You wake up on New Year’s Day with a morning head and a mouth that feels like it has been stuffed with cotton. Suddenly that whole “Dry January” thing seems altogether sensible, an idea whose time has come. You lurch into the kitchen in search of caffeine and analgesics, hoping you can find both without turning on any lights. Having procured the steaming mug, you head for the reclining chair and flick on theTV. And there they are, a thousand gyrating Mummers, dancing their hearts out in front of City Hall, a riot of color in sequined satin.
Who does this? How can this many people have this much energy, this early in the morning? On New Year’s Day?
Oh, suffering soul. I know your pain and your questions. I too spent many a New Year’s morning splayed in the easy chair, watching other people have fun. And then, on one otherwise forgotten New Year’s Day, I decided I wanted to become a Philadelphia Mummer. That was 11 years ago, and I have never looked back.
Can there be any better way to welcome in a new year than donning some gaudy garment for a day-long strut through Philadelphia? For me, the answer is a resounding no. This parade is a blast, and a historical blast at that. The annual Philadelphia Mummers Parade is the longest-running folk parade in America. “Folk parade” means it’s entirely peopled with amateur performers, the very antithesis of the canned productions that account for many of today’s televised holiday parades.
Becoming a Mummer
I must admit that before I became a Mummer, I did my research. There are several divisions: fancies, wenches, comics, string bands, and fancy brigades. What I wanted to do was choose the right one for my age (not young), my finances (not lavish), and my dancing, artistic, and musical expertise (nonexistent). I furthermore didn’t want to devote months to parade practice. This ruled out the fancy brigades and the string bands, both of which compete with lavish costuming, props, and choreography. But there were other options, and one of them was the comic brigades.
Can there be any better way to welcome in a new year than donning some gaudy garment for a day-long strut through Philadelphia? For me, the answer is a resounding no.
Chances are the comic brigades are on the TV screen when you press the remote — they usually perform at City Hall between 10am and 12:30pm on New Year’s Day. The comics are organized into discrete clubs of between 10 and 250 members, and their routines are short and played for laughs. Some clubs practice, but not all year, and most provide the costumes. Oh boy! Right up my alley!
In the days when I joined the Mummers, social media wasn’t as organized as it is today. In these times, finding a brigade would be as easy as getting a list, seeing if the club has a Facebook or Instagram account, and sending that account a query. Me, I had to Google information about the comic brigades and then make phone calls. It wasn’t a hardship, though. Within days I got replies from affable gentlemen with deep Philly accents, and one of them steered me to a comic brigade called the Two Street Stompers, based in Brooklawn, New Jersey. One quick phone chat with the captain, Steve Young, procured my membership in the Mummers community. If I can sum up his philosophy: “The more, the merrier.” I became a Two Street Stomper officially in the late fall of 2012.
Like most comic brigades, the Two Street Stompers has a nucleus of family members, in some cases three generations deep. Parade prep can double as a family reunion, especially in these times when we have spread out across the map. A lot of hugging goes on. Certain names are prominent: Young, McLaughlin, McMullin, Meehan. People arrive with infants in baby slings or with venerated senior members who can no longer strut all day — though, by golly, they can still strut. And the whole tableau looks like a crowd milling about before a sporting event, except instead of Eagles green we’re all wearing Two Street Stomper gear in our club colors of black, white and gold.
The Two Street Stompers
I was pretty awkward at my first Stompers practice, as anyone would be who just joined a large assembly of folks who already knew each other. I didn’t exactly make a good first impression when I told a member, “I’m just going to try this for a year or two.” He looked at me like I had three heads. (Now I know why. There’s no “year or two” as a Mummer. Do it once, and you’re in it until you can’t drag your carcass down Broad Street anymore.)
It didn’t take long for me to fit in as a Two Street Stomper. Basically all I had to do was show some enthusiasm for the enterprise, and that was easy enough. Now, after a decade of participation, my name might as well be Young, McLaughlin, Meehan or McMullin. I have been adopted.
I’ll never forget the day the captain handed me my first costume. (We call them “suits” or “dresses.”) This one was modeled on a German barmaid, a gooey confection of blue and white polyester sateen liberally outlined in sequins. In a flash I re-lived every happy dancing recital of my girlhood. A cunning little satin parasol was tucked into a helpful tote bag of matching sateen. Bliss! Best part? Mine to keep! Included in the modest dues!
The Two Street Stompers have won five Comic Division championships. This is because we practice. Two times every year. The first practice occurs early in December and coincides with our club’s annual fundraising raffle. The second rehearsal occurs a day or two before the parade. Both rehearsals are awash in adult beverages, opportunities to hang out with friends and family in the brisk early winter air, occasionally lining up and performing some simple dance steps until we learn how to get to where we need to stand and what we do when we get there. Each comic club gets three minutes to impress the judges. It flies by in a flash.
There’s no “year or two” as a Mummer. Do it once, and you’re in it until you can’t drag your carcass down Broad Street anymore.
By the end of the second practice, as dusk falls over Brooklawn, we cluster around to hear our final instructions from the captains. This is when we get “The Talk.” Each year it is pretty much the same:
*Be a responsible citizen. This means not offending the other citizens of Philadelphia. Any of them.
*You are part of a tradition. To keep it going, you need to be respectful of your clubmates, other performers, the environment, and the audience.
*This is about family, friends, and fun. Make sure the kids have a good time. Look out for each other. Enjoy yourself!
The Philadelphia Mummers are very aware that the audience on the sidewalk (and those watching on TV) is a cross-section of a diverse metropolis. Across the board, the captains expect participants to respect racial and cultural differences. These days, Mummers clubs must submit their themes for review by liaisons between the clubs and the City, and on parade day it’s a matter of self-policing. No one wants to be the individual responsible for that headline on January 2.
This has never been a problem for the Two Street Stompers. One of the first clubs to feature female participants, way back in the 1970s, the Stompers won’t tolerate insensitivity. That’s not funny, and we thrive on funny.
The big day
Trust me on this: At no time of the year are the streets of the Delaware Valley more peaceful and deserted than at sunrise on New Year’s Day. Nobody is out and about except for the 10,000-plus participants in the Mummers Parade. We arrive at the clubhouse in our winter layers, our shiny suits draped over our arms. We hug and wish each other a happy New Year, and while the rest of America sleeps, we board yellow school buses and head into Center City. It’s quiet in there, too, except for all the other comic clubs assembling in their staging areas.
Gradually the excitement increases. Our sound engineer gets the tunes going, and we run through our routine multiple times. We begin to inch our way toward City Hall, fighting our pre-performance jitters with chants of “Two Street Fired Up!” And then, all of a sudden, we’re there!
It didn’t take long for me to fit in as a Two Street Stomper. Basically all I had to do was show some enthusiasm for the enterprise, and that was easy enough.
Banks of lights, cameras, bleachers and sidewalks full of spectators. We’re ready! Well, sort of. No, we are, we really are! The whistle blows. We perform the routine. Mug for the camera. Pump our parasols. Wave to the fans and to those of you at home who are clinging to your coffee mugs.
Then it’s on to South Broad. All jitters forgotten, we strut down the street, posing for photos with spectators and tossing beads to them. We smile a lot. The goal is to entertain and to have fun doing it. And we’re not playing to an empty house. Especially when it’s sunny and mild, Broad Street is lined with spectators. This piece of the parade is where the comics shine. We are — what’s the word — lively. We move about, we have music, we interact. By the time we arrive at Washington Ave., we’ve entertained blocks and blocks of people.
From Broad and Washington, we re-board the school buses, travel down to the Mummers Museum, and set off on a joyous romp along Two Street. This is Mummers Central, the Bourbon Street of the parade. The sun sets, the street lights come on, and we are still dancing, right to the foot of the Walt Whitman Bridge.
It’s the only 14-hour day the whole year that goes by in an eyeblink.
I’m a serious Eagles fan, but when I see those ticket prices, my jaw drops. My yearly dues with the Two Street Stompers cost less than an Eagles ticket, and the money goes a long way: costume, snacks, beverages, transportation and the multitude of supplies used to create backdrops and props and provide speakers for the music. I can offset the cost by selling raffle tickets. (One year I won the raffle and basically recouped two years of costs.) Honestly, though, I would keep my Two Street Stomper membership at twice the price. What premium do you put on fun?
As someone who enjoys lawful shenanigans, I have found my quintessential Philly event. Participating in the Mummers Parade as a comic is my dawn-to-dark celebration of this city, the perfect way to dance in a new year. As for that recliner I used to inhabit listlessly on January 1? Sold it. Don’t need it. Happy New Year!
Anne Johnson is a freelance writer and copy editor based in the Delaware Valley.
The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who represent that it is their own work and their own opinion based on true facts that they know firsthand.
MORE ON PHILLY’S UNIQUE CHARACTER. STAY WEIRD.Two Street Stompers, New Year's Day 2023. Photo courtesy of the Two Street Stompers.