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Memories on Parade/Mummer’s the Word with Alsatia Members

by Nathan Oravec

On Saturday, November 1, downtown streets will once again welcome the annual jubilee known as the Mummers’ Parade. In its 79th guise, the parade, many may recall, was devised by the Alsatia Club, Inc., a local men’s social organization, in the fall of 1921 as a preemptive strike of sorts against Halloween vandals. That year’s maiden voyage resulted in widespread success, and the parade, with the exception of a three-year hiatus spanning 1942-1945, would continue to grow. Today the Mummers’ Parade stands as Hagerstown’s largest solitary event, with over 180 units in procession, including floats, bands and nearly 10,000 marching mummers, and attracting crowds in excess of 175,000.

The parade committee - an extensive structure in place since the event’s early days - has been meeting every night for the past week in preparation for the celebration. Alsatia members contribute their time and skills in a number of sub-committees, ranging in facets from ticket sales to bleachers, and headed up by a formation committee, which has final say as to what goes together - and how.

“Everyone works within their own area of expertise,” says Jack Hildebrand, Alsatia member for 26 years and Co-Chairman of Ticket Sales for the event. “It’s really a big operation. People really have no idea what it takes to put the parade together.”

“The formation committee has been together for so long,” says Dick Mowen, an Alsatia life member - joining in 1952 - and former Formation Committee Chairman, serving from 1962-1994, when, due to an operation, he handed the reigns to current chair, Marvin House. “We’ve had a good committee throughout the years. We’ve really stuck together.”

“Each committee has enough backup that if someone had to drop out for any reason, someone else could fill in for them,” adds Larry Artz, also an Alsatia life member - joining in 1957 and active in the parade’s formation committee ever since.

A good thing. Many variables exist, mechanical and human, including up to 180 units, which can consist of one person to entire marching bands (twenty-eight, this year alone); professional and amateur-crafted floats; 2500 bleacher seats and 3000 chairs spread over three areas; and crowds amassing over 150,000. Add all of this to an unspecified number of costumed mummers - “You never know how many you have until the night of,” says Mowen - and it helps to have everyone knowing what and who goes where.

The breakdown, according to the three members, is as such: All marching units and bands line up on Oak Hill; Floats and Cars on Potomac Avenue; Fire Engines and Ambulances on Hamilton Boulevard and Dignitaries - the Queen, etc. - at Fairground. Procession is staged so that floats and cars separate bands, to keep them from conflicting with one another. “They all flow right in together,” says Mowen, himself sounding somewhat surprised at the feat. “Some people buy seats just to watch the parade assemble.”

For decades, this process has come off without a hitch... almost.

Artz recounts the year a sudden downpour soaked the lineup notes, in essence “melting” them. Without any idea as to who marched where, those of the formation committee in charge had to improvise.

“Water soaked our sheets - nothing went the way it was supposed to,” he laughs. “We had to wing it. It certainly wasn’t anywhere near the order we planned it.” Judges on the other side of the parade route were caught off guard and, not knowing what had happened, radioed in. “We told them, ‘What you see is what you get,’” he says. “The spectators had no idea.”

While rain proved a hindrance in that situation, the parade continues no matter what - “through rain and sleet or eighty degree temperatures,” says Hildebrand.

“Whether its hot or cold,” adds Mowen, “and the parade starts at 7 p.m. whether we’re ready or not.”

Humorous anecdotes abound, culled from the friends’ many years working the parade together.

Mowen remembers the year he served as Committee President - and an organization suggested putting “a couple hundred turkeys in the parade to march down the street,” before concerns risen by the SPCA nipped the idea in the bud.

Hildebrand recalls a comical, if unknowing, parade entry. “During the parade, police only allow traffic to cross Antietam and Franklin streets. Well, someone from out of town was traveling through and happened to make a wrong turn - and wound up in the parade. So he asks an official what he should do and the guy said ‘Just smile a lot and wave.’”

Immediately proceeding the parade, as the last car, float or band passes, members of the bleacher committee begin disassembling seats and chairs while street sweepers initiate clean up. “The next morning you can barely tell that anything occurred the night before,” says Hildebrand.

In addition to the diligent Alsatia Members who return year after year to contribute to the parade, numerous city and county departments - including fire and police officials - extend their services, making the event a possibility. Continues Hildebrand, “Without the support of the city, there’s no way we could do it.”

In addition, Grand Marshals for the parade have ranged from local personalities - such as this year’s Lou Scally of NBC25 - and those abroad. “We’ve run the spectrum,” says Hildebrand,

“We had Johnny Unitas one year,” says Artz.

“Jimmy Dean,” adds Mowen.

“Didn’t we have Patsy Cline?” asks Hildebrand.

“No, I don’t think we’ve ever had Patsy Cline,” Mowen retorts.

“We’ve had Miss America several years,” says Artz.

The Mummers' Parade Queen, too, is annually crowned at a Coronation Ball, this year to be held at the Elks Club on Halloween night. The event is open to the public for a $15 donation. A party for club members, the parade committee and their guests also always follows the parade.

“And then we have our gripe meeting the week after,” laughs Artz. “No, it can be aggravating sometimes, but it’s a lot of fun. People always look forward to us.”

Says Mowen simply: “I really enjoyed being out there all those years.”

Tickets are currently on sale at the Alsatia Club, 141 W. Washington Street in Hagerstown, for the 79th Annual Mummers' Parade from 9 a.m. - 9 p.m. weekdays and from 9 a.m. to 12 noon on Saturday, November 1. The organization depends on ticket sales, comprising nearly 75% of the budget, to stage the yearly event. Pricing is $8 for a chair, and $5 for a bleacher seat. Mummers - elaborate and comically costumed marchers - are also in need. For more information, including seating locations, call the Alsatia Club at 301-739-2044. The 79th Annual Alsatia Mummers' Parade will be held Saturday, November 1 at 7 p.m., rain or shine, in Hagerstown, Maryland.

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