Heritage Division (Poll results update)

MUMMERS_ROWIt’s time for a Heritage Division. The Mummers Parade has historically had 2 to 5 divisions. Currently they are the Comics, the Fancy, the Wench Brigade, String Band and Fancy Brigade. Let’s postulate that it’s time to create a new division that does NOT add to the length of the parade, but which preserves the historical significance of the parade, allows some clubs an opportunity to have a less financially stressful year and gives the public more of what they want.  There’s a poll question for your input below. UPDATE: Poll results so far are 78 percent in favor of the idea; 22 percent opposed.)

The 21st Century has brought with it financial stresses, city regulations or goals, changing ideas of entertainment, and a new reality of how busy families are, including multiple jobs and how far apart we live from each other. Parts of Mummery, contrary to other media reports, are growing.  However, some other displays, especially ones that require people spending a lot of their own money, are crunched.

The City of Philadelphia definitely does not want the Mummers to assemble as they did in the 1800’s. It wants to contain the excesses that were problems before the creation of the Broad Street parade.  Most officials do not want to get in the way of the freedom to assemble and they see the tourism value.  Most Mummers, too, like the idea of parading on Broad Street, being at the Hall, and giving a show for all on New Year’s Day.  But, some clubs have been living on the edge of existence, and outside influences, or stresses, are major reasons why. So, what is a non-corporate, people parade to do?

Here’s a starter idea for discussion. Create a Heritage Division of 3 to 10 clubs each year. The clubs in this division would not have to field as many entries and the rules about their size would be adjusted. The time of their performances could also be shortened. They might not even be judged, though a different judging system could be worked out. The Clubs in this division would revel in the history of the parade.  Yes, we’d see feathers and back pieces and more.  We might be able to start a fundraising effort in conjunction with the Museum, in which part of the proceeds would go to the clubs in this new division.

Fralingerspinningbanjo2015-mummers-parade-6378So, how would it have looked on this New Year’s Day?

Maybe Trilby String Band would have fielded a band if it did not need 40 players and did not have to create a Broadway routine.

Maybe another string band or 2 would liked to have saved money for a year and volunteered to be in the division.

Maybe the String Band Association holds a lottery, if there are no bands volunteering, though I think some bands would love to live in this division.

Maybe a brigade from Murray or Goodtimers volunteers to go in.

Maybe Hog Island believes it could return to the Fancy Heritage, if some adjustments were made.

Golden Sunrise could take up permanent residency there, preserving the Fancy within Mummery.

A big wench brigade could take a year in there.

Maybe a Fancy Brigade even takes a turn.

Maybe we have a youth band.

Maybe we have the Hardly Ables.

Maybe there is an open opportunity for a new club to try the parade, allowing new voices to experience Mummery.

Maybe BrassBands2015-mummers-parade-5860a new club in a division first would have to march in the Heritage Division for a year.

Maybe a guest string band from another state comes in.

Maybe a brass band rocks the house for 2 minutes.

Maybe none of the clubs or divisions mentioned above would want anything to do with this proposed Heritage Division, but, I think it’s worth talking about.  This is not about artificially propping up unsupported clubs.  Clubs have always come and gone in Mummery and that will continue.  But, the Mummers exist in a manufactured world where imposed rules affect their existence.  This Heritage Division idea is aimed at supporting positive tradition and cultural significance.

Whether it would be 3 clubs or 10, whether they march all at once in line or are sprinkled throughout the parade, whether they only appear on tv or do the whole route, the idea is to ease financial pressure, keep the parade flowing, and retain and enrich the historical display of this great Philadelphia folk tradition.

Please take part in the poll below and give me your opinion.

13 Responses

  1. Great thoughts, Steve. I not only support this idea, but let me know what I can do to put some teeth to it.

    • Thank you, Rusty. I think the Museum can play an impartial and helpful role in such a division.

  2. Mr. Highsmith,

    First and foremost, you have my, and I believe all Mummers’, heartfelt thanks for all that you do for this great tradition. The historical significance, reverence, and sense of tradition that you convey to those outside mummery is second only to your ability to find and articulate something genuinely praise-worthy in each individual performance for which you provide commentary. You truly are one of the best things that has ever happened to this tradition in its long and storied history, and those of us who participate now as well as all future generations of Mummers (and may there be many) are in your debt for the magnificent work you do.

    I find the idea of a Heritage Division interesting, and I think it is a subject which could definitely be broached among the associations to gauge the interest of individual clubs. The hard part, to me, is to fully remove a club from the competition and understanding the effect it would have on membership, but there are arguments that could be made on both sides of whether that would push folks out of an organization not in contention or bring some folks in who would be more open to a lighter schedule in terms of time and financial commitment. It is an interesting premise.

    The one thing which worries me most throughout the parade, but particularly in regards to the string bands and fancy brigades, is whether we’re modernizing a bit too much or too quickly. I’m never one to stifle innovation, but the inclusion of an almost exclusively-digital show this year really has me wondering where we’re headed next. I’m a proponent of putting on the best string band or brigade show that you can and having an analog approach that says to all of the viewers and judges, “Look at what we, a group of non-professionals, were able to build, write, and play with our own two hands.” I worry that professionalism, whether in the form of hired production designers, contracted choreographers, non-member dancers, flag wavers, or musicians, lighting and effects production companies, etc, is starting to take too strong of a foothold throughout the competition. Maybe this Heritage Division is one way of fixing that, or maybe it is past time that we collectively sat down and decided who we are and what we want our identity to be in 3 years, 5 years, 20 years. Do we want to be cutting-edge showmen putting on a combination of drum-corps and Cirque du Soleil shows because that’s what we need to do in order to score well, and that’s how you stay relevant, or do we want to put ourselves into more of a box to say ‘this’ is a string band, and ‘this’ is a fancy brigade, and alter our judging to reward more of the traditional approach to what these shows have historically been? Still farther, as you’re suggesting, do we want to try to do some combination of both through the introduction of something like a Heritage Division?

    All of that said, this was my second year in the parade and my thirtieth year watching it, and I really think that it was one of the strongest all-around showings from top-to-bottom of any that I’ve seen. Each club really seemed to raise the bar and outdo their previous efforts, and absolutely all of the feedback I’ve gotten from spectators has been tremendous. Hopefully, that means we’re doing something right!

    • Several good points, Kevin. I hope rank and file Mummers and Mummers leaders have this discussion and if they do I am sure they will read and think about your remarks. Hey, maybe they’ll want you on a committee. 🙂

  3. Although I voted “yes” I still really don’t understand all of what is being proposed!

  4. I fully agree with the points Mr. Sullivan has made. It seems that the “one-upmanship” going on within the fancy brigades and the string bands has marginalized those clubs that celebrate tradition. I am all for creative, relevant and new themes, but I appreciate the traditional costumes and performances. I appreciate that anyone can participate regardless of whether they have the finances to support the outrageous costumes and props we have been seeing over the past few years. (The “no motors” rule has been in effect for the clubs performing on the street. Shouldn’t a similar rule be in effect for the fancy clubs?) I belong to a smaller wench club that participates in the comic division because we aren’t big enough and don’t have the money to finance a brass band that would allow us to perform as a wench brigade and be judged against our equals. Marginalized is the key word here…

    I find it interesting that the “traditional” clubs should become a sub-section of the parade, rather than the “modern” ones. But, I guess you give the people what they want. Perhaps I don’t completely understand the concept of a Heritage Division, but it sounds like the beginnings of a good idea. I don’t necessarily see how it can be pulled off without lengthening the duration of the parade, or without causing more of a headache for the administrators, but the idea of being able to perform in a division without as many financial pressures and with an emphasis on tradition is certainly appealing.

    Either way, the mummers are deeply rooted in our community and our city, and we should take every effort to preserve the history and tradition of what they are. There is nothing else in the world quite like the mummers, and no other neighborhood quite like 2nd St. We should be proud of our heritage, and our parade should reflect that.

  5. Leave it to you Steve to come up with this great idea. It could have gotten Kensington Clowns, the oldest comic club, on the street this year. I can picture former comic club captains, retire brigades, juveniles and other b and c stand acts, who don’t get TV time, joining together to strut in front of the A stand cameras for the first time or one more time. I LOVE this idea!!!

  6. Dear Mr. Highsmith,

    Not sure if my input means anything, I am not a mummer or someone in the production end. I am a professional spectator/fan! I have been sitting at City Hall for some 25-30 years and many years before that I fought the crowds in South Philly trying to see over everyone’s heads!

    The parade was spectacular this year to say the least, however with the bigger props the strings bands have incorporated I’m sure it may become a financial hardship for members who have several family members wanting to participate. I can see how this can cause I drop in membership. On a side note, with the bigger sets it does cut into site lines for spectators, especially the fancies where if you are not front and center it’s impossible to see anything. (I could make suggestions but I understand this is not the place.) It was sad that Trilby couldn’t march this year and a Heritage section may have given them the opportunity to keep their tradition. I think the idea of a more traditional throw back would bring the mummers back to their roots, great music and all about having fun. The only down side I see with the smaller bands is the sound may get lost. Maybe microphones? I think reaching this way may stir an interest from other groups who maybe in the past have not been able to participate due to funds or size.

    The mummers are something the city should be proud of, it’s our tradition and much better then some of the other televised parades throughout the country. We need to preserve it and promote it. In regards to length, well Mardi Gras is what 2-3 weeks long so the city should be thankful! LOL

  7. As an old timer – a participant years ago and now life long fan of string bands, I am glad changes were tried this year but continue to be disappointed in the string band trends of self indulgent extravagance for the sets/props.

    This year the top bands sets and props were amazing – and that is a big part of the problem – string bands have become a battle of dollars and prop/set builders for just a handful of the top clubs.

    Put a (significant downsized) limit on the number of marshals, props, and sets and that will do many things – reduce costs to the clubs; speed up the parade; make the parade more “watchable” from the street, and put more focus on the band.

  8. AGREE

    The size / cost and focus on the “stage” sets and props has overwhelmed the string bands

    back to the future!

    and mandate a limit on the number of saxophones. Very few “string” bands left anymore

  9. Steve, I’d like to see something like this, if anything just to encourage preservation of historical Mummers themes, music, and costumes. I’ve seen the parade, especially the string bands, go through tremendous changes over the years, but it would be nice to see the “classic” elements of backpieces, plumes, and some old-timey music again. Giving space for a youth band or retiree band would be great as well.

  10. Billy Gerner – President GKSB …. I am not speaking for my band at this time, but have mentioned this to many of my members recently. LOVE the idea ! As an old timer (started with Aqua 1968) I have no desire to compete against Pro producers – hired flag teams – computerized lighting effects – electronics – cumbersome props – paid musicians – tiered staging – can go on and on ! Remember being told that costume points allows a band to buy a prize …REALLY … And what do you call this ! ! ! Personally would love to parade and compete with very limited props, feathers, backpieces, and recognizable crowd pleasing music…with most ,if not all coming from the confines of our clubhouse (limited outside help) Would be honored to help and develop this idea.

  11. Things will only change if the participants ( the string bands) push it!

    I totally agree by the 90% reduction in the stage props. The use of props was taken to absurd levels this year ( no offense, but Polish American was an example of too many too big props and too many sets and an overwrought production trying to follow judging formulas…)

    PLEASE stop the props NOW! Bring back some sanity

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