Frank Stermel was a clown and that remains a wonderful thing. Frank Mummed on 2 Street and on Broad Street pretty much all of his life. He was so dedicated to Mummery and was so good at being a Mummer that he became known as “Mr. Clown.” In 1969, Frank was inducted into the Mummers and Shooters Hall of Fame. Inside the Mummers Museum, it is Frank Stermel whose image still teaches us how to strut.
Frank started strutting on Broad in the mid-1920’s. It was the age of Charles Lindbergh and of the first trans-Atlantic phone call. Calvin Coolidge was President. A silk dress could be had for $15. The first chisel was taken to Mt. Rushmore, and String Bands were still the “new” Mummers.
Frank went up Broad Street the first time as a page boy for the Wheeler Fancy Club. For being a page, holding the long Captain’s Cape, Frank got a hot dog and a soda. He would grow through the depression and increasingly take to strutting for his family and friends and his South Philadelphia neighborhood, and of course, up Broad on New Year’s Day.
Stermel became very good at it. He rose to Captain of the Purul Comic Club. Among his awards was a 1st Prize in the Comic Division in 1942. He had a limitless love for the tradition and for making people smile. He would parade with the Comics, then go down Broad Street, pick up with Aqua String Band and go back up the Street, then return yet another time down Broad to join the Avenuers Fancy Brigade for their Strut around the Hall.
He was a railroad man, working with the Pennsylvania Railroad until he retired in 1976, the year of the nation’s bicentennial, and the birth of the Mummers Museum. Frank was an early member of the Museum’s Board of Directors. He was Sergeant at Arms for the New Year’s Mummers and Shooters for 20 years.
Even after being given 6 months to live after a cancer diagnosis, he strutted for another 7 years, walking from 2nd and Reed to the Museum to entertain as Mr. Clown at parties and events. Frank would pass away at the age of 71 in 1987. By that time, he had strutted formally as a Mummer in 61 parades.
The nearly 40-year-old film exhibit in which he shows us all how to strut has now been restored and is running, and plans are in the works for a larger overhaul of the exhibit. Much thanks go to his son, Michael, and his family, and to Tony Sprague, Donato Marino, Mike Roseman, Kevin Crooks and Mark Montanaro. As the quality sounds of the Woodland String Band played outside the Museum, I was on hand for the re-dedication inside of the restored film display. I also am a humbled recipient of the Mr. Clown award begun in Frank Stermel’s honor, given to people who are meaningful to the Mummer tradition in the heartfelt manner of Mr. Stermel.
Frank Stermel was the working American, the family man, the neighborhood man at the heart of Philadelphia Mummery. When you go to the Museum and see him strut, you are seeing hundreds of thousands of family members, of Philadelphians, connected not only through blood, but also through tradition, displayed in the simple joy of a street dance. Now, at the Mummers Museum at least, Mr. Clown, is back in town, ready to show the strut to new generations.
It is wonderful that Mr. Clown lives on, for it is at once community and personal. Says Mike Stermel of his dad, “He was One of a Kind…I can go to the museum, push a button and “HE DANCES FOR ME.”