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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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. ••