This is not a spinoff of the famed Marvel character, but 26-year-old Jonathan ‘Thor’ McLaughlin is on his way to becoming a local hero.
The Bensalem native has had more than his fair share of struggles, including losing his father to pancreatic cancer while on six months old. Twelve years ago however, Thor started down a path that would ultimately shape his life for the better.
“I went to Bensalem High School which was down the street from the old Uptown String Band clubhouse and knew some kids who were in the band. They played a lot of complex jazz and Dixieland music which really interested and challenged me as a musician.”
It didn’t take long before Thor’s eyes were opened to what it was really like being involved with the Mummers.
“It was very unique; there is almost a subculture to it. There are parades and events you get to travel to and you are almost a celebrity when you travel to certain parts of the East Coast. I remember going up to Rhode Island and people just went nuts. It is pretty surreal.”
In 2011, Thor achieved two major accomplishments in Mummers culture, and was only 19-years-old at the time.
“In 2011 I won the Presidential Achievement Award for the first time, which is selected by the president of Uptown String Band. Earlier that year, I also became the Music Director for the Uptown String Band. It was really nice to get recognition for stepping up and taking over the position. Then in 2015, I won that same award again for my role in organizing most of the music and producing the production itself.”
It does not take long to see Thor’s dedication to his band, but the dedication does not stem from a wanting for recognition. This drive has blossomed from his desire to do the best possible job for his second family; the Uptown String Band.
“It was great having the band support me. There were a few times I couldn’t afford groceries and they would help, no questions asked. I remember one winter I couldn’t even afford oil to heat my house and three of the band members, without me knowing or even telling them about it, all pitched in to pay for my oil bill so I could have heat. People in the band know me so well, that even though I don’t show or talk about the struggle I was facing, they somehow know to be there for me.”
Not only have members of the Uptown String Band been able to support Thor in financial means, but they have also taken a mentor role in his life. One member in particular became a huge influence for the young band leader.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and it changed every year. One of the greatest influences I had was Jonathan Bojarski. He is a genius sax player and Jon was playing all this great music and playing with artists while still having a career as a radiologist. It’s because of him that I realized I could keep music and the Mummers as a passion and a huge part of my life without making it a career choice. That idea keeps music a source of fun and joy for me instead of a job.”
If there is one thing that Thor maintains about the Mummers, and his band in particular, is that there is far more to being a Mummer then just performing on New Year’s Day. There is also a sense that members across the organization are tired of being judged in a negative light resulting from last year’s parade.
“I think that what is really interesting is that most people only see us one day a year on New Year’s Day, and they don’t know we are preparing every other day of the year. We have people ranging from 12 to 74 years old that come from all walks of life; this includes contractors, doctors, and lawyers. Yet people still typecast us because of the actions of a few dumb people when at least with my group, nobody is malicious and they are all great people.”
PHILADELPHIA- It has not even been a full year since 46-year Barrel Brigade member, Chuck Tomasco, was approached with the idea of taking over Landi Comic Club.
“Steve Melynchuck knocked on my door New Year’s Day, and asked me about it then,” said Tomasco. “At first I didn’t think it would be approved since we liked just performing as the Barrel Brigade and what that entailed. However, at our meeting one week later the board unanimously agreed to buy the rights to Landi.”
The Barrel Brigade was formed in 1970 at Johnny Barrel’s Café. None of the founding members were Mummers when they started the group, and immediately joined the Hammond club which no longer exists. In 1972 they joined the Liberty comic club and stayed until 1985. The third time around was the most successful to date with the Barrel Brigade joining Murray from 1986 to 2007. After a one-year reunion with Liberty in 2008, the Barrel’s joined the Landi club in 2009 and has been ever since. Now, Tomasco owns the Landi name rather than performing under it.
It may seem like owning a club would have been a no-brainer, but at first there was hesitation among the Barrel members. Tomasco described how he already felt like they were involved in a club rather than a smaller brigade. Also, members enjoyed the laid-back nature of the Barrel Brigade and did not want to become too serious and strict. These were not concerns though the board came through with their unanimous vote.
From that point on, Tomasco fully embraced his new role as President of Landi Comic Club. Due to his leadership with the Barrel Brigade for 20 years, his election as Landi president was an easy decision. The Barrel Brigade performed with Landi for the first time back in 2009, and have strutted with them ever since. This made the transition easier on the new owners. At the time of the purchase, the Landi club was on its last leg according to Tomasco.
“Landi was barely holding on in the years leading up to us purchasing them. They were so small they were simply struggling to function properly, I mean they were doing the bare minimum, as far as participant numbers, to still remain a club.”
The event that truly cemented the new leadership was a fundraising party held at St. Edmond Church on May 10, 2016. The Landi Club brought around 80 gifts from businesses such as Sands Casino Resorts, Union League of Philadelphia, and Bocca Coal Fired Bistro in Margate BJ. These gifts were raffled off to attendees and produced enough funding to support the new owners’ start-up costs. During the same event, Landi organized a charity fundraiser which raised $1,043 towards the Joseph Briglia Scholarship Fund. This was a fund that Barrel Brigade members started 12 years ago to honor their past member Joseph Briglia. Briglia was fatally stabbed at Wolf Street Café in 2003 while watching a football game.
According to Tomasco, the other great highlight from that night was the appearance of past Sergeant of Arms for the Barrel Brigade; Harry Moyer.
“Harry was really ill at this point, hadn’t been able to march in five to ten years, but once he found out what we were doing with taking over the Landi Club, he became so excited. He told me, ‘even if they gotta take me to the party in an ambulance, I’ll be there.’ Come that night and he is strutting around as best he can and having a great time. That was something great to see, I’m glad he was able to see that before he passed away.”
For the upcoming 2017 performance, there is a big learning curve for the enthusiastic leadership. Mostly this is due to the sheer increase in participants to manage said Tomasco.
“We are still organizing the Barrel Brigade as too, so that really hasn’t changed. With all the other brigades added in though, I went from overseeing fifty to seventy people to around four-hundred.”
A new addition to this year’s parade will be San Mateo Carnavalero, one of four multicultural brigades and groups joining Landi for the 2017 parade. The two other brigades marching are the African American precision drill team Second 2 None and the Trinidadian steel drum band Philly Pan Stars Steel Orchestra. The smaller group performing with Landi is the southeastern Asian dance and music team Southeast by Southeast. Tomasco, as well as the rest of the Landi Comic Club, is extremely proud to showcase the range of diversity Philadelphia has to offer.
“It’s pretty interesting, after last year most people, including myself, realized we needed to be smarter and more sensitive to different races and minorities. For our specific group, gaining groups such as the Carnavalero’s is great because we actually have a lot to teach each other. They can help us understand and see things we were unable to before, and I along with the rest of the Landi Club can teach them how to be Mummers.”
With the 2017 parade fast approaching, the pressure to orchestrate such a large group is building. In early December, with the Landi Club still confirming the brigades marching with them, it would be easy to assume that Tomasco would be stressed beyond belief. However, that is far from the case.
“We do this because we love it; we march for ourselves and the people standing on the street. As we get closer, you realize there is still a lot to organize but I just want to have fun.”
As the performers get ready on New Year’s Day at Tomasco’s pizza place, Uncle Tomy’s, Tomasco knows that some of his Mummers will be worried about the judgment. This does not bother him though as he calmly places the responsibility on his shoulders.
“I tell the guys that we only have a block to go from the staging area to the judging area. If we can’t pull our group together for a block then there is something wrong with me. Whether we get first, tenth, or don’t place at all, I just want everyone to be having a good time, both Mummers and viewers alike.”
Part of the Mummers culture is doing things for charity. Kim Meehan, one of the captains for the Two Street Stompers Comic Brigade , said they had just finished raising $1,000 for breast cancer and were brainstorming for another project when Miller suggested the Purses Full of Hope.