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Archive for Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Documentary explores offbeat parade

April 10, 2002

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— These big macho men want respect on the streets of South Philadelphia. So once a year they dance through the city in glitter, sequined dresses and blond wigs.

A new documentary called "STRUT!", directed by local film producer Max L. Raab, attempts to capture the history behind Philadelphia's one-of-a-kind New Year's Day Mummers Parade.

"They're very independent people. Very private," says Raab, 75. "I wanted to capture the feeling of camaraderie and artistry."

With roots in pre-colonial days, the Mummers Parade has grown into a massive celebration in which thousands of men appear in dresses, dancing and playing instruments.

The film shows that being a Mummer is a year-round and lifelong activity, a tradition that bonds families and friends and brings pride to the community.

It's not just a parade  it's a lifestyle.

In one scene, Ed Kirlin talks about his first parade, when he was 7.

"My mother wasn't able to get me a suit made," he says. "She took the bedspread off the bed, she had me lie on the floor. She chalked my little outline on there with chalk and she sewed me a little dress out of the bedspread."

The word Mummer comes from the German word for mask. The parade dates back to British and Swedish traditions of going door to door on New Year's Day.

In Philadelphia, festivities and demonstrations were held throughout the 1700s and 1800s. In 1901, the city began sponsoring the parade and offering prizes.

The film, which opens the 2002 Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema on Thursday, mixes old black-and-white clips with footage of recent parades.

Pete Ciarrocchi Jr., who is featured in the movie, hopes a non-Philadelphia audience can understand. "Because it's hard to believe," he says.

The parade has four sections  comics, fancies, string bands and fancy brigades. The comics, in clown suits, come first. Then the fancies dance in elaborate dresses and costumes, and the string bands come last, playing old-time music. The fancy brigades perform elaborate 4 1/2-minute shows indoors.

Clubs compete in each category, but do it for bragging rights, not the prize money, according to Ciarrocchi.

Raab grew up watching the Mummers, and says he's always thought about making a movie about them. In the 1950s, he had started an apparel business and then a film production company in 1970. His most famous project was as executive producer for Stanley Kubrick's "Clockwork Orange."

He retired a few years ago but got bored, he said, so decided to make the documentary.

The film won the audience award for best documentary at the 2001 Hamptons International Film Festival. One scene shows a group of hefty guys in Eagles sweats rehearsing dance moves. There's also a moment in a South Philadelphia church that holds a Mummers Mass on New Year's Eve.

Former Mayor Ed Rendell makes a cameo wearing a gold-and-white dress with bloomers and a wig.

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