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Mummers Return to Party With Center City Seniors

December 27, 2013 By:
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Lynne Ellis, Klein Center City Seniors program coordinator, talks with Mummers saxophone player Russ Figueroa during a lunch performance Dec. 27, 2013. Photo by Eric Berger

New Year's came early this year for a small group of Mummers and the seniors they entertained.

For a decade, Bob Lightfoot and three other Mummers gave a concert at the Stiffel Senior Center in South Philadelphia around the holidays. They hadn't peformed for Jewish senior citizens since the center closed in 2011, but they made a return appearance at the Klein Center City Seniors Program lunch on Friday. 

"It's a great audience, so the job goes like that," said accordion player Lightfoot after the gig, out of the gaudy gear worn at the annual parade on New Year's Day and back in his normal clothes. "If you don't get crowd participation, forget it, it's a long, drawn out thing, but they were fantastic. They were really into it."

The four members, all New Jersey residents,  have each been playing in the string band division of the Mummers parade — but in separate brigades — for at least 30 years. After the lunch show at the Jewish Community Services Building, they sat around a table with their instruments and costumes packed away, smiling and sharing stories about the Philadelphia tradition that dates back to the 17th century.

"String band has brought all sorts of different musicians together. It's a fellowship, it really is," said Mike Sarlo, the bassist who has been marching for only 35 years and is thus "the baby of the group."

Russ Figueroa mentioned that he played in the Mummers when he first met his wife in the employee cafeteria of a department store.

"I tell her right away, 'Well, I'm a Mummer,' " said Figueroa, who plays alto saxophone and is a member of the Mummers Hall of Fame. "She says, 'You're a Mummer! My sisters and I went to the parade every year and we never knew anybody in the parade.' " He remembers thinking, "Now you're going to marry" a Mummer. "So we raised a Mummer. My son plays in Quaker City, another string band, and my grandson is coming up now."

The others also shared a bit about their own family's history.

"The name Lightfoot appears on the Declaration of Independence," said the 76-year-old accordion player. "Francis Lightfoot Lee. Look under John Hancock, second from the bottom."

"Is he a relation of yours?" the reporter asked.

"Of course he is," he said to the laughter of the other three.

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