A legend among Mummers fans, Voorhees costumer Bob Finnigan is worth his weight in sequins.
Bob Finnigan has often made grown men cry—and not just any men, but the famously rough-and-tumble Mummers. Of course, such is the treacherous, sequin-lined path of one of the most eminent designers of costumes for Philadelphia’s annual New Year’s Day parade.
A lifelong South Jersey resident, Finnigan embarked on this dangerous hobby at a young age. As a 16-year-old in 1960, he cast the Polish American String Band as showgirls for a Ziegfeld Follies-themed performance. The “healthy Polish men” were stuffed into hoop-wire corsets and skirts with three-dimensional back pieces and oversized hats.
“They wanted to kill me,” Finnigan remembers. “But they lost first prize by nine-tenths of a point.” And he only improved from there—taking home a total of 42 top prizes over the course of his colorful career.
Using feathers, brocade, velvet, satin and metal, the Voorhees designer has dressed some 800 Mummers each year for half a century. At 69 and with 12 units to outfit this year, the retired department store display merchandiser will celebrate his 52nd parade.
It’s been a long journey to New Year’s Day 2012 on Broad Street, beginning when Finnigan was a student at Delaware Township High School (now Cherry Hill West). With the inaugural class, he helped pick school colors, a logo and mascot: the lion. It was his first experiment with design and color, and it was enlightening.
Of course, Finnigan had been fascinated by Mummery long before that. From age 4, he and his father would sit on peach baskets outside City Hall for the annual New Year’s parade. His father had friends among the Mummers, and encouraged his son to begin dabbling with costume design for the South Philadelphia String Band. One of his most memorable early designs was for a theme performance dubbed “Lamps for M’Lady.” His first-prize captain’s suit was illuminated with batteries, a first for the competition, inspiring a 25-year rule preventing illumination. (That year, South Philadelphia also repositioned itself to march last at dusk, prompting a still-enduring rule forbidding jockeying.)
In 1961, Finnigan began marching, too, as designer and co-captain with the Golden Crown New Years Brigade. But that didn’t stop him from designing his signature vibrant costumes for other brigades—Jokers, Bill McIntyre’s Shooting Stars and others—and serving terms as a drillmaster and costumer.
In his final strut in 1977, he made the rare decision to dress with two brigades—Top Hat and Woodland—sprinting past TV cameras from one group to the other in nothing but long johns.
Finnigan, also a former Mummers Museum curator and a TV commentator for the parade, was inducted into the String Band Hall of Fame in 2008. “Everything has intertwined,” he says.
Still, Finnigan remains a legend among Mummers, including the two South Jersey string bands, Durning and Broomall. (This year, Oaklyn’s Durning has chosen a NASCAR theme; National Park’s Broomall will use a twisted version of Tin Can Alley.)
“You need a good sketch for a costumer, but he adds way more,” says Peter Broomall, whose grandfather began the family unit in 1930. “He’s the real deal—one of the fabrics of Mummery.”
This local tradition may not be as pervasive as it once was, in part due to the prohibitive cost of performing—averaging $4,000 or more for captain’s costumes alone, and $50,000 to $100,000 per brigade all told—and in part due to evolving interests. But it’s individuals like Finnigan who keep the razzle-dazzle of Mummery alive.
Last year, Finnigan won three first-place prizes: one for a Fancy Brigade, the Jokers’ “Clash of the Titans;” one for his costume for Jokers’ captain Joe Gallagher; and a third for Polish-American captain Mark Danielewicz. For Bill McIntyre’s Shooting Stars, he helped captain Mickey Adams win five consecutive first prizes, and nine firsts overall. “He’s designed some unbelievable costumes,” Adams says. “I’m not that big a dancer, so I always said, ‘Put me in a suit and make something happen.’”
While there are only half as many Fancy Brigades—those with the most elaborate costumes—as there once were, the competition is no less fierce. “Frantic” is how Finnigan describes his emotional state in those last weeks leading up to the parade. “Stress, but anger, too, for allowing the mishaps. And when they call, it’s never the person I first dealt with because they know I’m going to yell. By then, I’m not Dr. Friendly.”
Finnigan still works by hand; his earliest sketches are in the Mummers Museum. The rest, plus his trophies and plaques (he prefers photos) are in a Berlin storage unit, which also houses a life-size portrait of Finnigan as a painted-face toy soldier in 1970 with top hat. When Finnigan began this loony love affair, South Philadelphia veteran captain Jim Donaghy—the one who glowed in the dark—called him “The kid.” In time, he became “Bob,” which evolved to “My father told me about you” to the present-day “My grandfather told me about you.”
“I’ve watched them all come around bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and knowing it all,” Finnigan says. “But, in the end, they’ve all come to me for design.”
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 9 (December, 2011).
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