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The Mummer mystique: ‘It’s in your veins’

In much of the country, women have a hard time getting their blue-collar boyfriends onto the dance floor in a club or even at a wedding.

In much of the country, women have a hard time getting their blue-collar boyfriends onto the dance floor in a club or even at a wedding.

In Philadelphia, however, the guys not only dance willingly, they do so in feathers and sequins.

Readying for their New Year's spotlight, Mummers on Thursday were busy building sets and floats at the Convention Center.

Most Mummers will strut in the famous parade that starts at 9:45 a.m. New Year's Day at Broad Street and Washington Avenue. But the 10 Fancy Brigades will interrupt their street strutting to also perform two indoor shows (noon and 5 p.m.) in front of a total of 7,000 people at the Convention Center.

For the uninitiated, the Mummers extravaganza is a cross between Mardi Gras and a high school musical - if the high school were populated by Teamsters.

Actually, that's not quite true. The annual Mummers Parade and shows feature 10,000 longshoremen, contractors, cops, firefighters, and other working guys, along with a growing corps of women, and even a few accountants and lawyers, according to those in the know.

Talk to a Mummer and you will invariably hear that Mummery is legitimate folk culture. It's born of custom and blood, the rites passed in more or less sacred fashion from one generation to the next.

"It's in your veins," said Anthony Stagliano Jr., 37, born in South Philadelphia (the crucible of Mummery) but now living in Glendora, Camden County. His grandfather and father were Mummers, and one day, Stagliano predicts, his now-2-month-old son will be a part of things, too.

"First you're a kid, then a teen, then a man, and you can't picture yourself not partaking," said Stagliano, who works in sales in the hotel business.

At the Convention Center on Thursday, Stagliano, who is president of one of the Fancy Brigades, the Downtowners, was overseeing the building of a set with the not-unambitious theme of how Zeus created the universe.

"A majority of South Philly families have an involvement in the Mummers," Stagliano said, referencing Second Street, where many Mummers clubhouses are located. "A majority will try it, and either fall in love or not."

As Stagliano spoke, the Convention Center shook with the engines of trucks bringing in sets that had been painted in warehouses throughout the city.

Hammers rang out and drills buzzed. Bruce Springsteen's Glory Days, an anthem of working-class bonhomie, blasted through the cold, gray space.

Mummers planned to work in the center until midnight over the next few days to perfect the backdrops to their choreographed steps.

Working in Stagliano's crew were three young men who were exposed to Mummery at a young age and latched on.

"We've been Mummers since we were 3," said Richard Francis, 21, à La Salle University student.

"I wouldn't survive New Year's without the Mummers," said Sean Wolf, 21, a South Philadelphia Aramark food-service worker.

"It's exactly like a team sport," noted T.J. Beck, 22, also an Aramark food-service worker from South Philadelphia. "That butterfly feeling I get before we perform is the best feeling in life."

Mummers compete with each other for prizes at New Year's, but the most important thing they do, Beck and others say, is hang out with each other all year long.

To hear the Mummers tell it, there's the workplace, there's your home, and then there's the clubhouse with the guys, that all-important sanctum that gives Mummers meaning.

"It's camaraderie, friendships you make," said Paul Frost, 37, a South Philadelphia plumber and 25-year member of the South Philly Vikings Fancy Brigade. They play softball together, and, yes, dance at each other's weddings, Frost acknowledged.

How do you initially get a Mummer to dance?

"Lots of beer," noted Jim Brennan, 43, a general contractor from South Philadelphia with an administrative role in the Fancy Brigades Association. "And the choreography is not the hardest."

But, he added, laughing, "when they drill for a new dance, you better have an oxygen tank nearby."