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Mummers, dollars and change

It’s smaller this year, but the Broad Street parade is alive & well

It was a beautiful Independence Day down in Wildwood Crest, Anthony Celenza's favorite place in the world, yet the wide beaches at the Crest would have to be without him that day.

Celenza, you see, is the captain of the Ferko String Band, and on July Fourth, Ferko can drum up — or glockenspiel up, perhaps — a few thousand dollars by playing patriotic parades. Celenza and his minions went from the morning main-street parade hometown of Haddonfield to nearby Audubon, then over to Evesham Township and then, later, into the city to do the Welcome America parade.

"For a Mummers band, it is a big payday, like New Year's Eve for a jazz musician," said Celenza, 50, now in his 35th year with Ferko, though his first as captain. "It's all necessary to keep the band going, especially now with the cutbacks."

Even the most cost-conscious string band has to raise something in the high five-figures each year to outfit, choreograph, and feed its 50-100 members for the ultimate performance on New Year's Day. Celenza put Ferko's 2008 outlay at anywhere between $75,000-100,000, a range that John Baron, captain of rival Hegeman agrees with as a reasonable estimate for a competitive band like his.

"Some groups will read my number and say, 'We spend more than that,' but everyone has to be conscious of costs. We re-use parts of props and try to figure out how to save on costs," said Baron, who is in his 20th year with Hegeman. "It's uniforms, props, choreographers and keeping the lights and heat on at the clubhouse.
"You have to love being a Mummer. You don't get paid and you have to work for the joy of going on Broad Street on New Year's Day," he said.

The cutback in prize money from the city will hurt, but really, even the top prize, usually in the range of $10,000, would only be a fraction of the cost of running a string band. Each band makes a bit of money from the mid-winter Show of Shows in Atlantic City, but the unknown cost of the assessment the city proposes for clean-up and police will hurt the bottom line, and may put some smaller bands out of business.

What is needed, said Frank Passio, a saxophonist who has played for South Philadelphia, Trilby, Durning and now Ferko, is more marketing and community financial support. To that end, Passio has started the Philadelphia Mummers Parade Marketing Group LLC in hopes of getting corporate sponsorships for the Mummers.

"I don't know that we need $10 million, but something more mid-range, like someone who would give $1 million or a series of corporations or foundations to get to that figure," said Passio. "We need a full-time Mummers fund-raiser. It is just the way things have to be now, but this is a well-loved local institution, so I think we can do it."
Baron said that Hegeman charges each member $250 for dues, but that is clearly only the start of it. A costume for a regular musician usually ends up costing about $900 to $1000, and though some of that comes back through fund-raising and playing paying gigs through the year, members in the end ante up the rest of the cost of their uniforms.

"It's like anything else," said Passio. "If you were in a model airplane club, you would pay, I don't know, $30 a month for materials because that is what you want to do. Mummers love being Mummers, and sometimes there is just a cost about it."

A big cost this year, said Baron, is the traditional Mummers sequins. They are usually petroleum-based plastic and, since the Mummers purchased them this summer when oil was at its highest, sequin costs nearly doubled this year.

"I heard some bands are paying as much as $1400 a uniform because of sequins. Polyester, because it is oil-based, was higher this year, too," said Passio. "But we are Mummers and we are supposed to look glitzy, so we had no choice."

It is unlikely that string bands will cut back on ancillary contracts as well. Nearly every band now has a paid choreographer and costume designer. Others have prop consultants and stage managers. Those people, according to Passio, most often get $1500 to $2000 for their work.

"I'm sure that is low for what they do, but they, too, are Mummers fans and want to see the parade continue as it has," said Passio.

The two big on-going sources of string-band financing, aside from dues and members paying out-of-pocket, are in-house fund-raisers and outside performances. Hegeman, for instance, held a Karaoke/Wii Night on Dec. 19, where they charged a nominal fee at its 2nd and Wharton Streets clubhouse for snacks and contests, oriented toward families in that South Philadelphia neighborhood.

"Most clubs do St. Patrick's Day or Valentine's Day or something like that. Do a beef and beer and have a 50/50 raffle," said Baron, who started playing saxophone at 10 growing up in South Philadelphia, always wanting to be a Mummer. "Look, it's also a party for your friends. My wife has been in the band since 1994, so it's really been a family affair for us."

Celenza said most bands do about 50 to 60 performances of some sort a year, all of the money going back to the club, not into individual pockets. In addition to parades, the bands, or parts of them, do weddings or benefits or even conventions.

"We had 15, 20 guys at a convention for doctors this year," said Celenza, 50, who is a professional meeting planner in his non-Mummer life. "It was the kind of thing where the planners were showing them Philadelphia. It was a big room with food from Chinatown in one corner and from the Italian Market in another. Ben Franklin was there and all these icons of Philadelphia.

"And we were there as another icon, the Mummers string band," said Celenza, who got his Mummering start at 12, when a friend from the neighborhood at 11th and Ritner told him to bring his clarinet down to the Durning String Band on New Year's Day. "It got us a few hundred dollars for the parade, but it was also an advertisement for the city. We raise money just the same way the Rotary or the Little League does, and then we give our performances. No one makes a penny, but we hope everyone loves it."