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.