SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
August 18, 2019

The Last Mummers Parade

 

It must have been 1989 or early 1990, I think, when the guy who owned the used book stand where I worked decided he wanted to start a small press. Some time earlier I’d helped him put together a four-page photocopied literary ‘zine he called “Back of the Cereal Box.” The ‘zine lasted all of one issue, so I didn’t lay out much long-term hope for this latest endeavor of his. He had no overarching editorial philosophy that I could discern, no clear sense of what kinds of books he wanted to put out. All he knew is that he wanted to be a publisher. When he told me about his plans, I said I’d be happy to help out in whatever way I could. Then I went back to work, waiting for nothing at all to happen.

            Well, a month or two later he told me he’d somehow obtained the rights (at least I think he obtained the rights) to an oral history of Philadelphia’s famed Mummer’s Parade.

            For those unfamiliar, every New Year’s Day, hundreds of drunken sloppy yahoos from South Philly build comic floats, dress up in drag or clown outfits or some other wild costumes, form themselves into marching string bands, and parade up Broad Street while playing “Oh! Dem Golden Slippers” or other famous minstrel songs. It’s the most popular parade in Philly every year, and it’s a big fucking deal.

            At the time, I didn’t give a toss about the Mummers. Still being fairly new to Philly, I knew little about them. To me it was just another parade, albeit far more drunken than most. My friend Dave was living in a South Philly apartment overlooking Broad Street, and so every year he hosted a Mummers party, in which friends would come over, get insensate drunk, projectile-vomit, throw furniture and cooking utensils, brandish guns, and occasionally peek out the window at the parade. I’m not sure if I ever made it to one of those parties or not, but I don’t think I did. Part of it (as noted) was that I didn’t care about the Mummers. The other reason I never made it to the party was that the thick crowds lining Broad Street made it impossible to get to Dave’s apartment. In retrospect I wish I’d put in the effort and fought the crowds, primarily because Dave’s annual party was always a notorious and legendary affair. But now, too, I wish I’d had that chance to see the parade. The whole time I lived there, I never saw the parade, save for accidentally stumbling onto the very end of it once. Even then it took me a second to figure out why all these fat guys in drag and sort-of blackface were milling around City Hall.

            Anyway, back to this oral history, which was slated to be titled, after the Mummers official theme song, “Oh! Dem Golden Slippers”. Reggie, the would-be publisher, figured that since there were thousands of current and former Mummers in town, and ten times as many fans of the parade, they’d all want a copy of the book, right? He had a massive, ready-made, built-in audience, so he was guaranteed to turn a profit. To further ensure this, what he wanted to do was turn that oral history into a bright, colorful and fun coffee table book, jam-packed with photos of the parade from over the past several decades. If this or that Mummer’s picture ended up in the book, he’d pretty much have no choice but to buy it, right? All of his friends would have to buy it too, and every member of his extended family. This was Reggie’s marketing plan. Instead of sending review copies to Kirkus, Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly and every major newspaper in the country (back when papers had book sections), he’d simply pitch the book around to all the various Mummers clubs in town, which were concentrated near Second Street in South Philly. Then on New Year’s Day he’d set up a table along the parade route. He’d sell out that first printing in no time flat.

            Well, in order to fit all those pictures in the book (and where he planned to get those pictures I had no idea), he’d have to seriously pare down the actual oral history part of it. This is where I came in. Reggie handed me the four-hundred-page typescript, and asked me if I could edit it down to one hundred pages.

            Now, I had never edited anything before. I guess he figured since I was a writer, I must also know how to edit. I didn’t. Also, as mentioned I didn’t know a fucking thing about the fucking Mummers and didn’t care, making me perhaps not the ideal candidate for the job. But he offered me a small honorarium, so I took the job and didn’t mention any of these things. The more he talked about it, the more it sounded like the text was only going to be included to fill in those blank spaces where there were no pictures, so it wasn’t like he was too worried about preserving the integrity of the historical record the manuscript represented. It was going to be a picture book aimed at the semi-literate, and too many words would just confuse and anger them.

            I had no idea who’d done this oral history originally, or how Reggie had gotten his hands on it. Had he just stolen it outright from Charles E. Welch’s groundbreaking 1964 article of the same name in The Journal of American Folklore? (I just looked that up!) Well, I wasn’t about to track it down to check. That was Reggie’s problem. I was just the editor, and I had no idea what I was doing. I brought the heavy manuscript home, grabbed a pencil, flopped down in my sagging comfy chair and started reading, keeping my pencil poised an eye open for anything that might reasonably be excised.

            It took me about a week to cut the manuscript down by three-quarters. In fact it was much easier than I expected. All I had to do, it turned out, was delete all the references to “niggers,” “darkies,” “coons,” “spades,” and the like from the hundreds of included interviews with Mummers past and present, and boom! The text was ready to go. I’d even learned a thing or two about this venerable local subculture.

            Which brings us to Mummers history and how I finally came around to having the deepest respect for the tradition.

            The embryonic origins of contemporary mummery can be traced back to mid-seventeenth century Europe, where annual raucous, drunken festivals and plays—and plays in which the king could be openly lampooned without repercussions—were mighty popular. Immigrants settling in South Philly brought the tradition with them, which through the mid-nineteenth century took the form of drunken gangs of young men in blackface roaming the streets of South Philly on New Year’s Day, hooting, hollering, firing guns in the air and pounding on doors or charging into bars demanding free drinks. In a way it was a bit like a combination of Halloween and NYC’s annual SantaCon, but with blackface and guns.

            Things started getting so out of hand, though, that the city government tried to pass a law banning people from going out in disguises like blackface.

            Well, no one paid any attention to that, so Philly’s leaders passed another law requiring that drunken louts who cared to participate in the annual New Year’s Day shenanigans had to be members of a registered group with a stated leader, who could be held responsible if any members of their group did anything bad. That law was a bit more effective, and sanctioned Mummer social clubs began popping up around Second Street.

            In 1901 the city further corralled the Mummers by proposing a New Year’s Day Mummers parade up Broad Street. To sweeten the deal and further encourage the Mummers to behave themselves, they even offered to put up prize money for the best performances.

            Now, minstrel shows were among the most popular forms of entertainment in America at the time, so along with the standard blackface, the Mummers co-opted traditional minstrel string bands and songs, making them central to the parade. Floats were soon added as well, featuring comic sketches which lampooned politicians and current events in broad, lowbrow terms. Not only did the Mummers Parade evolve into the world’s longest rolling minstrel show (parades often lasted eleven hours), it was also populism at its finest. Non-Mummers who used to stay barricaded in their homes out of fear on New Year’s Day now packed the sidewalks of Broad Street to watch the crazy spectacle.

            Well, as an entertainment form, minstrel shows were dead and buried by the end of the Thirties. Nobody bothered mentioning this to the Mummers, whose annual parade continued to grow year after year. Minstrel shows might’ve been dead everywhere else in the country, but in decidedly white South Philly, they were apparently still tops. Things marched along drunkenly and merrily until the Sixties.

            Given the Civil Rights movement and the changing national mood, in 1964 the city passed legislation banning the Mummers from marching in blackface. It was racist and insensitive and had no place in today’s America. So how did the Mummers react? They returned the next year in blue face instead. City leaders were not amused, so passed more legislation banning that, too. Now over half a century later, a few of your more hardcore Mummer purists have once again returned to the blackface tradition, with others in brownface, redface, or yellowface, depending upon the sketch at hand.

            Which brings us to the floats. Hearkening back to those seventeenth century roots, and like John Waters or Troma films, Mummers’ comic floats were eruptions of take-no-prisoners satire at its most lowbrow and crass. But as we entered the politically correct era, fewer and fewer people were laughing.

            On New Year’s Day, 2016, not long after Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn Jenner, a float featured a Bruce Jenner doppelgänger in a track uniform and gold medals strutting about proudly. Then at one point he took a seat in a wheelchair and was surrounded by other members of his troupe, only to emerge again a moment later in a wig, makeup and dress. As he flounced about the float, the speakers blasted Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady.” Behind him, the float’s backdrop featured blow ups of Jenner’s Wheaties Box cover next to a box of Froot Loops. It was dumb and silly (and a bit milder than usual), but oh, the shrieking moral outrage that followed, including from Philly’s mayor, was even funnier. Why, these Mummers are the most offensive creatures on earth! How could they put a transphobic float in a parade like that? They should not only be banned, they should be arrested for hate crimes!

            Long before that, the Mummers had been accused, thanks to the floats as much as the blackface, of being racist, homophobic, xenophobic and misogynist (the latter thanks to the parade’s “Wenches”—the term given to a Mummer in drag). You get the idea the righteous types started going to the parade simply to be outraged every year.

            The Mummers have been publicly lambasted for floats featuring a man in an Obama mask holding a sign that read, “Illegal Immigrants Welcome,” and another in which a man in drag held a “Wench Lives Matter” sign.

            One notorious and off-cited offensive Mummers float mocked the 1998 death of James Byrd, who’d been chained to the back of a pickup and dragged to death in Texas. The only problem with that was that it never appeared in the Mummers Parade—it was in fact a float created by members of the NYPD and FDNY which appeared in the Broad Channel, Queens 1998 Labor Day parade. I guess that doesn’t matter—people assume it was the Mummers, so it’s simply more evidence against them.

            (As an interesting side note, the death of James Byrd was also satirized in the 2000 Troma film Citizen Toxie, but no one blinked an eye.)

            In recent years, and thanks to growing public outrage, Philly has issued court orders demanding the traditionally, yes of course, white male organization allow gay, female, Hispanic and Black troupes join the parade. Beyond that, for ten years now there have been increased calls from the humorless and righteous to bury once and for all the offensive ideals it promotes by doing away with the parade altogether. In steps toward that end, the city has shortened the parade route, cut off the prize money and forced the Mummers to pay for their own police security detail. It’s a clear effort to try and bankrupt the organization, but so far the Mummers have been able to squeak by with various fundraising efforts.

            Given the wild polarization we’re experiencing in the country at present, it’s easy to see how anyone defending the parade would be charged with being a MAGA-hatted racist. No doubt South Philly remains a bastion of Trump supporters, but it’s a bit more fundamental and complicated an issue than that.

            The mummers, I finally came to realize, are court jesters, and necessary ones at that. Historically, court jesters were never exactly known for their sensitivity and political correctness. Even King George recognized the value of letting the people blow off steam once a year in a harmless and entertaining way. No matter how offensive and tasteless you find their comedy or their costumes, if you don’t allow them that one day a year to speak aloud, in a lively cartoonish way, some of the ugly thoughts an awful lot of those people lining Broad Street are harboring, if you get rid of that outlet thinking you’re getting rid of those ideas, you’ve got another thing coming. Better a goofy crass parade than another shot-up church, right?

            Yes, the Mummers are a bunch of sloppy drunken racist yahoos from South Philly, but in this sadly humorless world when the easily offended are telling us what we can and cannot say or think, I’m mighty glad they’re there, and I wish I’d paid more attention at the time.

            As my friend Derek Davis, who grew up with the Mummers Parade, wrote: “There’s nothing quite like them (or was nothing quite like them) in the world, the particular mix of intensive year-long work leading to clever extravagance and the loose, drunken explosion of the actual event.”

            Speaking of which, and I just found out some of this now, Reggie’s Mummers picture book, Oh! Dem Golden Slippers, really did come out in 1991, and it looked great. A little shy on text, but it looked great. In fact it’s still in print. Charles Welch, who wrote that 1964 article mentioned above, is credited as the author. Apparently he expanded that article into a book originally published in 1970, and Reggie’s version is still being marketed as a new illustrated version of that book. I don’t believe I’m credited anywhere in Reggie’s version. But it does make me curious to see if Welch’s 1970 published version left all the “niggers,” “darkies,” “coons,” “spades” and the like intact, or if I was working with the unexpurgated version. Damn, how I wish I still had that manuscript, especially now considering the parade’s days are clearly numbered.

 

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