For Dan Marakowski, being a Mummer has been a family affair since 1969, when his uncle joined the organization. What once started as a hobby has now become a tradition that he even passed down to his son.
For many Philadelphia natives, the Mummers are a staple of Philadelphia living. The part theatrical marching band, part pageant, have thousands of members in teams that compete, perform and march up Broad Street to JFK Boulevard for the New Year’s Day parade.
Shows are much more than just a performance for the Mummers. Their routines are a connection with family and friends, a dedication and a way of life.
“You’re with a lot of family and friends, and a great support group,” said Nick Magenta, captain of the Polish American String Band Mummer’s group and technical support specialist for Temple Health System.
“Once you are born into it, you just can’t stop,” he added.
Mummers have rung in the New Year officially since 1901. However, Mummers parades in Philadelphia have been happening since the 1800s, when the tradition was brought from immigrants of other countries. History of the original Mummers dates back to early Egypt, Germany and France, according to the Mummers Association.
In addition to being a Philadelphia tradition, Mummers are especially influential in South Philadelphia, with the Mummers Museum at 1100 S. Second St., and presence of Mummers at many community events.
As part of the official parade’s tradition, Mummers dressed in colorful attire begin in South Philadelphia at 10 a.m., where many of the Mummers reside, and end in Center City. Unique music and dances are performed for about eight hours. Within the Philadelphia Mummers are four distinct divisions: Comics, Fancies, String Bands and Fancy Brigades. Each division has its own style of music and costumes, and competes against each other for cash prizes.
The bands are judged based on their costumes and musical talents, or comedic talents in the case of the Comic Division, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Mummers dress in colorful costumes, some similar to the appearance of clowns, and with elaborate moves, make their performances entertaining and memorable.
The type of music and performance depends entirely on what division the band is in.
Many of the Philadelphia Mummers have long ties to the organization: Most have been members since their pre-teen years and plan to be members of the Mummers their entire lives. Members range from all ages and vary in walks of life.
“My son is 25 and I’m 55. We have members up to 85 years old,” said Steve Coper, a 1981 Fox School of Business alumnus and 43-year member of the Mummers.
His current position is president of the Fralinger String Band.
“It’s a great melting pot to do a show with people younger and older than me, [and also] a mix of blue collar and white collar people,” Coper said. “We have a lawyer in the band, I’m a banker, and we have educators, policemen and computer people.”
Many relatives of Mummers members grow up around the music and performance styles, so they often join the Mummers to create a deeper connection with family.
Marakowski, a 1981 Fox School of Business alumnus and a Mummers member since 1969, said his favorite aspect of being a Mummer was having his son join the performers alongside him 12 years ago, to which he is still a member of today.
“He grew up in a household where being a Mummer was really important to us,” Marakowski, who is currently treasurer for the Philadelphia Mummers String Band Association, said. “He wanted to learn saxophone and did, I encouraged him to do it. I didn’t force him, but he wanted to do it since he was around it all his life.”
Marakowski said that joining the Mummers when he was 12 years old was an easy way to network and make friends.
“My family was associated with the [band] and families tend to stick together with that sort of thing,” he said.
With years of dedication, being a member of the Mummers would not be possible without practice. Members of the Mummers start preparing for the next season starting in February.
The Mummers groups get their main source of revenue for the New Year’s Day performance from paid performance gigs during the year, Coper said. Performance aspects, including the elaborate costumes and props, can cost $20,000 to $120,000 for each of the clubs to compete at the New Year’s Day show.
To offset the costs, Mummers bands have about 40 to 50 paid performances throughout the year. Still, members often end up donating money or fundraising for the performance in order to make it a success, Coper said.
Members occasionally have the opportunity to travel to performances; some Mummers groups have gone to New Orleans, Toronto and Hong Kong.
Coper said this is another significant reason for why the Mummers facilitate bonding. “I like seeing the community [aspect] and having other people get involved,” he said.
Coper said he believes the future of the Mummers depends on the young members.
“We have been able to pass it on to other family members, and that’s how we grow and sustain ourselves,” Coper said. “I love to see the young people getting involved.”
In addition to the family traditions that are passed down from year to year, the Mummers are still a Philadelphia symbol of New Year’s Day, and for many, are a family tradition to watch.
Kurt Hirsch, a Philadelphia resident of five years, lives along the parade route and plans to watch it for the second year this New Year’s Day.
“Traditions are good, and this is such a good part of Philadelphia’s history,” Hirsch, a graduate student in the social work department, said. “I think it is important to pass it down generation to generation to keep it alive.”
Danielle Miess can be reached at email@example.com.
How does one go about becoming a mummer? It seems like you either have to be born into it or kill another member. This really does feel like a Freemason’s group for people who would rather dress up and dance for a day rather than dominate the world.