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Mummers tune up for New Year's Day parade

Steve Coper rests the case holding his silver-plated alto saxophone on the edge of the stage at Holy Ghost Byzantine Catholic Church in South Philadelphia, preparing to rehearse, once again, for New Year's, when the Mummers strut up South Broad Street.

Steve Coper rests the case holding his silver-plated alto saxophone on the edge of the stage at Holy Ghost Byzantine Catholic Church in South Philadelphia, preparing to rehearse, once again, for New Year's, when the Mummers strut up South Broad Street.

Coper is business manager for the champion Fralinger String Band, which absolutely everybody in Mummerdom can tell you has won first place for the last seven years.

Defending that record is on the minds of the band members as they arrive for rehearsal - nobody had ever won seven before, let alone eight. Two string bands, Quaker City and Ferko, are tied for second on that list, with four consecutive wins each.

But the economy is affecting everything, and not even the sequins and feathers that are staples of Mummers costumes have been spared. If there really had been golden slippers, they might be tin this year.

The cash crunch will play out in costume design, among other things, according to Bob Finnigan, one of two eminent designers for the Mummers. Fewer sequins, more fabric, and - for the string bands - probably fewer backdrops to roll along with the performers. Overall, Finnigan expects that the average cost of a costume will drop about $300, from more than $1,000 last year to something on the order of $700.

"The gap will be more glaring this year between the haves and the have-nots," he predicted.

Finnigan, who has 51 years of experience in things Mummer, believes that gap will put units that are not in the top tier of the 17-band category at a competitive disadvantage. But members of all bands really take part in the parade for the love of it, he said, so that disadvantage is not as large an issue as it might seem.

Cash is very much on the mind of Fralinger's Coper as well.

"What's driving it this year is the cost," he said.

That issue also looms large because the city government, facing a $31 million deficit, has withdrawn for the second year its prize money, which had run well over $300,000 in previous years. The city will also charge the Mummers about $150,000 this year, largely to pay for the costs of police and street cleaning associated with the parade. Through various fund-raising efforts, the Mummers have garnered about $107,000 of that.

Mayor Nutter is expected to hold a news conference today announcing a final agreement between the Mummers and the city over costs.

Meanwhile, Coper said, revenue is down from band appearances during the year, too; there are fewer bookings, and those involve fewer Mummers.

It takes about $120,000 to get the band on the street every year, Coper said, and the costumes account for about half of that.

Russ Fama, another notable Mummers costume designer, works with the Fralinger band and several others, making sure they look their best for the big day. He, too, is coping with the cost issue and noticing that in some cases he has fewer choices than he did. Even the feathers are smaller.

He also faced the prospect of having fewer types of metallic fabrics, which reflect the TV lights nicely, and he is using fewer sequins than in years past.

But to the men at a rehearsal in the church auditorium earlier this month, all that seemed to be in the background.

They were busy unpacking their saxophones and drums, and in one case an instrument that sounds like a train whistle. Percussionist Matt Zagorski showed up with the new whistle and proudly showed it off as Fralinger members arrived.

"The only thing you get closer to this is the actual train," he joked.

On what was close to a balmy December night, with temperatures in the mid-40s, the Fralinger band members - maybe half of them wearing Fralinger shirts, sweatshirts, or hats - gathered in the auditorium behind the church, on South 24th at Wolf.

Among them was Anthony Tenuto, chairman of the committee that chose the theme for the Friday parade: hillbillies.

He, too, had his eye on finances, explaining that the theme is "very economical" by way of costumes.

"We knew it would fit into our budget," he said.

Said band captain Thomas D'Amore: "It fits our style: a lot of energy, a lot of style."

The music is a medley of nine tunes that fit the theme. One is "Dueling Banjos."

John Wernega, a music teacher, wrote the arrangement starting in the spring. By late summer, it had started coming together in a style that he knew would fit the Fralinger band.

Cue the arrival of Mummers veteran Bill Garton, whom one band member described as "the polisher."

Garton stood in the middle of the auditorium floor and gathered the band - which is heavy on saxophones, not really a "string band" at all - around him in a semicircle.

"There may not be a bigger saxophone ensemble than this in the world," Wernega said, pointing out that 45 of the 67 strutters on New Year's would be playing a sax of some kind.

Garton put them through their paces, at one point urging the tenor-sax players to be more staccato and emphasize distinct breaks between the notes.

He will join the New Year's procession also, keeping an ear on the band, and will correct problems as he goes along.

His own description of his job?

"I make the notes into music," he said.

Getting Fancy

The Philadelphia Mummers Fancy Brigade Association lets the curious get a behind-the-scenes look at Mummers in the making. Visitors can try on Mummers costumes, watch brigades put on finishing touches, and view rehearsals. At the Convention Center, Hall C, 12th and Arch Streets. Hours are from 4 to 9 p.m. today and noon to 7 p.m. tomorrow. Admission is $4 at the door.EndText