Last January, organizers of the Mummers Parade — the country’s oldest folk parade, which takes place on New Year’s Day in Philadelphia — had fires to put out. During the parade that year, Finnegan New Year Brigade, a club in the Comic division — one of four classifying categories, which also include Fancy Brigade, Wench Brigade, and String Band — had organized a routine that mocked Caitlyn Jenner. It included multiple participants hoisting homemade signs that depicted Bruce Jenner on a box of Wheaties alongside an image of Caitlyn Jenner Photoshopped on a box of Froot Loops. Another group in the parade wore brownface and dressed children as tacos in a Mexican-themed routine. It was clear the Mummers needed a change.
Tom Loomis, president of the Philadelphia Mummers String Band Association and member of the Woodland String Band, was in the post-parade meeting room that year, helping to brainstorm ways the Mummers could better understand the many cultures of not only Philly’s residents but the country’s. What resulted was a partnership between the city’s Commission on Human Relations and the Mummers to set in place a series of sensitivity training workshops to ensure a more welcoming parade for 2017. Coordinated by Rue Landau, the commission’s director, members of the Mummer leadership were led through multiple voluntary training sessions by CHR representatives and Nellie Fitzpatrick, the director of the city’s Office of LGBT Affairs. The trainings were then posted online for Mummer participants and parade attendees to view in addition to club-organized sessions in which the information was disseminated among the rank and file. Tips on satire versus bullying — pertinent to the Comic clubs who create routines around current events and culture — and how to avoid cultural appropriation were discussed. Each group’s theme then had to be pre-registered and approved, a process in which String Bands had been participating for decades. If a group showed up to the parade and did not adhere to their set theme, they would be unable to perform for the judges, who score each routine, and disqualified.
“It was one of the better sessions I’ve been at, professionally or personally, in a while,” Loomis, said. “They reached into our culture as well as helping to expose other cultures to us.”
These trainings became the cornerstone for what was a largely accepting and tasteful 116th incarnation of the parade yesterday. While the event has long been plagued with controversy, with instances of blackface years after it had been banned in 1964 and a lack of diversity, participants like Danielle Redden, co-captain of Comic group Vaudevillains NYB, helped organize public forums to help usher in a new phase of diverse Mummers and cultural sensitivity.
After the 2015 parade, in which Wench Brigade members wielded signs bearing “Wench Lives Matter,” Redden arranged a meeting at a South Philadelphia community art center that began conversations on how to best serve the needs of all of the city’s cultures and heritages.
“We work on recruiting, talking to different groups and cultural organizations that represent some smaller communities in Philadelphia who do parade-type of performances and reaching out to those groups and see if they have any interest being in the parade,” Redden said.
Out of that forum came the formation of new Mummers groups like the San Mateo Carnavaleros and the South by Southeast group, which focus on Mexican and Southeast Asian cultures, respectively.
This year, Redden’s Vaudevillians — a part of the Murray Comic Club, one of three parent comic clubs — made the parade’s grandest political statement with a routine theme of “Sanctuary City Meow and Furever,” which featured members dressed in colorful and sequined cat costumes, an homage to a population of feral cats and the local women who cared for them, according to a Facebook post. The most poignant part of the skit were banners bearing a combination of the words “Trump” and either “Racism,” “Misogyny,” “Homophobia,” or “Xenophobia.” These banners were later covered by rainbow tie-dye fabric declaring the performance’s title during choreographed dances.
The Vaudevillains’ sister brigade, Rabble Rousers, a Comic troupe within the Landi Club, prepared just as strong a showing with a giant toilet float with one Mummer dressed as feces. The skit parodied the parade itself and its history of controversy. They titled the routine “A Parade of Excuses: Cleaning Up Our Act.”
In yet another Comic group, a Mummer dressed as Donald Trump stripped down to his underwear and held a sign that read “Flunked Sensitivity Training” on one side, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” on the other.
Given our divided political landscape, these relatively progressive acts helped to foster a conversation not only within the audience but the Mummers organization as well. Rasa Vella, a recent addition to the Golden Sunrise Fancy division troupe, hopes the discussion surrounding cultural mindfulness reaches beyond Philly. “In light of what’s happened in the last 12 months on a broader national scale, it feels like, in hindsight, not a surprise,” Vella said, reflecting on the Caitlyn Jenner skit from 2016. “We're a nation divided when it comes to inclusion right now, and that was maybe the first public, Philadelphian example of what is now a national conversation.”
For others, a parade is just a parade. They enjoy the silliness of it, like Pokemon running through the crowd, an entire brigade of folks dressed as Ben Franklin, or a choreographed pirate brawl. Tim Citrone, a New Jersey resident who attended this year’s parade with his wife and three young children (and who’s been frequenting the parade for 38 years), thinks the more risqué acts aren’t a big deal.
“Everybody could use sensitivity training, but at the same time everybody could use a little bit thicker skin,” he said.
The parade has been a longstanding tradition celebrating the new year involving months of musical and dance rehearsals as well as costume and set design. What began as unorganized (and often drunken) neighborhood festivities stemming from Swedish customs turned into a city-coordinated event.
As the day closed, Loomis’ Woodland String Band took 4th place in their division, and it seemed the leadership’s precautions weren’t in vain.
“What do some people see us as? A bunch of overweight drunks that come out parading on New Year’s Day and urinate on people’s porch,” Loomis said. “We see ourselves as ambassadors to the city of Philadelphia and sharing one of the great treasures that Philadelphia has.”