Threading through the crowd on Middletown’s Broad Street, one wonders what brought everyone out on a chilly New Year’s Day to watch a parade put together with absolutely no planning.
“I find the wit and satire to be acerbic,” one onlooker says.
The proper use of acerbic is a sign that this is no ordinary January 1 parade.
There is never a doubt that, weather and the Good Lord willing, Philly’s musical Mummers will strut down Broad Street dressed in fancy feathered costumes,
executing perfectly choreographed routines as each group competes for top honors.
But with Middletown’s ragtag Hummers, one never quite knows what will happen.
Indeed, there has been a year or two when no one was sure the parade would happen at all.
But it did, as it always does. And unlike those well-rehearsed fops in Philly, Hummers
cycled, skated, drove and sometimes stumbled down Broad and Main, dressed in everything from hunting camos to tutus, executing some cockamamie idea dreamt up five
minutes before the parade while vying for nothing more than a damned good time.
“It’s just a good way to motivate yourself to get out of bed and do something on New Year’s Day,” says longtime participant Bob Wilson.
What started decades ago as neighbors banging pots and pans in the street to ring in the year has morphed into something as uniquely Delawarean as the much younger Punkin Chunkin’. Hummers participants gather in a parking lot on New Year’s morning, don their costumes, such as they are, prepare their floats, such as they are, then proceed down the street. What will happen is anyone’s guess, but it will almost certainly involve several spoofs on the previous year’s most infamous news.
“We kind of have a rule that we don’t start thinking about what we’re going to do for the parade until midnight of New Year’s Eve,” third-year participant John Snyder says of his family’s preparations. Like many Hummers, the Snyders had been spectators for a few years before deciding to jump in with both feet.
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The Snyder clan splits itself into more than one presentation. The Snyder sons spoofed the Balloon Boy episode of 2009 while Snyder’s wife, Elizabeth, strapped baby dolls around her waist like beaver pelts, then marched as notorious Octomom Nadya Suleman.
“We choose the themes as a kind of family thing,” Snyder says.
Unofficial Hummers Parade grand marshal for life Jack Schreppler admires the lack of planning so much, he’s made it an unstated rule—kind of. “No meetings, dues or organization of any kind governs the parade,” he says. “If there were rules, I would have dropped out years ago.”
Schreppler became the grand marshal in the second year of the parade, when, as a 15-year-old, he was invited by the son of the parade’s founders. Donning an old set of tails, adorned with a sash his mother had found in their attic, and wielding the orb and scepter of his new office, Schreppler goose-stepped ceremoniously down Main. He has since added such accoutrements as a pair of inline skates. In 2010, he also wielded a 7-iron as an homage to Tiger Woods’ fall from grace.
Tiger’s woes couldn’t have happened at a better time for Hummers frantic for an idea in the early hours of New Year’s morning. It hit Kevin Manley and his entourage in their collective sweet spot.
“We were kicking around ideas in the Charcoal Pit. The idea of mocking Tiger’s infidelities seemed like a natural, and an easy idea to pull off,” Manley says. “Plus it had just happened, so it was fresh.”
Manley assembled a dubious entourage of young women and a few good men dressed as women. Thus The Holes of Tiger Woods was born. Danielle Smulski, who hosted an after-party for about 25 participants and well-wishers, portrayed Tiger’s former wife, Elin, and chased the star with a golf club as pin flags were populated with impressions of Tiger’s various low-rent consorts.
“We were surprised by the number of people who turned out,” says Manley, owner of a landscaping company. “It was impressive to see police out there blocking roads and doing crowd control for us. We’re definitely back next year.”
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The presence of public safety officials demonstrates the steady growth of Hummers over the years.
“We didn’t need traffic control in the beginning,” Schreppler says. “Now we need a parade permit for police assistance, and that parade has grown to the point that I still recognize the regulars, but not all the newcomers that are adding to the ranks every year.”
General counsel for Artesian Water 364 days of the year, Schreppler may seem an unlikely choice as madcap grand marshal, but he conceived one of the earliest of the parade’s political parodies in the mid-1980s by donning a Ronald Reagan mask and spoofing the Iran-Contra affair.
“I think the theme of mocking politicians and celebrities in trouble grew from there,” he says.
Bob Wilson, a retired engineer, adopted the practice when he began parading in the mid-1980s.
“The first couple of years, I marched with friends to more traditional New Years’ themes of Father Time and Baby New Year,” Wilson says. “But my friends dropped out, so I became a sort of one-man band. The idea of focusing on a major embarrassment of the year just happened naturally, and I’ve been doing something along those lines every year since.”
The 2009 economic slide and attendant scandals provided a rich harvest of major embarrassments. So for the 2010 parade, Wilson chose Bernie Madoff as the icon of the meltdown. Wilson wore a sign that read, “Bernie Made-Off with My Money.”
The milling throng is as much a part of the Hummers ethos as the participants. (Remember: They know what “acerbic” means.) Townsend resident Gurnie Jopson has missed only two of the past 26 parades. “It’s a great way to start the New Year and bump into people you know but you don’t see that often,” Jopson says. “And you’re not going to get this kind of entertainment anywhere else for free.”
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One of Jopson’s favorite entries over the years included a pickup truck driven by deer with humans tied to the fenders—an homage to an old Gary Larson “Far Side” cartoon.
But in 2010, even with an economic collapse affecting virtually all Americans, the personal foibles of celebrities still dominated the parade. More than one Tiger-themed entrant marched, but it was Octomom who seemed to inspire the most acerbic wit.
Mike Wipf, his family and their friends rolled their Octomom down the street on a gurney as Mike’s wife, Penny, lay in delivery. As mock babies flew like fly balls from her loins, assistants ran through the streets to catch them. As the parade rolled on, other creatures replaced the babies—snakes, lizards, teddy bears. Even Mickey and Minnie Mouse made appearances as Octo offspring.
If satire is a measure of a society’s political and social health, the country in general, and Middletown in particular, would seem to be in the pink.
Pundits link satire to emotion rather than intellect. Dean Walsh, founder of the Web-based “Daily Satire,” has written, “Satire can do things that more serious media such as journalists and commentators, philosophy or politics cannot do. This is partly because what good jokes do is to capture a feeling…
“Satire can also be really great at bursting bubbles. Some ideas can seem really beautiful, but they can also have fatal flaws. Arguing against an idea that people want to be true can be very hard, and you might seem a bit nasty for even trying. But humor can point out the paradox or idiocy in something and burst the bubble in an instant.”
Octomom’s desire to add eight mouths to an existing brood or Tiger’s fall from the pinnacle of celebrity could lead to dreary judgments and condemnations by the public. That seems more limiting than the humor injected by the Hummers. By laughing at the fallen, we laugh at ourselves. After all, Octomom and Tiger are part of our common fabric.
All of that may be too philosophical for someone in a top hat parading on inline skates. The Hummers Parade inspires a simpler joy. “It’s the spontaneity of something not existing the night before,” Schreppler says. “And then there it is, in a kind of organized chaos, the next day—and in front of some impressive crowds, too.”
He recalls a New Year’s Day when police estimated the crowd at up to 20,000. “I know people who’ve driven up from Baltimore and now come every year,” Schreppler says. “Others have sent me clippings from the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times that have mentioned the Hummers.”
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Schreppler recalls a famous year in the late 1970s, when a fire truck in the parade was suddenly called to put out a chimney fire.
“It was a day that was so cold the Mummers in Philadelphia did not strut,” Schreppler says. “Channel 6 Action News covered the fire and later asked what the difference was between a Hummer and a Mummer. I told them, ‘Mummers stay home when it’s cold and their costumes don’t hold up as well as ours. Also, we can put out a fire without breaking stride.”
Nevertheless, the Hummers are not without the blemish of controversy. The parade came under fire when The News Journal printed the traditional chant sung by participants during the “awards ceremony.”
“There’s some blue language that we use that’s all in the spirit of the moment,” Schreppler says. “I’ve told my kids it’s all right once a year. After all, if God didn’t have a sense of humor, we wouldn’t.”
After so many years, Schreppler had considered “hanging up the skates” (an homage to Bret Favre, perhaps?) and handing off the grand marshal duties, such as they are, to someone younger. It was the Journal’s printing of the infamous chant that changed his mind.
“I had actually announced my retirement,” he says, “and then that newspaper story came out, and I just couldn’t see handing the job off to maybe some high school student and that chant hanging in the air.”
So Schreppler decided it’s not the right time to relinquish the orb and scepter. “I’m having fun. I’m really not thinking about retirement anymore.”
The 2010 version of Hummers also featured a “performance” by Susan Boyle (expertly portrayed and coiffed by John Bingham), a David Carradine spoof called Hung Fu and Townsend’s Billy Wessel’s portrayal of the late Billy Mays in an OxiClean commercial. With an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the continuing saga of the “jobless recovery,” Tea Partiers and cozy land schemes in Delaware waiting to be spoofed in 2011, how could anyone think of retiring?