There were multiple parts to being a Philadelphia Mummer. There was the New Year’s Parade, gigs or festivals we played through the year and, my favorite, the Show of Shows.
The Show of Shows was a string band concert. The bands performed the music they played in the parade and generally just had a blast. The event was held for a long time at the old Philadelphia Civic Center. The stage show was awesome, but the real magic was behind the scenes.
A Show of Shows
from Just This Banjo
We marched in a loose formation through the concrete maze under the Philadelphia Civic center like gladiators decked out in satin and sequins. Our costumes glittered like disco balls. Some of us were burdened with massive backpieces fashioned from plywood and ostrich feathers. The feathers danced in rhythm as we marched. Banjos, saxophones, glockenspiels, drums, and other musical weapons of mummery were held tightly in our fists.
I was already starting to sweat under the heavy coating of clown white plastered on my face. My costume did not fit. The wide-brimmed hat they gave me to wear had a huge Styrofoam ax stuck on the crown. My heart was beating like a hammer.
As we marched past the other bands, somebody yelled, “Go get ‘em, Overbrook!”
I was about to perform with The Greater Overbrook String Band. Like my father before me, I was now a Philadelphia Mummer – or at least I was about to be. Tonight would be a sort of trial by fire. I would be performing with the band on the opening night of the Philadelphia String Band Association Show Of Shows. I had only joined the band a few days earlier. I did not know the songs or choreography. I was riding along with the group like a leaf on the breeze, trying to figure things out as I went along.
To make matters worse, I was alone. Dad would be here for tomorrow’s show, but he had to work tonight. I would have to face my inaugural performance without his support and guidance.
The group split in two, and we all began packing into a pair of large elevators. We were pressed in like a herd of beef dressed like Elton Johnn and carrying musical instruments. As the doors closed the oppressive push from all directions was almost enough to distract me from the fact that I was about to step out unprepared in front of a full house at the Philadelphia Civic Center.
The elevator rumbled to life. We all grumbled and jostled for position while other noises filled the air. I joked about being stuck in an elevator with a bunch of clowns gassed up on beer and hard-boiled eggs. Everybody laughed.
I had arrived not long before thanks to a ride from Tony Mantovani. I had to ride in the back seat for the whole trip because Tony kept his violin and bow on the passenger seat of his Lincoln Continental. Tony played Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin on the stereo. He had it cranked impossibly loud, but once I started to sing along as off-key as I could manage, Tony turned off the music.
We arrived at the Civic Center late. We had to rush down into the bowels of the building where we suddenly stepped into another world.
I had seen the Mummer’s Parade before, but that is spread out over a day. We had just stepped into an area where all sixteen of the bands in the Philadelphia Mummers String Band Association were gearing up for the show. The air seemed to hiss from reflected light sparkling around us as sequins and rhinestones popped and flashed. Even with my hearing, the noise of so many conversations, groups rehearsing, feather rustling, instruments being tuned, and stuff being moved around was just overwhelming.
It was wonderful.
Each of the bands had an area marked off for the members to get changed. The Quaker City String Band had a tiki bar. Polish American String Band had this huge grill cooking kielbasa. Greater Overbrook had old guys from The Italian-American Club lavishing chafing dishes of meatballs with care.
The Italian-American Club was home base for the Greater Overbrook String Band. The building and the neighborhood it stood in existed in a bubble — a time capsule. The streets were clean. People were friendly. The barbershop at the end of the block gave terrible haircuts, but you could smoke, read Playboy, and listen to the regulars solve the problems of the world in the unnatural glow of marble patterned Formica. The club itself was surrounded by a walled courtyard. Inside there were bocce courts, a banquet hall, a nice restaurant, and a bar.
Since our last name is Costello, the guys at the Italian-American Club assumed we were Italian. My dad told me not to correct them.
“You’re late!” One of the men barked at Tony. He pointed his meatball spoon in my direction. “Is that him?”
Tony nodded. A couple of guys pounced on me and started pulling at my clothes. I shook them off and put up my fists. There was a lot said in Italian that was probably insulting. After a lot of hand gestures and gesticulations, somebody yelled, “You gotta get in costume! Come on!”
As a crowd watched and laughed, I was stuffed into an itchy costume. An ostrich feather went up my nose, so I had a sneezing fit while they smeared clown makeup on my face.
I tried to snag a meatball and got my hand slapped. “After the show!”
With an ill-fitting costume on my body, badly applied makeup on my face, and an out of tune banjo strapped to my chest, I was now shoved into the lineup with the rest of the band.
The elevator doors opened to darkness. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I could see that we were backstage. There was a vast stage curtain in front of us. Everybody got into position as one of the talking heads from Philadelphia’s NBC affiliate chattered to the crowd.
Rough hands pushed me to a position in the back of the formation.
The announcer’s voice boomed over the sound system. The murmur of the crowd shook the air like faraway thunder. I was disoriented. I was asking myself why I get into weird situations like this. I wished my dad were there.
The banjo player to my right gave me an encouraging smile. “You’ll be okay, kid. Just hold on to your banjo and try not to look stupid.” He paused and gave me a good once-over before shaking his head and saying, “Just hold your banjo.”
The announcer roared, “Ladies and gentlemen, The Greater Overbrook String Band!”
The curtain opened. The band started playing, and we marched out onto the floor of the Civic Center.
A string band performance is a musical medley built around a theme. The band plays while going through complex marching formations and choreography.
They put the strong musicians in the front line to keep things looking good. The lazy, clumsy, and inexperienced were placed in the back row.
I was in the back row.
As we stepped out to perform, I looked around in wonder. It was the most massive crowd I had ever seen. So many faces that they all became a sort of shifting blur. The roar of applause washed over us while popping flashbulbs blinded us.
The band began its performance. I was lost. The band went left, and I went right. The band went right, and I was running to the left, hoping to catch up. My pants were falling down. My banjo headstock hit the Styrofoam ax on my hat and pushed the brim over my eyes.
My bandmates were cracking up. The audience laughed as I ran around in circles, pawing the air like a drunken Russian circus bear.
The band finally marched close enough for somebody to grab me and push my hat away from my eyes. I was now two rows up and all the way over from where I had been. I looked around in dumb amazement wondering, “How the fuck did that happen?”
The guy next to me shouted, “We’re almost done. Just stay close to me!” I stuck to him like glue for the rest of the performance.
Eventually, the chaos came to an end. The band blasted out the final note, and we marched back up onto the stage. The crowd was cheering, and I could not help but smile at the way the sound of applause changed as the curtain closed.
We marched back into the twin elevators. One of the banjo players got everybody in our car singing My Ding-A-Ling.
Back at Greater Overbrook’s staging area, the guys started piling into the dressing area to get out of their costumes.
Dressing area? Then why did the old dudes get me changed in front of everybody? I guess they were screwing with the new guy.
I finally got out of my costume. I was too frazzled to think about the makeup I was wearing. I ended up getting clown white all over my street clothes and in my hair.
I staggered out, braced myself for some ball-busting over my terrible performance and got in line for a meatball sandwich.
“This guy!” One of the banjo players was patting my shoulder. “This guy goes out in front of all those people knowing nothing! He’s a Mummer now!”
The guys all agreed. I, like my father, was now a member of The Greater Overbrook String Band. In less than a year I would march in the New Year’s Parade down Broad Street on national television.
The crew from the Italian American club got me a meatball sandwich and a Coke.
The sandwich was indescribably good.
I can’t imagine how we all looked. A crew of guys of different ages and backgrounds chowing down on meatball sandwiches with white makeup plastered across their faces. We were telling dirty jokes, singing songs, and swapping embarrassing musical adventures.
“Say, Pat. What’s the funniest thing that ever happened to you?”
“A bunch of Italians dressed me up like a clown, humiliated me in front of a large crowd and fed me meatballs.”
The rest of the weekend would have us doing several more shows. It would be better with my dad marching beside me, but tonight I had passed the test.
I was pondering getting up for another sandwich when one of the old guys handed me a fresh plate. He patted my cheek and told me that I was doing good.
I thought to myself, “I could get used to this.”
On the ride home, Tony Mantovani let me ride shotgun while our instruments rode in the back. I took that as the night’s greatest accomplishment.