Oh, Leave the Goddamn Mummers Alone

People were shocked by a float in this year’s Mummers Parade? Heaven forfend!

By Jim Knipfel

This past New Year’s Day, as it has every New Year’s Day for the last 115 years, the annual Mummers Parade worked its way up Broad Street through Center City Philadelphia. For those who’ve never experienced it, the Mummers Parade is a raucous, sloppy, hilariously drunken and colorful procession marked by wild costumes, strutting string bands playing “O, Dem Golden Slippers,” men in drag, and outrageous comic floats that, by tradition, tend to satirize current events, often in decidedly politically incorrect terms. It’s what the Mummers have always been about, and why they remain such an important and beloved city institution. In over the top fashion, the Mummers have always been able to get away with saying things no one else dared.

But as the world continues to lose its sense of humor around them, the Mummers have been having a rough few decades.

In the early ’80s, someone got all hair-pully and arm-flappy over the Mummers long-held tradition of marching in blackface, and so they were told they couldn’t do that anymore. When they came back the following year and marched in blueface instead, they were told they couldn’t do that, either, I guess because the local Smurf population found it offensive.

A couple years later a float poking fun at a young black man in Texas who’d been chained to the back of a pickup truck by some rednecks and dragged to his death was decried as being in “bad taste.”

Inspired originally by the wandering clowns and minstrels of 17th century Europe, the parade emerged out of the Italian immigrant community in South Philly around the turn of the 20th century. As often reviled and downtrodden as they were, the Mummers modeled themselves as the new court jesters for their adopted homeland. But in 2015, they were attacked for being almost exclusively white and male, so this year were pressured to include Hispanic and Black troupes, after having been pressured to include a gay group four years back.

Yet after having so much of their tradition and style stripped away by humorless self-righteous types, it seems the Mummers still can’t catch a break.

One float this year featured a performer dressed like Bruce Jenner at his Olympic peak, complete with track uniform and gold medals. He marched about the float as “I’m Coming Out” blasted over the PA. Then at one point he sits in a wheelchair, is surrounded by other troupe members, and emerges a moment later in full drag, flouncing around as the music shifted to Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady.” Oh, and the float also featured a blow-up of Jenner’s post-Olympic Wheaties box side by side with a blow-up of a Fruit Loops box featuring a picture of Caitlin Jenner.

It’s dumb and silly and harmless, and so fit perfectly (if a bit more subdued than usual) into what people have come to expect from the Mummers. Oh, but lawdy lawdy loo, did the shit hit the fan, launched mostly by people (including the new mayor) with no working knowledge of what the parade is all about.

Yes, the Mummers by nature are a bunch of drunken racist, homophobic, xenophobic, and sexist yahoos from South Philly. Yes, yes, yes, all those things are “offensive” and “bad” in today’s America, but y’know, you don’t allow people—the Mummers and the crowds lining the streets alike—to vent that one day a year in a boisterous, funny, and ultimately harmless way, you’re just gonna end up with more trouble. And President Trump.

Published January 7th, 2016

Jim Knipfel is the author of Slackjaw, The Blow-Off, These Children Who Come at You With Knives, and several other books.