When I woke up on the floor at 4:00 in the morning on New Year’s Day in 1987, I wasn’t sure how many hours I had actually slept. I was fifteen years old and spent the night at Dawn’s grandmother’s house. Dawn was my best friend and her grandmother’s house was the family hub on 9th and Porter. Dawn’s uncles, Joe and Anthony D’Urso, and Dawn’s father, Billy Boyle, were club leaders in the The South Side Shooters, one of the Good Timers Comic Club.
I was nestled in my sleeping bag on the floor, when I heard the rowdy chatter and heavy footfalls of the guys stepping around the sleeping kids on the floor.
“Wake up everybody,” someone said. “Time to get dressed and win this thing!”
I’m pretty sure the adults in the club had stayed up all night. I was bleary-eyed as I got dressed with what felt like 30 layers of clothes: long johns, jeans, a sweat shirt and sweat pants, and a sweater. My mother, who had come to the house around 5:00 AM, had tried to give me a pair of snow pants to wear, but I pushed them away not wanting to walk like the Michelin Man for everyone on Broad Street to see. It was the Mummers Parade, after all, and everyone I knew would be watching.
“You don’t realize how cold you’re going to be,” she said.
“I’ll be fine,” I insisted, like every child not wanting to wear snow boots in a blizzard.
“You’ll be marching for three or four hours,” she warned me. “You have to bundle up.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’ll be walking and dancing, Ma. How cold can I get?”
Little did I know.
I had attended the parade all my life; as a child I watched from my father’s shoulders and as a pre-teen I watched the mummers with my gang of friends on the corner, but because I lived in walking distance from Broad and Jackson Street, I could always walk back home to warm up if it got too cold. Now, I was marching in the parade. There was no place to retreat from the cold, the wind, the spots on Broad Street that didn’t see the warmth of the sun.
This day had been a work in progress for months. Beginning in September, the whole South Side Shooters Club practiced each week at a dancing school in South Philly. Our theme was “Planet Rock Rocks Around the Clock.” The concept involved aliens dancing robotically, then bursting into full blown 50’s style rock ‘n roll choreography, complete with The Twist and a bit of jitterbugging.
Dawn and I were enthusiastic, trained dancers, but as I watched the dozen or so guys in the club try to wrangle their two left feet and count in time I thought we’d never get it right. Dawn and I were the only girls in the club since it was relatively new to have women marching. We learned dance moves like the “peek-a-boo”, and the “slide-away.” We were ducked under our partners’ arms, slid between their legs, spun in and out by guys who were as gentle and graceful as hard working, blue collar guys could be. I had to give them credit for their courage and persistence. It probably wasn’t easy to master the moves, but they were nothing if not determined.
Week after week we practiced, we memorized, we repeated. Soon the choreographer didn’t have to shout out the steps as we danced, soon the guys were counting to themselves instead of out loud, soon we were smiling, we were on point and ready.
My mother slabbed the sliver make-up on my face and spray painted my hair to match. She changed my appearance from an adolescent girl to an alien creature. Silver gloves were part of our costumes, and I was glad for the extra warmth covering my hands.
We gathered at Broad and Oregon, checked in with the officials and hooted and hollered our way up Broad Street. This was Broad Street before it was the Avenue of the Arts, before the Kimmel Center, before the parade route was altered to include Market Street, and before the 2015 parade, which sadly only includes a portion of Broad Street. This was Broad Street when the streets were dirty and grimy, when people waved and cheered to us from their windows above the store fronts, when the air smelled of stale beer and sweet liquor and the sulfur scent of fireworks from a few hours before. We shouted to wake ourselves up, to defy the freezing weather, to ring in 1987 with an attitude and a strut that could only come from South Philly.
The crowds loved us when we performed at Broad and Snyder, Broad and Ellsworth, Broad and Washington, and Broad and Pine. My silver gloves proved to be useless. A few hours into our march I thought of my mother’s prediction and I hated the fact that she was right as usual: my extremities were frozen. When we finally arrived at City Hall I couldn’t feel my toes and my fingers were icicles.
In the judge’s area, the tape machine blasted the opening words to our song, “Rock, Rock, the Planet Rock, Don’t Stop…” We popped and locked our way past our modest backdrop of the solar system, and then the iconic sound of Bill Haley’s voice, “One Two Three O’Clock, Four O’Clock, ROCK!” jolted us out of our computerized choreography and threw us into our rock ‘n roll moves. I was tossed, twirled, flipped and dipped. We were not Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, nor were we Elvis Presley and Ann Margret, but we put our heart and soul into the performance. We smiled despite the cold, we danced despite our numb feet and we shook our jazz hands with our icicle fingers like true professionals. It was hard to believe that months of work was finished in just three or four minutes.
Dawn and I were allowed to ride back down Broad Street in the club’s car and I was thawing out in the backseat exhausted and exhilarated like never before. That evening, back at Dawn’s grandmother’s house we got a phone call from the Mummer’s officials. The South Side Shooters won first place! I’ll never forget the sound of the eruption that came from that row house at that moment. All the months of hard work, the hours of planning and the frost bite were all worth it. There’s nothing like the thrill of being involved in such a huge event, an event where your city, your neighborhood embraces you and shares the beginning of the new year in a spirit of solidarity, warmth and elation.
Now that I’ve moved out of South Philly, I’ve often brought my son to the parade. He loves the noise, the smells and the hustle and bustle of the crazy celebration. I’ve told him about my time on Broad Street and I’ve taught him how to strut. It’s a dance that never leaves you, no matter where you are on New Year’s Day.
Happy New Year 2007!
My crazy family at the parade.