More Culture:

December 29, 2015

Behind every Mummer, an even stronger Mummer wife

The behind-the-scenes contributions you don't hear about

Lifestyle Holidays
050115_Mummers _Carroll-38.jpg Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Scenes from the 115th annual Mummers Parade.

Among her Woodland String Band social circles, Mary Loomis is known as the "First Lady" of mummery.

"We wouldn't operate without the wives behind the scenes," Tom Loomis, president of the String Band Association, told PhillyVoice. “Mary is very patient; she understands my commitment. And she knows it’s what I do -- I don’t golf, I don’t bowl, I mum.”

Mary is one of a legion of wives who take a backstage role to the mammoth, still mostly male-filled Mummers festivities on New Year's Day every year. In her case, she organizes at least three fundraisers per year (bands are self-funded), makes appearances with her husband and, importantly, supports what Tom Loomis calls a hobby that demands "overcommitment," eating up as many as 100 days of his year.

“A lot of what people don’t understand about mummery, and string band in particular, is we’re a year-round organization -- we don't start preparing for New Year's Day in December," Loomis said. "In the meantime, our family members are still supporting us on Tuesday nights [during meetings], letting us go away for a weekend in New England and helping us with fundraisers like 'paint night' and 'bingo night' when an organization like ours has to generate close to $200,000 a year in funds.”

Without that spousal support, many mummers just call it quits.

“The wives I’ve seen over the years who dislike mummers, their husbands don’t really get to participate," Mary Loomis told PhillyVoice. "They end up dropping out. Because it really is a commitment."

Perhaps for that reason, couples tend to marry within the ranks. Because, truly, it's not the easiest hobby to explain away to strangers on a first date. 

“We’ve had about a dozen marriages of people who met through the club," Bill Burke, vice president of the Fancy Brigade Association, told PhillyVoice.

Though don't count he and his wife, Kathy, as one of them. She cheekily refers to herself as a "Mummers widow," someone who entered their relationship four decades ago with no prior knowledge of Mummers or how it's prioritized.

Still, despite her own personal ambivalence, she contributes by watching the children of mummers during practices and parades. She added that other wives do get involved more creatively -- they design costumes, choreograph dance numbers and train to apply makeup on New Year's Day.

And others, of course, perform.

A scene from the 2015 Mummers parade, on Jan. 1, 2015. (Thom Carroll / PhillyVoice)

Christy Runowski, 34, dreamed of dancing in the parade since she was 11. She started parading with the Golden Crown New Year's Brigade in 1992, one of many divisions -- like Clown and the Fancy Brigade -- that have embraced co-ed mummery since the 1970s. (She's the first female to be admitted to the club's hall of fame.) She met her husband, Bob, also a dancer and now captain of the brigade, in 2003; they officially became a Mummers couple in 2011.

For them, it's a case of mutual spousal support that keeps them as actively engaged with the tradition as they are.

"My husband is busy throughout, but he has meetings four nights out of the week [from September to December]. But I completely understand it and, for someone who’s not involved, it can be a little stressful because their husband’s not around a lot," Runowski told PhillyVoice. "But we both have a passion for the parade and totally understand each other."

"We’re understanding because it’s important to both of us, and we count on each other.”

The Mummers tradition, which dates back to the 1800s in Philadelphia, has always been -- and, rather controversially, remains -- a male-dominated tradition. But that's not to say there haven't been strong women behind them every step of the way, whether hosting parties, sewing costumes or teaching their husbands a thing or two about proper eyeliner application. So, when the parade barrels from City Hall to Washington Avenue, keep in mind all of the behind-the-scenes support that made it happen.

Though, it's not only the wives providing support anymore.

"While our great hobby is still predominantly male, that's not the case for most clubs nowadays," Runowski said. "We have female members whose husbands or significant others are not in the parade, and are behind the scenes. It's not just wives and mothers who are there for support and behind-the-scenes stuff that we need to execute our show. Male or female, in the actual performance or behind the scenes, it all can be stressful on any relationship.

"But," she added, "it's also an amazing bond we all have in this unique tradition we share."