Northeast Times

Hee's Ready to Strut

With Philly’s best-known tra­di­tion just around the corner, a Fox Chase Mum­mer is ready for ac­tion.

Jack Hee and the Avalon String Band

Jack Hee is ready to strut.

After all, it’s only a few days be­fore Jan. 1, and the Fox Chase Mum­mer is itch­ing to lead the Avalon String Band as it parades up Broad Street.

Hee, Avalon’s cap­tain, was in his first parade be­fore he was a year old, and this year, he’ll have some spe­cial com­pany dur­ing the three-mile march from South Philly to City Hall.

“For the first time, my twelve-year-old son, Mike, will be in cos­tume with the band,” Hee said in a phone in­ter­view last week. “He is the fifth gen­er­a­tion of my fam­ily” in mum­mery.

The fam­ily tra­di­tion goes back to at least the 1920s.

Hee said he of­ten is asked what his most ex­cit­ing Mum­mer memory is.

“I’m ac­tu­ally wait­ing for it to hap­pen this year,” he said. “It’s hav­ing my son with me.”

Like his dad, Mike plays sax­o­phone, Hee said, al­though, as cap­tain, he doesn’t play dur­ing the parade.

“You know the old say­ing,” he said, “If a guy can’t play, make him cap­tain so you don’t have to listen to him any­more.”

Hee has been Avalon’s cap­tain for six of the dozen years he’s been with the string band. He star­ted out with the South Jer­sey-based Durn­ing band.

A RE­GION­AL EF­FORT

Avalon’s home is in South Philly, but its mem­bers are from all around the re­gion, in­clud­ing sev­er­al from the North­east, Hee said. Once, the band even had a mem­ber who com­muted from Vir­gin­ia Beach, Va., to play.

On New Year’s Day, Avalon’s 60 mu­si­cians will be ac­com­pan­ied up Broad Street by al­most as many mar­shals and stage hands who help the band move its props to the sev­er­al spots mem­bers will per­form.

Avalon will play dur­ing al­most the en­tire trip to Cen­ter City, Hee said, but he knows that every time mem­bers take a breath­er, they’ll be hear­ing the shouts of “Play something!” from the crowd on Broad Street.

“We play al­most the whole way up Broad Street,” Hee said.

The band’s theme this year is Avalon in Won­der­land, said Hee, adding that is ob­vi­ously a takeoff of Alice in Won­der­land.

“When we talked about what theme we’re go­ing to do,” he said, “we wanted something that relates to what we do — a trippy, crazy, what-the-hell-is-go­ing-on type of thing.”

All the bizarre char­ac­ters and plot twists of Alice in Won­der­land cer­tainly fit that bill.

SO MUCH FOR SO LITTLE

But what looks wild and crazy to parade fans is really the res­ult of months of plan­ning and re­hears­als. It takes a lot of time, ef­fort and or­gan­iz­a­tion to per­form in the Mum­mers Parade, Hee said.

“It takes every bit of ten or el­ev­en months to get a per­form­ance ready that will last four and a half minutes,” Hee said.

Those four and a half minutes are all that’s al­lowed for a band’s per­form­ance. By New Year’s Day, each band has drilled its routines so of­ten that mem­bers know to the second how long they’ll take, he said.

This year, be­cause of con­struc­tion around City Hall’s Dilworth Plaza, judging will be done at 16th Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard, near the Phil­adelphia Tour­ist Cen­ter, Hee said.

After that per­form­ance be­fore judges, the band will pack up its gear and head to Second Street in South Phil­adelphia for the “Two Street Parade.”

Hee said band mem­bers tend to loosen up after judging is over and they go to the parade after the parade.

“Then, it’s just a party,” Hee said.

BAND PLANS

With­in a few weeks in­to 2012, Avalon will be­gin work on a 2013 theme, Hee said. Mem­bers will sub­mit ideas to a sev­en-to-nine-per­son com­mit­tee, which then con­siders them all while talk­ing about the mu­sic and cos­tumes and the kind of present­a­tion they will have, un­til it gets nar­rowed down to an agreed-upon theme.

All that work is done quickly, Hee said, and, for a while, at least, secretly.

So secret, he ad­ded, that un­til some­time in the 1990s, bands sub­mit­ted their ideas to a South Philly priest, who guarded them.

Everything is done by com­puter now and is time stamped, he said. If one band sub­mits an idea that an­oth­er has already put for­ward, that band has to come up with something else.

“We don’t want du­plic­ate themes,” Hee said.

While string band mem­bers prac­tice and get ready for their an­nu­al parade, they per­form all over the East Coast and some­times abroad to help raise money for cos­tumes and props, Hee said.

A band can spend any­where from $75,000 to $125,000 on its parade theme, Hee said.

“It’s not a cheap hobby,” Hee said.

And, he said, mum­mery really isn’t a hobby.

“It’s a life­style choice,” Hee said.

“We do fifty to sev­enty per­form­ances dur­ing the year,” Hee said.

BAND ON THE RUN

In March, in par­tic­u­lar, he said, Avalon will do six to eight per­form­ances in St. Patrick’s Day parades.

“We’re out every week­end,” he said, but he ad­ded, the ef­fort is worth it. “It’s go­ing to put twenty-thou­sand dol­lars in­to our bank ac­count.”

Hee said bands all have parties and oth­er fund-raisers to cov­er the costs of parad­ing.

“A lot of time and en­ergy and ded­ic­a­tion goes in­to it,” Hee said.

And a lot of ef­fort goes in­to chan­ging loc­al per­cep­tions of the parade.

“We’re not a bunch of drunks in cos­tumes,” Hee said.

In re­cent years, Mum­mers have tried to em­phas­ize the parade is a fam­ily event.

“That’s stressed even more so this year,” Hee said.

There are lots of in­dic­a­tions the parade is kid-friendly, he said.

“There’s a toy theme, a car­ni­val theme and a candy theme,” in this year’s parade, he ex­plained.

Hee doesn’t think many Phil­adelphi­ans, as used to mum­mery as they are, really re­cog­nize what a great event the parade is.

“It seems the farther we get away from Philly, the more ap­pre­ci­at­ive people are,” Hee said. “People in Philly are so used to [the Mum­mers Parade] they don’t real­ize they can’t get this any­where else.” ••

Re­port­er John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or jloftus@bsmphilly.com

 

New Year’s strut …

This year’s Mum­mer’s Parade steps off at 9 a.m. Jan. 1 when the Com­ics start their march to­ward City Hall from Broad Street and Wash­ing­ton Av­en­ue. String bands will be­gin an hour later at Mar­coni Plaza, Broad Street and Ore­gon Av­en­ue.

TV: Chan­nel 17 will broad­cast the parade, which is ex­pec­ted to last about six and a half hours.

Be­fore the parade: In the days lead­ing up to New Year’s Day, Mum­mers can be seen and heard prac­ti­cing all over the place, es­pe­cially in South Philly. Drive around the neigh­bor­hood and they’ll be spot­ted un­der I-95 and in school­yards.

The parade after the parade: After they per­form be­fore judges at 16th Street and JFK Boulevard, Mum­mers will pack up and head to Second Street South Philly for the “Two Street Parade.”

Little-known fact: Al­though some string bands take their names from towns, re­gions, neigh­bor­hoods or even fam­ily names, Avalon was named for a brand of ci­gar­ettes that was pop­u­lar in the 1930s and ’40s.

Web site: www.phil­lymum­mers.com has lots of in­form­a­tion and links to oth­er sites ded­ic­ated to mum­mery. ••

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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