It all starts on Jan. 2.
“It’s always my favorite day because we put everything aside and we stop,” said Harry Brown, Jr. in the back room of the Edward O’Malley Athletic Association building in Pennsport, where the Mummers club he’s the president of, Quaker City String Band, is rehearsing on a sub-freezing December night. “We pause and we laugh, but then we start all over again.”
Since that day, Quaker City’s been preparing for the annual parade on New Year’s Day. It begins with a meeting among the club’s theme committee, headed by theme chairman Sam Regalbuto.
“We narrow it down to a bunch of ideas, then we start to put everything on the table [and discuss] what we can do musically,” explained Chalie Roetz, Quaker City’s drill director. “Then we start to figure out what can fit [visually with] all the music that we have…really we try and get the whole audio/visual aspect of the whole thing.”
Once a theme is decided upon, it gets sent to the city for approval in early February. This year’s theme is titled Awakening.
“The show is pretty much going to take you through a day in the life of ancient Egypt,” said Roetz. “We start out in the middle of Egypt, make our way into the pyramid and discover a few things.”
There will be Egyptian-style music, arranged by club member Chris Farr, to go along with the costumes.
“Everything sounds – as best we can do as Mummers – as authentic as being in Egypt as possible,” said music director Scott Graser. “You’re going to hear Egyptian drums, you’re going to hear Egyptian modes.”
Once the city accepts the theme, the club meets with a costume artist to brainstorm ideas for what they’ll be wearing. Around June is when they’ll start to see the sketches of the costumes, which are then submitted to the costumer. During this time, the music gets developed as well.
“We start hearing music in July, more so in August, then we really hit it heavy in September,” said Roetz. “In late September, we start to drill, December we start working in props. We get costumes and then that brings us to today, where we’re really just starting to put all these pieces together.”
As Quaker City’s musicians practice in the Edward O’Malley building, its dancers are practicing two blocks down the road in the upstairs practice room of the club’s building near 3rd and McKean. The club’s captain, Jimmy Good, is with them.
“It’s been an exciting year,” he told SPR at the club. “It’s tough because you get so emotionally invested in a theme and then come January, you have to start all over again.”
Good, who’s only the fourth captain in Quaker City’s 99-year history, has won three string band championships in the six years he’s served as captain, which includes last year’s championship. In total, Quaker City has 22 championships in those 99 years.
“I think that we try and be creative and tell a story that people watching the show and the judges can relate to,” said Good, when asked what has set Quaker City apart from the other string bands. “Just trying to be different and do things that haven’t been done and going for that wow factor.”
In the past 30 years, according to Brown, the worst finish for Quaker City has been sixth place.
“We’re the most winningest band of all the string bands,” gloated Brown, “which is great.”
According to Brown, Quaker City spent about $120,000 on this year’s parade, of which $80,000 was spent on costumes alone. If they win top prize, they won’t get a dime back in prize money. But that’s not why they do it anyway.
“I do it because I love being a member of Quaker City,” said Good. “My dad, my two brothers, my uncle, my cousin are all in the band. All the guys in the band are my friends and second brothers.”
Not only is Quaker City metaphorically one big family, but it incorporates pieces of lots of other families. Brown said that Quaker City has 33 active father/son combinations and 25 brother combinations.
“Family’s a big part of all Mummers, and it’s a major part of Quaker City,” he said. “It’s a sentiment that’s echoed by virtually everybody else in the band.”
“These are also all my best friends,” said Roetz. “We hang out all the time. These guys are an extension of my family.”
While it’s clear that all the guys in Quaker City have fun together, it’s important to note that Mumming isn’t just about fun. It’s also about winning.
“All the other organizations are getting better, they’re making themselves more competitive, they’re seeing what other bands are doing and they’re stepping up their game, which means we have to stay on top of our game,” said Brown. “As a result, we need to take it to another level.”
Brown says it “depends on who you ask” in the band when it comes to whether winning is more important than having fun. Personally, he makes it clear that he wants to win and compete at the highest level. “But at the same time,” he said, “I want to see a smile on everyone’s face out there.”