High heels, a blue sequined gown, and hair on his chest

A Mummer memory, circa 1950

4 minute read
Man or woman? It was very confusing, back then.
Man or woman? It was very confusing, back then.

When I was a kid growing up in Kensington, a contingent of Mummers would parade up Kensington Avenue each year on a cold Saturday, just a few weeks after their New Year’s march up Broad Street. The parade covered a stretch from Somerset Street to Erie Avenue, where the intrepid Mummers marched in uneven counterpoint to the metallic screech of the Frankford El overhead. Their walk was a bit shorter than their New Year’s Day marathon but a treat nevertheless, especially for young kids from the neighborhoods who could not venture downtown on New Year’s Day.

In those days the weather in mid-January seemed much colder than today’s. The sun didn’t seem to shine as brightly, either. Then again, when you lived under the shadow of the Frankford El, who knew from sun? Nor did TV hold the marchers hostage to a sterile commitment to sobriety in those days. And of course the TV cameras didn’t venture onto Kensington Avenue at all. But cold or cool, sunny or cloudy (never snowy), drunk or sober, Mummery once again reared its weird head two weeks after New Year’s Day to tackle the main drag that cuts through several storied working-class Philadelphia neighborhoods.

My father, who was usually around during the holidays, would take me and my younger brother to the Kensington Avenue parade each year, seating us on the top rung of the railing that ran parallel to Kensington Avenue, marking the west boundary of Harrowgate Park next to the Tioga Street El Station. (To read my Kensington Christmas memoir, click here.)

Avoiding the trolley tracks

From our shared perch, we could see over the heads of most spectators. Even today I can conjure the sound of the string band musicians as their inevitably out-of-tune playing reverberated off the overhead tracks while they did their Doppler dance up the avenue amid the swaying feathers of their carefully stitched back pieces.

One year, as I teetered on the railing, watching the parade unwind, a guy dressed in a blue glittering dress negotiated the trolley tracks that lined Kensington Avenue. He was alone and trailing his colleagues from his comic club. He set each foot down strategically so that his high-heeled shoes avoided the slick iron trolley tracks that would otherwise cause him to slide along the avenue on his sequined ass. As he walked/marched by, he spotted us and slowly slithered over to my father, my brother and me, a clump of black chest hair curling out from the dress, his wig slipping just a bit on his large head. Apparently he knew my dad, so he wanted to greet us.

It scared the hell out of me. I wasn’t accustomed to the sight of a guy– a big guy, at that— dressed as a woman. But there he was, standing in front of us, poorly applied makeup and all, a wicked smile on his face.

By contrast, Japan

Years later, while serving in the Navy, I sometimes encountered Japanese men dressed as women. Usually their perfectly applied makeup and style of dressing camouflaged bodies that were in any case lithe and delicate to begin with. These were eerie experiences for me until I learned more about Japanese culture, especially Kabuki Theater, where the men take on principal female roles and dress accordingly. It became apparent to me that Japanese men simply became more poised when they dressed as women. They certainly possessed more finesse than the guy in the blue dress on Kensington Avenue, who, when he finally arrived at our position, greeted us in a low growl from a kind of whiskey- and tobacco-drenched voice that was all too common among the men in our neighborhood, including my father. He remained with us for a few minutes, talking in the veiled whisper that men used when small children were around. His face and my dad’s were pretty close to one another, and I thought for sure he was going to kiss Dad. Now that would have really scared me!

But nothing of the sort occurred. When they finished their muted conversation, the guy in the blue dress turned and, with a sly feminine gesture, reached down to adjust one of his high heeled shoes. When he slowly eased his way back into the parade, his ass swayed perfectly in tune as the Harrowgate String Band played– what else?— “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers.”

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