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Hall-of-famer Jim Julia, at the Mummers Museum

in Philadelphia, has participated in the famous

parade since he was 8 years old.
Photograph by Todd Vachon

www.toddvachon.com

 

 

Jim Julia points to a costume in the main lobby of the Mummers Museum in South Philadelphia.

The costume, displayed in a darkened corner, looks like something out of a haunted cabaret. Sparkling red and neon green plumage wrap what looks to be some sort of demon witch doctor. A sequined skull belt circles the get-up, which is topped by a
giant feathered headdress—with horns. It’s gaudy as hell and twice as spooky.

“I wore that one,” Julia says. “It weighed a ton.”

The Mummers don’t put any old costume in their museum. Julia is a hall-of-famer. For the past 15 years, he has captained the Downtowners, one of the largest and most celebrated clubs in Mummerdom. He played the gigantic witch doctor in the Downtowners’ presentation of “Witches and Warlocks, A Haunted Celebration” in 2006.

Julia, a 52-year-old budget analyst for Verizon who lives in Newark, may be a Delawarean in the phone book but, at heart, he’s pure struttin’ Mummer from South Philly.

Costumes like his witch doctor—as sequined and feathered and strange as they may be—represent a 107-year tradition in Philadelphia. “America’s oldest folk parade” takes place each New Year’s Day, when 15,000 participants march up Broad Street and around City Hall, dancing, picking banjos and generally making merry.

Local clubs of varying size and notoriety compete in four divisions: comics, fancies, string bands and fancy brigades. Each club has a unique history and personality, but almost all make use of colorful, sequined, fabulous ostrich-plumed costumes. Fancy brigades, like Julia’s, take everything to the highest level through elaborately choreographed dance routines and mammoth sets. The Downtowners will spend close to $100,000 on one parade—$60,000 on costumes alone.

The rules and traditions of the Mummers go on and on. To Julia, they’re routine. He’s been part of the culture all his life. It’s in his blood.

Julia’s uncles were pioneering members during the 1950s and ’60s who launched a club called Golden Crown. So Julia, born and raised in the heart of South Philly, was destined to become a Mummer.

“Growing up, I thought this is what every kid did,” Julia says. “Christmas in South Philly, there was Christmas and then, five days later, the other bookend. My neighborhood was like this incredible party that started on Christmas Eve and ended on New Years. You just partied. People would be all in the house, and the parade was like the background music.”

By age 8, Julia was marching with the Mummers. He was part of the Italian section in the club’s European Holiday theme. As he grew older, he found he enjoyed dancing and performing. Soon he was pitching ideas for music and themes.

“These great guys who came before me said I had the right idea,” Julia says. “They started looking to me as a leader.”

Former captain Bob Galvin, in his 44th year with the Downtowners, can corroborate that. “When he comes to us in his costume and makeup, it’s shattering,” Galvin says. “We have a lot of pride for him. He’s our leader.

“New Years Day, he’s second only to the Lord.”

 

It’s a Wednesday night, and for the Downtowners Fancy Brigade, that means rehearsal at the Ed O’Malley gymnasium. The gym usually houses athletic programs for youth. Tonight it is full of 90 grown men who strut and twirl like extras from “My Fair Lady.”

Preparation for New Years is a yearlong effort. Julia jokes that planning for next year begins on January 2, but, in reality, most clubs have a solid foundation built by March. By September rehearsal is all about cleaning and perfecting the dense and complicated routines.

For 2008 the Downtowners will perform “Samurai, Culture and Legend,” so they’ve worked elements of Japanese culture, like Kabuki theater, into their drill.

“If I show you this, I have to kill you,” Julia says.

He then presents three impeccable set designs the Downtowners will incorporate into this year’s show. The first depicts a Taiko drum ceremony for samurai returning from battle. The second shows a giant arch in front of a cherry blossom bridge. The third set is a re-creation of the 17th-century Shirasagijo castle. Each set is more intricate and dazzling than the last.

“We’re still working out the rigging, but the plan is for me to come out of the center here and stay suspended in the air, like ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.’”

The rest of the Downtowners are equipped with specially made swords and staffs. It’s important to note that Julia’s men are not trained dancers. They’re men’s men. Dressed in Philadelphia Eagles shirts and Penn State hats, a few have beer bellies. Most are knocking on 200 pounds. Call men like these in any other American city “fancy” and expect a knuckle sandwich in return. But inside this gym, they sashay and pirouette like, well, like Mummers.

“I tell people this is like Mardi Gras meets Broadway,” Julia says. “These guys grew up on it. They don’t see anything wrong with it. These are cops, construction workers, but they’ll put on feathers and makeup for us. It’s such a crazy dichotomy.”

Crazy probably doesn’t begin to explain dozens of grown men dancing like a high school color guard. It’s a long-standing joke that the all-male Mummers clubs are, in fact, gay. “We joke about that all the time with each other,” Julia says. The truth is, his club and many other Mummers have the support of Philly’s gay community.

In the middle of the wackiness is Julia, whistle in mouth, running through sections time and time again, tweaking a movement here, repositioning a Mummer there.

Being captain of a Mummers club is a lot like being a big-budget movie director. Julia coordinates with designers, choreographers, costumers, prop makers, and more—such as a sculptor who will craft 6-foot tigers from foam—in order to land on his interpretation of the club’s theme.

“As captain, you’re the orchestra leader,” he says. “In the end, this is my interpretation. I only have four minutes to tell this story. Sometimes you run into problems when you try to say too much.”

The club takes on the personality of its captain. Many outsiders perceive the Downtowners as one of the more laid-back clubs, and Julia is laid-back enough. He talks fast, as do a lot of South Philly folks, but he doesn’t run practice like a dictator. During a break, he pelts one of his Mummer-mates with a foam dodgeball.

But Julia is not without ego. He likes having the brightest costume and the biggest feathers. He wants all eyes on him in front of City Hall and under the lights of the Convention Center.

“That has to be there if you want your club to look its best,” he says. “You have to want that attention, that responsibility.”

In his 15th year as captain, Julia has developed that confidence. “When something goes wrong, I believe I can fix it,” he says. “You have 100 guys looking to you for answers, and it’s hard, it’s intimidating. Verizon sent me to all kinds of leadership schools, but I tell ya, I learned more about leadership from being in this club.”

So what do Julia’s fellow Delawareans know about his club? Not a whole lot, it turns out. Julia took up residence at Woodlands of Perch Creek, a neighborhood in Newark near Peoples Plaza, in 1996 after landing work in Baltimore. Living near Newark allowed him to be smack dab between his job and his Mummers. After three years, he returned to Center City Philly to work, but remained a Delaware resident.

“People here know about the Mummers. They’re aware of it,” Julia says. “But they always have a lot of questions.”

That should come as no surprise. The Mummers are ingrained in the families and neighborhoods of South Philadelphia, but not so much elsewhere. Julia’s 20-year old son Jimmy gets the same questions at the University of Delaware, where he’s in his junior year. Jimmy has been involved with the Mummers since he was five.

“He’s a very good dancer,” Julia says, beaming with pride. “We’ve watched each other play sports all our lives, but this is the one place where we’re teammates.”

The Mummers as a whole are very family oriented. Julia’s Downtowners have 32 brother combinations, and all sorts of sons and grandsons and generations have moved through the ranks. Even those who aren’t related by blood think of one another as family. They are buddies from the old neighborhood, childhood friends and friends of friends. They’ve carved out a unique niche in their pocket of Philly.

“People think the Mummers are only for one day,” Julia says. “But it’s the camaraderie of January 2 through December 31 that keeps me going. Some of my best friends are people I would never have met without this. It’s like having your own private club. What are the Elks? They’re the Mummers without costumes.

“It’s the friendship, camaraderie and being part of something bigger than yourself,” he says. “This keeps me in the neighborhood I grew up in with all my childhood friends.”

The costumer who made Julia’s witch doctor? Julia met him in first grade. 

 

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