OPINION: Local Mummers Deserve Credit For Their Inclusivity and Risk Taking
The Mummers Parade is one of Philadelphia’s oldest and most flamboyant traditions. It’s almost tribal mentality, as brigades bring in the new year with a howl-at-the-moon-type of experience that many cultures across the globe do in different forms, at different times of the year.
Sadly, our beloved folk tradition has garnered negative publicity in recent years, causing some people to wonder if our own customs have been overtaken by fear-mongering and intolerance.
Spirit News was surprised to see one of our own local groups singled out by Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky (aka Byko), who described the Kensington-based Rabble Rousers performance as “…the most tasteless thing I have seen in 40 years of parade watching.”
In case you missed the Rabble Rouser’s skit, their float was a giant toilet. In front of it sat a “book of excuses”. As the performance reached its climax, and with all of the TV cameras rolling, the toilet’s lid opened up to reveal a young woman dressed in a costume resembling a poop emoji.
The performance was no doubt a reflection of the belief that some Mummers aren’t willing to address inclusivity issues within the annual parade. While strides have been made to include brigades of all genders, colors and neighborhoods, there are some who still question the parade’s sensitivity to people who aren’t white men from South Philadelphia.
Whatever the Rabble Rousers’ intent was, Byko was offended, and for someone who consistently writes about offense being part of what the Mummers Parade is, we were surprised.
In his post-Mummers column in 2013, Byko writes:
“Somehow, depicting Indians in call centers or Native Americans in buckskin is racist. Same with Eskimos (OK, Inuit) in igloos. Or women in polka skirts. Or male hillbillies in overalls. Or Turks in turbans. Or Hasidic Jews in long, black coats. They’ve all been featured in the parade.”
If you’re offended, here’s a buck. Try to buy a sense of humor, or an ounce of sense.
Then, in a column that ran November 2016, Byko was very vocal about the sensitivity training Mummers were given due to the Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner performance that was widely criticized as being in poor taste. He wrote:
“If the goal is an offense-free parade, it will fail.
One reason: The bar for ‘offense’ these days is lowered more often than a cemetery flag, as we can see in ‘trigger warnings’ to ‘protect’ college students from unpleasant ideas. There is no way to eliminate everything that ‘may’ cause offense.”
On January 1, 2017 Rabble Rouser member Courtney Blue left the Riverwards to join her fellow Mummers wearing a shirt that read “Black Lives Matter” bedazzled across the back. “It was probably one of the bravest things I’ve done, though I wasn’t anticipating it,” Blue said.
According to Blue, she was subject to verbal abuse and harassment for being a woman and for the statement on her shirt. “They see me walking as a woman, and it’s like sex discrimination, then when they see the back of me I got the discrimination of what it feels like to be black as well,” Blue said. “I had bottles thrown at me. I had death threats. I thought I was going to get shot.”
I began thinking about some of the more offensive things I’ve witnessed in the parade. Joey Vento’s “Aliens of an Illegal Kind” sits near the top of that list. Thinking back on past Mummers Parades, watching a guy selling Confederate flags 20 miles north of the Mason-Dixon line, piles of beer cans and people urinating on trees like dogs also comes to mind.
According to Greg Labold, a member of the Rabble Rousers, their intention this year was not to offend, but instead to shine light on the parade itself.
“There has been, over the course of many years, a lack of response to racist, homophobic bigotry expressed through the parade. A lot of times it’s almost ignored and rewarded,” Labold said. “We were trying to make a voice about getting everyone to be responsible for protecting everyone’s rights, so they can feel like they can be a part of this parade and a part of this city.”
The Rabble Rousers were formed in North Philly as an offshoot of the Vaudevillains, which Labold says were also a very progressive brigade. After members of the South Philly-based club wanted to have a club in their own backyard, a decision was made to found the Rabble Rousers as an inclusive, East Kensington-based brigade. “There was enough people from the North Philly area that decided they wanted a more local faction,” Labold said.
Both clubs have always had a progressive vibe to their skits. Last year, the Rabble Rousers’ skit played on Comcast and the net neutrality debate. According to Labold, that skit was ironically (or intentionally?) subject to television censorship.
Following last year’s statement, Labold says the group expected backlash this year, especially after another article that ran prior to the parade explaining the group’s toilet bowl intentions for the 2017 parade. Despite this, Labold was surprised to hear Bykofsky say it was the most offensive skit he had seen in 40 years.
“We wanted to make a statement that this parade needs to clean its act up,” Labold said. “We think it’s wrong that some of these skits are allowed to be broadcast on TV and rewarded. It’s shitty when a skit takes someone’s culture and exploits it for entertainment values. It’s not respectful or tasteful. It’s mocking and that’s not what makes it fun for those people.”
Labold says that he and his fellow Rabble Rousers wanted to highlight the parade’s deficiencies in hopes that it becomes more inclusive. “It seems like [Byko] didn’t think anything was wrong with the parade because he’s never been offended by anything in the parade. It can be offensive to someone when another person doesn’t take their problems and feelings seriously. That’s the point. It may feel offensive to [Byko] because they are challenged to actually take a look at themselves and realize there’s some things everyone can work on.”
Labold added: “[Byko] wasn’t there on the route with us seeing little kids smile, waving to the crowd and getting people to climb on the toilet and get their picture taken with the poop. I don’t know where he was, but he wasn’t there with us.”
According to Labold, the parade’s TV announcers didn’t explain to those watching from home why the Rabble Rousers felt the need to parade a giant toilet down Broad St. “I love that we [satirized] the parade itself and the state of it,” Blue said.
As a response, the Rabble Rousers are looking to establish a post-Mummers party in North Philly in an effort to bring the party to neighborhoods who may not want to be a part of 2nd Street.
“We don’t want to be involved in what’s going on on 2nd Street anymore. We want to bring it back to North Philly,” Labold said. “We did so much in our neighborhood to make this happen. We’re trying to be Mummers, but we can’t change the whole parade to suit our vision of what we think would be a better, positive, unifying experience. Rather than try to change Two Street, let’s bring it back to Kensington and start our own positive afterparty.”
This year, the Philadelphia Brewing Company and the Lost Bar allowed the Rabble Rousers to perform in their parking lot following the parade. Joined by members of the West Philadelphia Orchestra, Rabble Rousers danced and sang with the local crowd. The pop-up performance was a hit.
“This community is eager for it,” Blue said. “Maybe next year, maybe years to come we can march on the street, like from Johnny Brenda’s to the rock wall.”
We’re a month into the Mummers off-season and if you are a talented (and tolerant) citizen wondering how you can make the parade more inclusive, you might want to look into joining one of the clubs that calls the Riverwards home. Groups like the Duffy String Band and the Polish American String Band have deep roots in our community.
Spirit News recently spoke with Jen Amato of the Duffy String Band, which has called North Philly their home since 1945. They’re currently located on Cedar Street in Fishtown and promote an inclusive mission statement for the parade.
The Duffy String Band was formerly the Fireman String Band until the band was purchased by George Duffy on March 5, 1945. He changed the name, and though the band was sold, Duffy’s name has remained. “We’re all like a big family,” Amato said. “We’re very welcoming to anyone that comes in our doors.”
According to Amato, the Duffy String Band is focused on inclusivity as a means to keep the Mummers’ tradition alive. The band has multicultural members, women and LGBT individuals in their brigade. Two of their women members, Cheryl Crowe and Peg Rullo, have even been voted into the Mummer Hall of Fame by their peers. Mummer bands like Duffy are breaking the mold of a historically male-driven culture.
“I can’t speak for the the other divisions, but the string bands in general take this hobby very seriously. We put a lot of work and time into it, and we aren’t willing to do something that would mess all that up,” Amato said. “We don’t want to offend anybody. We have gay people, we have people of different races, we’re very welcoming. It doesn’t matter to us what you are or what you do.”
Amato believes their club is somewhat under the radar since most people associate the Mummers with South Philly. “We kind of feel like a lot of people don’t know we’re here,” Amato said. “There’s a lot of talented musicians in the area. There’s a lot of young people that moved into the area. We are trying to get the word out… Come on in. Stop by, see if you like us.”
According to Amato, you can simply walk up to their clubhouse at 2230 Cedar Street and see how they operate. On March 1st, the Duffy String Band will have an open house and hopes to get people to be a part of their Mummers tradition.
“It’s that initial step that people have to get over. We’re not going to make you feel out of place,” Amato said. “We want more people in our club, and I think that most people will find that once they step their foot in the door, they’re going to like being there, and they’re going to like being a part of the group. Come and check us out. We’re a very friendly group.”
Amato hopes to change the notion that mumming is a white man’s hobby. “For the most part Mummers are not racist or sexist. It’s unfortunate that something like that happens. It’s a shame that all of us get a bad rap because of what one person did,” Amato said. “I’m hoping we get people coming into our club that maybe back in the 1950s wouldn’t be allowed.” •