A Mummer’s main focus is gearing up for the annual New Year’s Day parade, but one group became sidetracked by the aura of a reality television series that beckoned it.
The South Philly Vikings returned from Hollywood three weeks ago after competing for a chance to win $1 million and to perform at Caesars Palace Las Vegas. The group’s journey to give America an up-close look at the Mummers, ended July 28 when it was eliminated from the fifth season of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.”
“We knew that was going to be tough because we have people in Philadelphia who still don’t know what Mummers are,” Vikings Captain Pete D’Amato said of winning over voters.
While America wasn’t captivated enough to put the Vikings through to the next round, the judges didn’t understand the Philly tradition either, members of the Fancy Brigade said during last week’s interview at their 1815 S. 11th St. clubhouse. During the group’s set July 27, judge Piers Morgan buzzed the performance less than a minute into their 90-second “Alien Invasion” piece.
“Because it’s just overgrown school children in robot costumes. That’s all it is,” Morgan said as the crowd booed him. “I just see a bunch of people who don’t sing, who can’t dance very well, who are just wearing silly costumes and flashy lights. I don’t get it.”
While Sharon Osbourne commended the Vikings “immense vision,” Howie Mandel was unsure what they were.
“It’s amazing what you can do with tin foil and holiday lights,” he said. “It’s like an arts and crafts project on steroids, but it’s phenomenal.”
Those watching from Philly seemed to be more upset about the negative comments than those on stage, D’Amato said.
“We actually really didn’t let it bother us because we knew that’s [Morgan’s] job to make comments and we knew that he didn’t make sense on his comments,” the resident of 12th Street and Oregon Avenue said.
The following night, the Vikings were placed in a group with 11-year-old rapper CJ Dippa and hip-hop dancer Haspop. With only one moving on the local group knew its time on the show was over, D’Amato said.
“We just knew we weren’t passing once they said [Haspop’s] name,” he said. “He was really good and we were glad for him We’re a group from Philly that are in the Mummers Parade doing this as a hobby and we’re going against people that this is their life.”
Behind the scenes in Hollywood, the Vikings were dancing as fellow contestant Harmonica Pier played “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
“[Members of the crew] actually came in and made us be quiet because we were being so loud,” Sergeant-at-Arms Vince Buono said. “They ain’t seen nothing.”
But viewers of the show, didn’t see the Mummers’ true colors.
“They took away our identity,” D’Amato said of “America’s Got Talent.” “They wouldn’t let us show who we really are because that’s the way the show was … They said we logistically might be too big for them they weren’t going to take us after they begged us to go for two months.”
“America’s Got Talent” producers e-mailed the Vikings 10 times starting in January requesting that the group audition in New York City, D’Amato said.
“One of the producer’s kids [had] seen it,” he said of 2010’s New Year’s Day performance. “They seen it on YouTube and she watched it with her daughter and her daughter fell in love with it and just watched it for two or three weeks straight.”
But the members didn’t agree to audition right away.
“We thought it was a joke at first,” Vice President Marcus Giardino, of 12th and Dickinson streets, said.
But they soon realized that there could be a positive outcome in competing on a television show that airs nationwide even with a chance that their uniqueness could be lost plus the high cost of competing — totaling $20,000 although it did not dip into parade funds and included an $8,500 grant obtained by state Rep. Bill Keller.
“So after all the times saying ‘no’ we just thought it was fate that they kept asking us and then we had a meeting and we talked about it and thought this really could help the Mummers out,” D’Amato said.
In April, the group transported their equipment to New York City auditioning with last year’s “Apocalypse 2110.”
Mandel said yes, Osbourne and Morgan said no, but the Vikings pleaded.
“We knew we wanted to get on national television one time for the Mummers,” D’Amato said. “That’s what it was about. That’s what our goal was set to be and when we knew we were on that fence, we were begging to try to get that one shot at it.”
After 10 minutes, Morgan changed his mind, sending the Vikings to Las Vegas.
In Vegas the next month, the judges split the acts into three groups.
“I’m afraid your journey here ends today,” Morgan said to the group consisting of the Vikings. “We decided in your case that you were so good you’re going straight to Hollywood.”
The Vikings were one of first 10 acts to move on to the quarterfinals.
“Yeah,” D’Amato said of the group’s reaction as he jumped up from his chair and jumped on Vikings Club Supervisor Michael Busillo, of Forrestal and Sydenham streets. “We had a really good reaction. We were surprised.”
The group returned to Philly to prepare the routine in which the brigade won first place with in 2007 and would now perform in front of more than 10 million viewers. However, the stage was more than half the size of the space allocated at the Pennsylvania Convention Center and the time was three minutes shorter.
“We put 80 people on the street, floats, the whole nine yards,” Buono said. “Petey and the rest of the guys had to shrink it down to a mini-version of what we do.”
Before heading back out west, the Vikings practiced free of charge for three hours, three to four days a week at local venues including at Shin Karate, 709 Oregon Ave., and a friend’s warehouse near Swanson and Ritner streets.
The group of 29 worked endlessly to recreate costumes and make the show as entertaining as possible even without the extensive props they would have preferred to have.
“The creativity of how we use [the props] in our show tells our story … But we didn’t want to ruin that chance to be on national television and we knew that, but we still went out there and we said they turned us into a dance crew and we dealt with it. We got on TV and did our thing and we’re proud.”
Vikings members welcome America to see them perform on Mummers’ turf.
“I want to send them all tickets,” the club’s president, Tom Knight, of Third and Daly streets, said. “Build another box beside the judges’ box and let them come to Philadelphia to see what the parade is like.”
Contact Staff Writer Amanda Snyder at firstname.lastname@example.org or ext. 117.