Ferko’s Finest Has Left Us But with Memories and Wisdom

Mr. Joe Blass has passed away.  I’m told he was 94. Though he lived a long life, his passing still comes much too soon.   Below is an article I wrote on Mr. Blass a few years ago.

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, if only because Joe said it.  It may even be on a note falling from his life-filled pockets.

Elaine’s Laces of Hope

I talked the other day to an impressive young man,15-year-old Nicholas Celenza. Nick and his siblings have sold more than a thousand pairs of pink shoelaces in memory of their mother, Elaine Brown Celenza, who died February 24, 2012, after a long, inspirational struggle with breast cancer.

I met Nick, his brother, 18-year-old Anthony, and their sister, 23-year-old Erica, in their Haddonfield, New Jersey, home as they all sat around a table covered in pink shoelaces.  They were pairing them up so they could be sold. They were quite a trio this past week, when I saw them laboring together to work through their loss and live as their mother would want. Dad, Anthony, Jr., is in awe of them.

The laces idea was Nick’s.  Dad, who is also Captain of of the Joseph A. Ferko String Band, said do it and off it went. The proceeds will benefit the Komen Philadelphia Race for the Cure. The Celenza’s story is being shown on PHl17 in the 10pm Newscast tonight and on NBC10’s weekend morning news.                                                                                                                                                                                                           

When you talk to people who knew Elaine, from the Brown family to the Celenzas to her friends, they say many images will always come to mind. The smile, the willingness to help, and her loving her family are probably the most frequent. Many will also remember the extraordinarily long line of mourners at her viewing. Erica, Anthony and Nicholas were everything to admire as they patiently and warmly greeted all who came to express their sorrow in February.  As sorrowful as it was, it also felt right to talk and be somewhat upbeat. The line took on the personality of Elaine.

At the Celenza home this week, Anthony told me the story of how Elaine would sneak out and drive somebody to the doctor. Elaine was not supposed to be driving at that point, but somebody needed help and she did it. He talks of how tough she was in fighting the illness. Elaine apparently saw a dire prognosis as something to be proven wrong. Anthony says she was always the peacemaker of the family, briniging the family together. She’s still doing it.

Still pairing those laces, Nicholas, Anthony III and Erica want to raise awareness about preventing breast cancer and about early detection. They want to raise money for research. All this so that other families will not have to go through what they have gone through. The next step can begin with a pair of pink shoelaces. Check out KomenPhiladelphia.org/LaceUp.

The D in Dana

Dana Theil

You could certainly say that the D in Dana Theil stands for dance. Dana is co-director of the Pennsport School of Dance in South Philadelphia.  Her philosophy is straight forward: Have fun and, says Dana, “You’ve got to put on the best show that you can with what you have and that’s all I try to do.”  That just begins to describe the mother of 4 that so many Mummers appreciate.  Dana is the long-time choreographer of Fralinger String Band, which has won 8 First Prizes in a row. A piece of each of those prizes belongs to her.  While Fralinger is known for doing everything well, especially music, what often gets lost to observers is that while they are playing, they are often dancing.  In addition, the dancers and the captain must be among the best or first prize is out of reach for the band.  Current Fralinger Captain Thomas D’Amore won First Prize his first year as Captain under Dana’s guidance.  He says her personality, she easily gets along with everyone, helps her communicate with dozens of string band members.  Dana is also from a family of Mummers.  Many of those closest to her are connected to the Fancy Brigade, Jokers NYA.  Former Fralinger Captain Bill Bowen, Jr., says “I think she can look at a package and whatever production is being done that particular year, not only in dance but in band movement,” and help form the whole 4 and a half minute show.  Bill spotted Dana’s talent when she was a teenager.  In the first year he took her advice, he won First Prize.  Bill would go on to become the winningest captain on Broad Street.  This year Dana is once again offering her expertise to Fralinger, but she is also assisting Ferko String Band and Avalon String Band. Both bands know they are in great hands. Ferko Captain Anthony Celenza, for example, tells me, “”We’re hoping that she can be the good luck charm as she has with some of the groups she’s worked over the past.” Ms. Theil’s accomplishments are even more impressive when you realize that she is getting everyday working people, blue and white collar workers, not professional dancers, to dance well. Dana admits that is “the tricky part.” Her dedication and patience make it happen.  But that’s Dana, and not just with Mummers.  I also saw that genuine appreciation on display when I witnessed her working with little kids getting ready to put on a Christmas recital. Dana says, “Dancing to me is a release almost. I can be in the worst mood, sad, depressed about anything, but once I get into the studio and just start teaching and they (the kids) start making me laugh, it just brings a smile to my face. You know, that’s my whole life.”  The D in Dana can stand for dance.  But, it also stands for D-elightful, D-edicated, in D-emand, and D-ynamite.  Dana Theil is one more reason to love the Mummers.

PHERKO PHIGHTS FOR PHILLIES!

Ferko is Philadelphia.  I stopped by the Ferko String Band Clubhouse today in  Bridesburg to watch the band members and their families leave for CitiField in New York City to cheer on the Phillies tonight.  Check out young Hunter there with “Go” shaved on one side of his head and “Phils” on the other side!  About 270 folks from the Ferko SB family …yes 270… including a few Mummers from other string bands, filled up bus after bus and made the trek. Wish I could have gone with them.

Before they left, they gathered for a big lunch at the clubhouse and geared up for the day-evening long outing.  This is just more evidence of 2 things: Mummers bind the community and families together and they support all things Philadelphia, in this case the Fightins. 

Matthew,Luke,Hunter,Mike & Fred

Blane, Jason, Mike, Bob and all in Ferko raising funds and fun, Ferko style.   I may have some pics of the mammoth appearance of Phillies fans at the game after the game.  If so, I’ll post them here.

Ferko Gives Back…Again

Reverend Susan Daniels, Pastor of Bridesburg United Methodist Church, sings the praises of the Joseph A. Ferko String Band. Reverend Daniels and her congregation along with the Bridesburg Council of Churches held a fundraiser last weekend to support the church’s food pantry and Ferko helped make it a success.

Reverend Daniels tells me her church regularly provides food for 529 families. Getting that food, either in food donations or cash to buy the food to give out is not easy, especially in these times. To get some money to save those families she scrambled and got some singers in her church and a local Baptist church, plus an Ambler Police Officer I hear does a great Frank Sinatra, but she felt more was needed to bring in a large enough audience willing to make donations.

While at her church on Kirkbride Street, between Richmond and Thompson, she heard Ferko serenading way down the street. She raced after the band, but that’s not easy for Reverend Daniels, who has arthritis. She never caught up with them. But she emailed and left a message explaining her situation and a representative of the band responded with a big, yes we’ll be there! Ferko kicked off the fundraiser in energetic fashion, making the event a winner. $1,500.00 was raised and that will go a long way to purchase food from Philabundance to keep children and parents, seniors and the unemployed in good health. Thank you, Bridesburg United Methodist Church. Thank you, Reverend Daniels. And, thank you Captain Anthony Celenza and the Joseph A. Ferko String Band.