The Show of Shows 2010!

Snow of Snows?  No, winter cannot and did not stop the awesome Philadelphia Mummers String Band Association Show of Shows!  16 bands performed this weekend at two shows at fabulous Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. 

For members of the bands and their families it is part show, part reunion, part work, part competition and part convention.  The bands set up stalls in a large exhibition or staging hall off the main arena.  It’s there, in backstage privacy, where the members gather with food and drink and walk up and down the rows, greeting friends and making new ones.  Bands rehearse and put on really fun performances there for and with each other.  The Durning Duck even conducted a sort of race, but I digress.  It’s a lot of work getting the instruments and props into the hall and setting up.  At the end, there’s the striking of the encampment, too.  But, in between, it’s a celebration of Mummery, music and family. One of the early moments happened on Friday evening.  Avalon String Band hosted a memorial toast to Mummers no longer with us.  Polish American String Band’s Joe Bujnowski, using a bullhorn, said words of loss and remembrance and led the raising of the cups.  It was a solemn moment, beginning a weekend of revelry and showmanship.  (Congratulations to P-A’s Bujnowski and Joe Leso who’ll enter the Hall of Fame this year.  Outstanding choreographer of many bands, Denny Quaile, will also be inducted.) While much of the action is backstage, it is the 6 hours of on-stage performing that is the centerpiece of the Shows of Shows.   The photos seen here are from several of the performances and taken by me from my vantage point on the floor as the emcee of the shows.  Thus, the plethora of profiles and shots from behind.  But, this view gives me an extra insight into the emotion and energy of the performers just a few feet away  and the behind the scenes work of the marshals who move the props.  The performances at the shows are not judged as they are on New Year’s Day, but there is a competitive spirit. 

The bands want to be at their best. (And that’s no bull.)  The members are their own worst critics.  After the second show I went backstage to talk with bandmembers and I found several talking about how their bands performed that day.  One Captain  told me how his band was not happy with their first show performance and worked on it to make it better in the second show.  The first show was fine but Mummers are entertainers and they want to make sure the fans are getting what they deserve.

And there’s another kind of competitiveness:  the psych.  South Philadelphia String Band was a good example of this.  In their encampment near other high finishers, such as Quaker City and Fralinger, they had a teepee, which made sense since their 2010 theme was “Gathering of Nations”, a Native American theme.  But if you looked closely, there were two ship stacks that came out of the top and “smoke” was coming out them.  You go inside the teepee, and overhead was a paddle wheel.  South Philadelphia’s 2011 theme is a  riverboat one and the touches start to get members in the spirit and signal to visitors just how big South Philadelphia is thinking and what they are already working on.  There are many great moments backstage. 

Fralinger Captain Thomas D’Amore had the bearing of man far beyond his 21 years.  He walked about with the confidence of a 1st Prize winning Captain but with the humility that often you only see in an older Captain.  Out on the floor, the veteran Captain Jim Driadon, in his 60th year with Greater O, worked the crowd.  Jim understands one of the beauties of the Show of Shows is the chance to get up close and personal with the audience. To see the look on one little girl’s face as Jim, with that huge plumed backpiece, went over to her and shook her hand, was priceless. The crowd sang along, strutted and appreciated the bands’ performances.  Duffy  tossed boxes of animal crackers into the crowd, in keeping with its theme.   Hegeman was inspirationally crazy as usual  by hiding its band in the stands among the crowd. The whole world was smiling with Hegeman and Captain John Baron inside Boardwalk Hall.   Captain Anthony Celenza, of the Joseph A. Ferko String Band was King of the Hobo’s riding that train and offering me “soup” center stage. From Trilby, led by Captain Joe Kaminski, seen to the left, to Fralinger, the audience was treated to the sights and sounds of the string bands.  Quaker City reprised its marvelous Spanish theme from New Year’s Day, and also honored retired Captain Bob Shannon, Jr., for his 50th year in Mummery.  2nd Prize Captain Charlie Roetz was in top form.   The Show of Shows is a place where the bands can take the time to deliver personal thanks, often family members will deliver roses to them at the end of the performance.  Greater Kensington saluted Lenny Giacabetti, Sr., as he retires in his 52nd year. Congratulations to Avalon’s Jack Hee, who was able to juggle real life with his Mummer obligations. Jack’s son, Michael, had his confirmation Saturday, but Jack was just able to get to the show in time.

Aqua’s Ron Iannacone was a leader among Captain’s in the time spent with the audience, taking pictures and chatting it up. Uptown String Band’s new Captain, Ryan Radcliffe, certainly took no siesta during their Old Mexico performance.  Young and old made up Broomall, where 175 years of Broomall family Mummer experience was on display, from 4 year-old Kaden to 85-year-old Jim. Woodland said so long to outgoing drill director and newly elected member of the Woodland String Band Hall of Fame, Mr. Tom King.  And for them all, the applause came early and often.  It was the Show of Shows.  The tradition continues.

Celebration of the Fancy Brigades

In a year in which 50 years of Fancy Brigades will be celebrated, the Philadelphia Mummers Brigade Association followed up the exciting New Year’s Day performances with the annual Brigades Awards Banquet last night.  South Philly Vikings were honored for their 1st Prize finish(as well as 1st in the myphl17 Viewers Choice Award).  Veteran Captain Mickey Adams of the Shooting Stars was acknowledged for his outstanding Captain’s performance.  Ralph Tursi was admitted into the Hall of Fame.  Jim Julia was recognized for his tenure as Captain of the Downtowners Fancy Brigade.  It was an enjoyable and uplifting evening at Penn’s Landing Caterers.  Dignitaries there included myphl17 VP & General Manager Vince Giannini, String Band Association President John Pignotti, and Congressman Bob Brady.   To all the Fancy Brigades, Golden Crown, Jokers, Downtowners, Cahill’s, Avenuers, 2nd Street Shooters, Saturnalians, Clevemore, Satin Slipper, Bill McIntyre’s Shooting Stars and South Philly Vikings, thanks for the dedication, fun and future of Mummery!

Cheers to Local 2493!

Yes, Cheers Cheers Cheers to IAFF Local 2493 this afternoon and evening at Casey’s Saloon in Drexel Hill, where thousands of dollars has been raised for the Muscular Dystrophy Association and research into neuromuscular diseases.  Firefighters from all over stopped by, from as far away as Scranton, and yes, even Heidelberg, Germany! 

Local President Peter Huf told me, “We pool our resources.  We help each other.  It’s great.”  This was the 6th annual “Pour for the Cure.”  The event replaces the local Fill-the-Boot campaign and has turned out to be even more successful thanks to the dedication of the volunteers and supporters of the effort.  Former U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan stopped by while I was there. (See photo.)

The Camden County Emerald Society Pipes and Drums burst through the jammed saloon.  This is their 5th year of helping this event.  Greater Overbrook String Band performed, too.  Greater Overbrook recently relocated to Upper Darby, making Delaware County their home.

A great evening and even more fuel for hope for folks in the hearts of the people at MDA!

Mums of La Mancha!

It was a momentous occasion tonight in the cavernous gymnasium at St. Matthew’s School in National Park, New Jersey.  Members of Quaker City String Band, rehearsing for the upcoming Show of Shows, kept one eye on the music and one eye on the prize waiting in the corner. 

 Jake Hart, the judge of judges, was there.  Beside him, a small but potent piece of plexiglass and wood, symbolizing one of the core beliefs of Mummery: Fun.  I was there, too.  It was our annual moment to award the 2010 Custard’s Last Stand Award.  The award is named for the famous Durning String Band presentation of 1989.  It is given to the punniest theme which also fits the performance on New Year’s Day. And this year the award goes to Quaker City String Band for their wonderful theme, “Mums of La Mancha.”

Jake presented the trophy to Quaker City String Band President Harry Brown, Jr.   After receiving the trophy, the band cheered and then got to work, getting ready for the Show of Shows, which takes place February 27th in Atlantic City.

The trophy, like the Stanley Cup, moves from club to club with each new winner, though one difference is you can’t drink from it. 

Here’s the list of previous Custard’s Last Stand awardees:

2009  “Saturday Fright Fever”  –Durning

2008  “Ghouls Gone Wild”  –Polish American String Band

2007  “Raided AARRRRRRGH!”  –Aqua

2006  “That’s Enter-TRAIN-ment”  –South Philadelphia

2005  “How the West Was Mum” –Woodland

2004  “Jailhouse Flock”  –Aqua

2003  “AAAAargh!”   –Woodland

Firefighters to the Rescue! (and Mummers, too!)

courtesy Local 2493Stop on by Casey’s on Lansdowne Avenue in Drexel Hill this Saturday, February 20th, between 3pm and 7pm, and help raise money for treatments and cures for neuromuscular diseases. 

courtesy Local 2493

 Upper Darby Firefighters Local 2493 is again sponsoring the annual MDA Pour for the Cure!  It’s the sixth annual.   Photos are from last year’s event.  I’ve stopped by a couple of years and hope to make it there this Saturday before heading to the Fancy Brigade Association Banquet. 

courtesy Local 2493

Firefighters from Upper Darby, from other departments and their friends jam the famous saloon for the Pour for the Cure.   Greater Overbrook String Band, which last year officially moved to Delaware County, also is expected to entertain. 

MDA is the largest non- government provider of research money going into neuromuscular diseases.  A lot of research goes on right here in the Philadelphia region.   Drink responsibly and help MDA.

Ferko’s Finest

If you ever pass Joe Blass on the street, turn around and follow him.  You have to.   As he walks, notes and stories compiled from 7 decades of String Bands, fall from his pockets.  At least, that’s how I imagine it.  Few have witnessed so much and known so many people involved in the crazy hobby called Mummery.  Joe has lived it since he joined his first string band when FDR was President. “It’s a way for self-expression,” he says.

Ray Endriss  (Captain of Quaker City SB from 1931 to1971) was a good friend of mine, ” Joe says casually.   Joe Blass knew them all, the lions, the legends, the steady and the loyal.   Wearing his Ferko red and even a bolo from an earlier theme, he looks back, fondly remembering his friendships with Bill Ewing, Robert Shannon, Sr., and Jim McKnight.   He remembers how social  bands  were.   Maybe more than today.   Competition was fierce, too, says Joe, “If you didn’t have that feeling that you want to be a winner, you should stay home.”   Joe Blass joined his first band in 1939.  World War II was just beginning in Europe.   Pearl Harbor was a couple of years away. 

Joe would play center banjo for Woodland String Band. But, he quickly took up the saxophone, learning from a teacher who used to play with Tommy Dorsey.  Joe tells stories of playing on Sunday afternoons and of learning from Captain Sam Jefferies.   His first generation as a Mummer was fast and productive, including organizing Delaware County String Band in the late 1940’s.  “Freshmen” was their theme in ’48.

As much as he respected his early Mummer experiences, Joe was drawn to one of the greatest contributors to the String Band epic, Joseph Ferko. “I was always a great admirer of Mr. Ferko himself as a Captain and also the music (that) different musical directors presented to the club.” Joe says he called Mr. Ferko one day and said I’d like to join your band.  Says Joe, “The next Tuesday I was a member of Ferko String Band.”  Displaying his Ferko patch, Joe says proudly, “It was the best music on Broad Street, ever.  No one has ever created a sound like Ferko had.”  And Joe heard it from every angle, as a fan standing along Broad Street, as a playing member and from 1969 to 1979, as Captain of the great band.  From Woodstock through Disco, there was Joe leading Ferko.

Joe Blass worries that young people today are not having as much fun with Mummery and with the parade itself, not as much fun as folks used to have.  It’s worth thinking about. Because Joe said it.  It may even be on a note falling from his life-filled pockets.

Anthony’s Gift

Briana,Sharon,Vince & Vince III and Bobby

Sharon Merlino-Kurczewski and Vince Kurczewski fell in love with each other before they even knew it. They met as Mummers. Sharon was 11; Vince was 13. It was winter and the place was the annual Show of Shows where the String Bands perform indoors a couple of months after the New Year’s Day Parade. Sharon was a young girl with Trilby String Band; Vince, a teen with Duffy String Band. Back stage at the Show of Shows kids tend to hang out together and it’s a time when they meet other young people who they otherwise wouldn’t run across.  So it was with Sharon and Vince.  Well, a couple of years later Sharon went over to Duffy and they got to know each other better, but still they didn’t acknowledge for a long time what would eventually be. They drifted apart after high school. Vince joined the U.S. Navy, serving as a Petty Officer 2nd Class cook. (Says Sharon today, “BOY OH BOY can he cook.”) Years later, Sharon and Vince would find each other and get married, sealing a relationship owed to Mummery and, really, to Sharon’s father, Anthony Merlino. 

Sharon & Anthony

Anthony knew Sharon had musical ability but at age 11, she also needed quality instruction.  Sharon admits, “I needed lessons outside of high school and my father introduced me to Herbie Smith.” The one and only Herb Smith, of Fralinger, taught Sharon flute and saxophone and also connected her to the String Bands. The path was set. The Show of Shows beckoned. 

More than a quarter of a century after they first met, Vince is a manager with an asphalt company; Sharon is a CAT Scan technologist at Methodist Hospital and is known for her charity work.  Sharon plays alto and tenor saxophone with Hegeman String Band and Vince now plays sax with Polish American String Band.

 Their 3 children have been raised with Mum music and in at least one case, almost born with it.  Sharon marched up Broad Street while six months pregnant with Briana. (There she was above with her father and to the right that’s little Briana.) “The drive and the motivation wanting to do this hobby doesn’t stop you from being a mommy,” says Sharon.  New Year’s is a hectic time for the Kurczewski’s but also a time to put aside wordly worries, to spend time together as a family and entertain hundreds of thousands of people. 13–year-old Briana plays the flute and piccolo and is doing well with the saxophone. This year, she was in costume with her mom for the first time. That’s important to Sharon and she thinks of her father, who not only got her involved in Mummery, but also went up the street with her for years.

Sharon & Briana

She says, “I would not be involved in the hobby and it is his constant interest that made it always a family-oriented activity. Now, I can pass it on to my kids. I want to thank him for that.” Sharon adds, “Oh, and thanks to my Mom (Brenda) for supporting me as well, driving and helping with the props.” Vince Kurczewski says, “If you say you are a Mummer, no matter what band or organization you’re in, you’re family.  Briana already gets the family importance. She says, “(The Mummers Parade) is not just for competition. It’s also for fun and I think it brings me and mom and my family together more.” Brother Vincent, the III, sings. Bobby plays clarinet but also is eyeing the sax and is learning with Polish American. Says Bobby, “What I like best about being a Mummer is I get to go up Broad Street every year and listen to the band play their instruments and I get a good education in music.”

Vince III and Big Vince

“It brings people together,” says Vince, who adds, “In a short period of time it helps them forget about all their difficulties in life.”   Like most of us, a share of the world’s worries have occasionally visited Vince and Sharon.  Anthony has been seriously ill of late.  But amid the struggles, they strut on, raising wonderful kids, serving their community and proving everyday what great people Mummers are.  And this year, their wedding anniversary, February 27th, falls on the same date as the Show of Shows.   Mummery has brought Sharon and Vince together, but THEY give Mummery its meaning.   Hey, Anthony, look at what you started.  Quite a gift, Dad.


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