In over a century of news coverage, just about everything anyone might want to know about the challenge of being a Mummer has been covered.
Wind-whipped feathers. Finger-freezing cold. Prop malfunctions. Family strife. Broken strings. Public apathy.
There remains, however, one glaring piece of uncharted territory. A matter that the strutters and strummers have been loath to discuss, despite its epic importance in the course of every New Year's parade.
In the interest of delicacy, let us call it the process of elimination.
For decades, the Mummers dealt with this primordial problem with as much discretion as they could muster. (We are not referring to the comics, of course. There is nothing discreet about them.)
The costumes with their six-foot wingspans, bibskirts, bustles, puffed shoulders and stiff flaring swallowtail jackets, make every trip to the restroom a Houdini-worthy challenge.
"You got a back piece on, you're not fitting in a port-a-potty," says Tom McShane, 48, a banjo player with the South Philadelphia String Band for the last 18 years. "You've got to get a marshal to help you take it off and put it back on."
Mummers are a resourceful tribe. They have learned to deal. As they were preparing for the parade at the their clubhouse on Porter Street, members of the South Philadelphia String Band on Friday revealed some of the sacred secrets they have withheld all these years.
"Back in the day, we all had capes, we'd form a circle, hold up the capes and everyone would pee in the middle," recalls Bob Buerklin, 67, who has been a Mummer since he was nine.
"I remember a guy used to put a hose to his Mr. Man and slide it down his pants leg," says Alex Stewart, a retired Philadelphia police officer and a Mummer since 1967.
Last year, the city administration, hoping to speed up the parade, eliminated the en masse rest stop at Broad and Washington streets. The band members, particularly men in their late 50s, would rely on that half-way relief station where someone thoughtful always set up a trough that emptied into an opened manhole.
"Now," says Harry Dougherty, a banjo player, "if you have a prostate issue?" He shakes his head dolefully.
"The layers," he says. "You're always wearing so many layers." He reaches into his cubby in the clubhouse basement, and pulls out this year's uber-spangled pants, vest, shirt and jacket. "Then there's the long underwear. And it's chaotic. Finding someone who's not busy to hold your [musical] instrument and your costume while you go to the bathroom, it's not easy."
In 2003, they narrowly avoided disaster, recalls Stewart. The band had adopted a French theme. "We wore pantyhose," he says. When it was time to take a break, he and his cohorts began peeling off the layers and unzipping - then they reached the unbreachable.
"One of the marshals got a pair of scissors, we all lined up and he comes around to each of us, pulls out the pantyhose," (at this point in the story, he reenacts in mime), "and cuts a hole."
Stewart laughs. "I said, 'Hey George, I'm Irish. There's not much there, be careful where you cut!'"
Even in less constricted circumstances, the brothers in sequins have been known to take extraordinary measures. "I know one guy in Quaker City who wears Depends," says Dougherty, declining to name names because the repercussions could be dire. "I've never gone to that extreme, but it has crossed my mind a couple of times."
In his 21 years as a Mummer, Dougherty, 50, has developed his own strategy. "I drink very little that morning. Just a little coffee and something small to eat." Then he treats himself to the Mummers drug of choice: a heavy dose of anti-diarrheal medicine.
"I think 99 percent of Mummers take Imodium," Dougherty says. "You have to plan ahead. It's bad enough when you have to pee..."
The South Philadelphia String Band's resident dealer is Scott Lynch, a 17-year veteran with the Mummers. "I buy two boxes at Rite-Aid and set everyone up with it," he says. And has no doubt that, to a man, they are deeply indebted.