFK Boulevard. Most then shed their bulky, expensive props, and marched south on Broad Street.

"It's not what we're used to, but I really like having a slow parade down Broad, rather than a fast sprint up Broad," Jesse Engaard, the captain of the Goodtimers Comic Club, said as his group performed its Internet neutrality theme, "ComCatastrophe" in front of the Kimmel Center.

Gloria McCall, 71, said a love of tradition has been part of the reason she's attended the parade for more than 50 years.

She was perched near Christian Street, craning her neck to see if a string band was approaching, while Fancy Brigade performers strolled by.

"I figured I could see more action down this way, since they have it moving in the opposite direction," McCall said. "Maybe the younger people like it this way. I think they need to change it back."

The crowds were thickest, of course, at the City Hall, Sansom Street and Carpenter Street performance spots.

Savvy parents took their kids to staging areas on JFK Boulevard, where they could stand almost face-to-face with Mummers while they practiced.

"My mother told when she was a kid back in the '20s, the whole parade route, all the way up from South Philly, was packed full of people, and those in the back had to stand on soap boxes or sit on their daddies' shoulders," said Bob Haywood, a tenor sax player who's spent 43 years marching with the Uptown String Band.

As he spoke, a handful of kids stood nearby, gawking at his colorful lumberjack costume.

"Things have changed, but hopefully we'll find a way to keep remaining relevant, and stay around for the next several decades," Haywood said.