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Mummers of a feather

They stick together, as a band learned after fire ruined its gear.

Jailhouse flock: Wearing prison garb, Greater Kensington band members prepare for New Year's. The band's feathery finery comes courtesy of Mummer brethren who helped out after a fire.
Jailhouse flock: Wearing prison garb, Greater Kensington band members prepare for New Year's. The band's feathery finery comes courtesy of Mummer brethren who helped out after a fire.Read more

Tony DiLacqua never doubted that his string band would march on Broad Street on New Year's Day.

But in what shape and form - well, that was another story.

Three months ago, arsonists destroyed a small warehouse in the Tacony section, where the Greater Kensington String Band stored its props and tools.

Gone were power saws, nail guns, hammers and drills.

Gone were electric generators, ladders and metal scaffolding.

Gone were gallons of paint.

Gone were wood frames and foam board for backdrops.

Gone was a 16-by-30-foot opaque curtain worth $1,300.

But worst of all, gone were thousands upon thousands of ostrich plumes, an inventory of feathers several years in the making.

Luckily, the club's instruments and costumes were stored at the band's clubhouse, several blocks away. But what's a Mummer without his feathers?

"We had boxes and boxes of plumes," said DiLacqua, the band's president. "And they burn really fast, too."

DiLacqua said the string band rebounded, and yesterday members showed their supporters just how far they had come. At the National Guard Armory on Roosevelt Boulevard in Northeast Philadelphia, the 64 musicians, plus dancers and crew, ran through a dress rehearsal, complete with rebuilt sets and feather-festooned head boards that members wear on their backs.

It has been a mad dash, DiLacqua said, but the 61-year-old club will be able to strut with pride on New Year's because of help from supporters and competitors alike.

"We're not 100 percent of what we planned," DiLacqua said before rehearsal, "but it's darn close."

He said every string band in the city called to offer support, and four came through with all-important plumes. The South Philadelphia, Avalon, Woodland and Trilby String Bands gave their rival extra feathers from their collections.

"They really came through," DiLacqua said.

A dozen Mummer-quality ostrich plumes costs about $40. With 100 plumes for each small back piece, plus 1,000 plumes for the captain's more elaborate costume, the cost adds up to thousands.

Michael Kavchok, a lineman for Verizon, is responsible for building the band's sets. On the night of the fire, Oct. 2, he was attending an officers' meeting at the club's headquarters in Tacony when DiLacqua got a page from the police radio room about the blaze.

"We all jumped," Kavchok recalled.

The building, which is next to a car junkyard, had been broken into several times before. Firefighters said they saw teens fleeing the site on the night of the fire.

Watching the building burn, Kavchok knew he had already used up his budget for props. "We didn't have an extra $15,000 to replace all our materials," he said.

DiLacqua, whose day job is as a chief inspector of the Philadelphia Police Department, estimated that the band would have to raise $20,000 to replace everything. The feather loss alone was more than $6,000, he estimated. Whether the club's insurance carrier will cover any of the damage is "being debated," he added.

In the meantime, at least 50 people have sent the string band checks as small as $10 and as large as several thousand dollars. On the night of the fire, DiLacqua said, a Philadelphia woman living in Arizona saw the news online and called the clubhouse to donate $20.

He said the Chapman Auto Group made a significant donation, which helped to buy replacement materials. A local towing company lent the group space to build its sets, and someone else donated scaffolding.

Members have been working three to four nights a week to rebuild by New Year's. "We knew we'd get here, but it was double time," said Scott Moyer, the band's captain and a mechanic for Peco Energy Co.

To create a jailhouse look for its 41/2-minute program, the string band has painted backdrops on tall wood frames, two "jailhouses" on wheels, plus movable cells with bars that dancers wheel from side to side.

Paul Gawlinski, a sax player, said all the string bands that helped them were part of the Mummers "brotherhood."

"When the chips are down, the bands come together," Gawlinski said. "It's unbelievable."

Added Kavchok, "I'll be very happy, no matter what prize we get, just to be out on the street."

For more Mummers photos, go to EndText