Saturday, December 31, 2011

Remembering New Years Past

New Year’s Eve was always a big deal to me. Ever since I could remember, as a kid, my Aunt and Uncle in South Philly would have a huge New Year’s Eve party in their basement rec-room. This was in the 1970s and ’80s, back when Dick Clark ruled the airwaves but we still switched over to the station with Guy Lombardo to hear his band play Auld Lang Syne.

That basement rec-room was as late-60s-early-70s as you could get. A bachelor pad in the basement of my married Aunt & Uncle's row-home in Philly, the basement was finished in bright white stucco with dark wood furnishings, a black leatherette sofa, a dark wood bar with a black vinyl pad all around and black vinyl and chrome swivel chairs. There was a 13" B&W TV in the corner and Spanish-themed posters (I don't know how else to describe these...they had bullfighters and stuff on them) hung on the walls.

Those parties were the best. Our whole, big Italian family would get together, including grandparents, in-laws and cousins, and some of my Aunt and Uncle’s friends. They had this great old Sears Select-O-Matic console stereo that blasted out disco and Motown songs all night, while the B&W 13” TV played the New Year’s Eve show with the sound off. They had a groovy ’70s bar in that basement too, with all the top shelf liquor of the time: Smirnoff, J&B, Jack Daniels, Cuervo, Beefeater and Chivas Regal. Oh, and of course, some Michelob, in those funny-shaped bottles. I always drank Shirley Temples with a little umbrella in them...probably what led to my fascination with Tiki cocktails today.

My Mother, my Aunt and I would spend all New Year’s Eve day decorating for the party. Streamers (red, white & green, of course) and Happy New Year banners were the main decor. We would put out those little round, colored tins...either full of peanuts, or to use as ashtrays. At around three in the afternoon, my Uncle and I, sometimes with my grandfather, would walk the five blocks down to the bakery and buy a few large paper bags full of fresh rolls as they came out of the oven. (I can still imagine that incredible aroma.) The rolls were for the roast beef and sausage and peppers sandwiches that we’d have at the party, and at their New Year’s Day open house.

Those New Year’s Eve party menus stayed the same year after year, and are so ingrained in me that I still have the same stuff one New Year’s Day, every year. The before-mentioned hot roast beef au jus on kaiser rolls with dill pickle were the main event. A crock pot of sausage and peppers was the most Italian food at the party, with the rest of the menu consisting of mostly traditional American fare: Macaroni salad, potato salad (both homemade, of course), black olives, chips of all kinds, onion dip, nuts and a zillion types of home-baked cookies covered the stereo, which after a half dozen records had been loaded into the changer, doubled as a buffet table.

My Uncle or Father played bartender, which was funny since neither of them ever drank (a social cocktail or two was their limit). One year my Uncle made Frozen Banana Banshees, and although I wasn’t quite old enough to imbibe alcohol (I was eight) he made one light enough for me to taste. I was hooked. That, and a sip of Scotch when I was 12, led to a very long and happy relationship with the nectar of the Gods.

Everybody had a hat and a noisemaker. Whether it was I in my pre-teen years or my Grandparents in their 60s, I made sure everyone had a New Year’s hat or tiara, and a good, old-fashioned metal noisemaker. These were kept year after year in paper bag behind the bar, a bag full of late 1960s metal horns, spinners and clankers. Those old toys held up pretty well...we used them up into the 1980s when they finally began to rust. I managed to save two...a clanker and a mementoes. Just looking at one now brings back a flood of memories that really takes me back.

When the ball finally dropped at Midnight, we’d all yell Happy New Year!, and hug and kiss and all that mushy stuff. Then my Grandfather would immediately change the channel from ABC to CBS where Guy Lombardo would usher in the new year with that very melancholy sounding song, the way I imagined they did back in the dark ages. In contrast a bunch of bubbles would float out of the back of the bandstand, and there would be balloons and streamers everywhere. It just seemed odd to me, as a kid, that such a sad sounding song would be played to swing in the new year. soon as it was over, my 20-something year old Aunt would snap that channel right back to Dick Clark, where something like Kool and the Gang would be playing “Celebration” with a bunch of happy people dancing all over the TV. Disco was never my thing, but it beat the sad-sack sound of Auld Lang Syne.

After midnight it was always a contest to see how late we could stay up. I, being the youngest and most hard-headed, would outlast everyone by at least a few minutes. I remember my record was four a.m.; it was when I was around ten and I would break that record until I was much older, celebrating with friends in my 20s. It was in my early 20s when illnesses in the family finally forced my family to break the tradition and no longer have the parties. But I am happy to report I didn’t turn into one of those kids that abandoned the family when I got “too old” to go to those parties...I was at every one, till the end.

New Year’s Day in South Philly

It amazes me that no one outside of an 80 mile radius of Philadelphia every heard about the New Year’s Day tradition of the Mummers Parade. Well, almost no one...but even most New Yorkers I’ve talked to never heard of it...they were always too ensconced in their own parades.

The Mummers Parade started in the very early part of the 20th century. It was originally, really, just a bunch of drunk partiers who never went to sleep New Year’s Eve who took to the streets dancing and playing music, dressed up as clowns or just wearing their party clothes. It quickly evolved into a gigantic parade full of marching bands, comics, and “floats”. But this parade was different from any other, anywhere...the marching bands were not of the Sousa-playing variety, and resembled the generic military marching bands the way a banana resembles a Buick. Called “String Bands”, these marchers were made up mostly of banjos, fiddles, base fiddles, drums and Xylophones. Somewhere down the line rows of saxophones were added, and the very distinctive sound of the String Bands was born. They played (and still do) pop standards, not marching tunes, and found a natural partnership with the jazzy big band songs of the 1930s and ’40s. Even today, you’d be hard-pressed to not find at least one String Band play Golden Slippers of Chattanooga Choo Choo.

My Aunt and Uncle’s house was on Jackson, just two blocks from Broad Street in South Philadelphia, the home of the Mummers Parade. So every year they would have an open house, with lots of food, hot coffee and cookies for people going to the parade. Friends and family would stop in for a bite and to warm up before going back out the usually 20° or less winter to watch the parade go by. The menu mimicked New Year’s Eve’s, with the addition of boiled hot dogs, sliced baked ham, and lentil soup. Supposedly if you ate lentils on New Year’s, it meant you’d make a lot of money that year. Never seemed to really work for me. Oh well.

The Parade was an insane way of bringing in the new year. Thousands of people would pack the sidewalks of Broad Street, from Oregon Avenue all the way down to City Hall. Cops on horses would stride along with the parade, making sure nobody tried to join in. Vendors selling hot coffee and hot soft pretzels would make a small fortune on the sidelines. It wasn’t uncommon to see people drinking hot coffee or cocoa out of styrofoam cups...but it was equally as common to see people taking nips out of bottles in paper bags.

Watching the Mummers stut down Broad Street was certainly a unique experience. In the 1970s and ’80s, when I saw them most, they were still using musical instruments that had been used for two or three generations. Hell, they probably still use them now...and these included such huge and rare instruments such as bass saxophones (you can’t imagine how big these are until you see a guy carry one down the street), triple-snare drums, and upright basses...yes, they carried upright basses down the street. I can’t even imagine.

The main materials for Mummers costumes are feathers. Millions of feathers go into making thousands of costumes, along with glitter, mirrors, and baubles. Although this may sound like something invented by the Logo channel, I’d like to point out that this was a parade that didn’t allow gays, women, Asians, or blacks to participate until the law required them to allow everyone in (sometime in the late 1970s, believe it or not). The parade producers at the time said this racist, closed-club policy was just because of “tradition”. There were actually some pretty big fights over this nonsense, but common sense finally won out. Today, everyone is welcome to join in the parade, as it should be.

Cleaning Up

The downside to these giant parties was the giant clean-up afterwards. Since I was a kid, that meant I got to do a lot of the work. Hefty bags full of streamers, paper dishes, old food and popped balloons would fill up the alley. My Aunt, who was a neat freak, would dust and polish everything and vacuum the rugs before the guests had all left. By late afternoon on New Year’s Day, you’d never know there was a two-day event at her house. The only reminder was the lingering aroma of hot dogs and lentil beans, and my New Year’s Eve hat hanging on the vestibule door knob. As the sun went down and the hundreds of double-parked cars would pull out, my parents and I would all say goodbye, hop in the old Cadillac or vintage Chevy or ’60s Pontiac wagon or whatever old car we had that month, and head home to the Jersey Shore, so I could go back to school, sleep and slow, on January 2nd.

Sorry if there are any typos in this. I'm writing it on New Year's Eve, and I've already begun celebrating :)

-Christopher Pinto, author of
Murder Behind The Closet Door
Murder on Tiki Island
Tiki Lounge Talk