King Strut

You can take the Mummer out of Philly, but you can’t take the Philly out of the Mummer. This year, a man from Newark reigns supreme.



Hall-of-famer Jim Julia, at the Mummers Museum

in Philadelphia, has participated in the famous

parade since he was 8 years old.
Photograph by Todd Vachon

www.toddvachon.com

 

 

Jim Julia points to a costume in the main lobby of the Mummers Museum in South Philadelphia.

The costume, displayed in a darkened corner, looks like something out of a haunted cabaret. Sparkling red and neon green plumage wrap what looks to be some sort of demon witch doctor. A sequined skull belt circles the get-up, which is topped by a
giant feathered headdress—with horns. It’s gaudy as hell and twice as spooky.

“I wore that one,” Julia says. “It weighed a ton.”

The Mummers don’t put any old costume in their museum. Julia is a hall-of-famer. For the past 15 years, he has captained the Downtowners, one of the largest and most celebrated clubs in Mummerdom. He played the gigantic witch doctor in the Downtowners’ presentation of “Witches and Warlocks, A Haunted Celebration” in 2006.

Julia, a 52-year-old budget analyst for Verizon who lives in Newark, may be a Delawarean in the phone book but, at heart, he’s pure struttin’ Mummer from South Philly.

Costumes like his witch doctor—as sequined and feathered and strange as they may be—represent a 107-year tradition in Philadelphia. “America’s oldest folk parade” takes place each New Year’s Day, when 15,000 participants march up Broad Street and around City Hall, dancing, picking banjos and generally making merry.

Local clubs of varying size and notoriety compete in four divisions: comics, fancies, string bands and fancy brigades. Each club has a unique history and personality, but almost all make use of colorful, sequined, fabulous ostrich-plumed costumes. Fancy brigades, like Julia’s, take everything to the highest level through elaborately choreographed dance routines and mammoth sets. The Downtowners will spend close to $100,000 on one parade—$60,000 on costumes alone.

The rules and traditions of the Mummers go on and on. To Julia, they’re routine. He’s been part of the culture all his life. It’s in his blood.

Julia’s uncles were pioneering members during the 1950s and ’60s who launched a club called Golden Crown. So Julia, born and raised in the heart of South Philly, was destined to become a Mummer.

“Growing up, I thought this is what every kid did,” Julia says. “Christmas in South Philly, there was Christmas and then, five days later, the other bookend. My neighborhood was like this incredible party that started on Christmas Eve and ended on New Years. You just partied. People would be all in the house, and the parade was like the background music.”

By age 8, Julia was marching with the Mummers. He was part of the Italian section in the club’s European Holiday theme. As he grew older, he found he enjoyed dancing and performing. Soon he was pitching ideas for music and themes.

“These great guys who came before me said I had the right idea,” Julia says. “They started looking to me as a leader.”

Former captain Bob Galvin, in his 44th year with the Downtowners, can corroborate that. “When he comes to us in his costume and makeup, it’s shattering,” Galvin says. “We have a lot of pride for him. He’s our leader.

“New Years Day, he’s second only to the Lord.”

 

It’s a Wednesday night, and for the Downtowners Fancy Brigade, that means rehearsal at the Ed O’Malley gymnasium. The gym usually houses athletic programs for youth. Tonight it is full of 90 grown men who strut and twirl like extras from “My Fair Lady.”

Preparation for New Years is a yearlong effort. Julia jokes that planning for next year begins on January 2, but, in reality, most clubs have a solid foundation built by March. By September rehearsal is all about cleaning and perfecting the dense and complicated routines.

For 2008 the Downtowners will perform “Samurai, Culture and Legend,” so they’ve worked elements of Japanese culture, like Kabuki theater, into their drill.

“If I show you this, I have to kill you,” Julia says.

He then presents three impeccable set designs the Downtowners will incorporate into this year’s show. The first depicts a Taiko drum ceremony for samurai returning from battle. The second shows a giant arch in front of a cherry blossom bridge. The third set is a re-creation of the 17th-century Shirasagijo castle. Each set is more intricate and dazzling than the last.

“We’re still working out the rigging, but the plan is for me to come out of the center here and stay suspended in the air, like ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.’”

The rest of the Downtowners are equipped with specially made swords and staffs. It’s important to note that Julia’s men are not trained dancers. They’re men’s men. Dressed in Philadelphia Eagles shirts and Penn State hats, a few have beer bellies. Most are knocking on 200 pounds. Call men like these in any other American city “fancy” and expect a knuckle sandwich in return. But inside this gym, they sashay and pirouette like, well, like Mummers.

“I tell people this is like Mardi Gras meets Broadway,” Julia says. “These guys grew up on it. They don’t see anything wrong with it. These are cops, construction workers, but they’ll put on feathers and makeup for us. It’s such a crazy dichotomy.”

Crazy probably doesn’t begin to explain dozens of grown men dancing like a high school color guard. It’s a long-standing joke that the all-male Mummers clubs are, in fact, gay. “We joke about that all the time with each other,” Julia says. The truth is, his club and many other Mummers have the support of Philly’s gay community.

In the middle of the wackiness is Julia, whistle in mouth, running through sections time and time again, tweaking a movement here, repositioning a Mummer there.

Being captain of a Mummers club is a lot like being a big-budget movie director. Julia coordinates with designers, choreographers, costumers, prop makers, and more—such as a sculptor who will craft 6-foot tigers from foam—in order to land on his interpretation of the club’s theme.

“As captain, you’re the orchestra leader,” he says. “In the end, this is my interpretation. I only have four minutes to tell this story. Sometimes you run into problems when you try to say too much.”

The club takes on the personality of its captain. Many outsiders perceive the Downtowners as one of the more laid-back clubs, and Julia is laid-back enough. He talks fast, as do a lot of South Philly folks, but he doesn’t run practice like a dictator. During a break, he pelts one of his Mummer-mates with a foam dodgeball.

But Julia is not without ego. He likes having the brightest costume and the biggest feathers. He wants all eyes on him in front of City Hall and under the lights of the Convention Center.

“That has to be there if you want your club to look its best,” he says. “You have to want that attention, that responsibility.”

In his 15th year as captain, Julia has developed that confidence. “When something goes wrong, I believe I can fix it,” he says. “You have 100 guys looking to you for answers, and it’s hard, it’s intimidating. Verizon sent me to all kinds of leadership schools, but I tell ya, I learned more about leadership from being in this club.”

So what do Julia’s fellow Delawareans know about his club? Not a whole lot, it turns out. Julia took up residence at Woodlands of Perch Creek, a neighborhood in Newark near Peoples Plaza, in 1996 after landing work in Baltimore. Living near Newark allowed him to be smack dab between his job and his Mummers. After three years, he returned to Center City Philly to work, but remained a Delaware resident.

“People here know about the Mummers. They’re aware of it,” Julia says. “But they always have a lot of questions.”

That should come as no surprise. The Mummers are ingrained in the families and neighborhoods of South Philadelphia, but not so much elsewhere. Julia’s 20-year old son Jimmy gets the same questions at the University of Delaware, where he’s in his junior year. Jimmy has been involved with the Mummers since he was five.

“He’s a very good dancer,” Julia says, beaming with pride. “We’ve watched each other play sports all our lives, but this is the one place where we’re teammates.”

The Mummers as a whole are very family oriented. Julia’s Downtowners have 32 brother combinations, and all sorts of sons and grandsons and generations have moved through the ranks. Even those who aren’t related by blood think of one another as family. They are buddies from the old neighborhood, childhood friends and friends of friends. They’ve carved out a unique niche in their pocket of Philly.

“People think the Mummers are only for one day,” Julia says. “But it’s the camaraderie of January 2 through December 31 that keeps me going. Some of my best friends are people I would never have met without this. It’s like having your own private club. What are the Elks? They’re the Mummers without costumes.

“It’s the friendship, camaraderie and being part of something bigger than yourself,” he says. “This keeps me in the neighborhood I grew up in with all my childhood friends.”

The costumer who made Julia’s witch doctor? Julia met him in first grade. 

 

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February 2017

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820 N. French Street
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Sponsor: Delaware Division of the Arts
Telephone: 302-577-8278
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Where:
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Telephone: 302-654-8638
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Cost: FREE

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Cost: FREE

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Cost: Free

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View map »


Sponsor: Delaware Division of the Arts
Telephone: 302-577-8278
Contact Name: Roxanne Stanulis
Website »

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Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

Uncover the facts, fictions, and fossils of Dinosaur Revolution as you LIVE LARGE in reptilian role-play activities. Undertake three Mesozoic Missions spanning 150 million years and mimic dinosaur...

Cost: Free with Admission

Where:
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Telephone: 302-658-9111
Website »

More information

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Cost: Adults: $9 Children (3-17): $7 Seniors (60+): $8 Under 3: FREE Members: FREE

Where:
Delaware Museum of Natural History
4840 Kennett Pike
Wilmington, DE  19807
View map »


Website »

More information

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Cost: Free with Museum admission

Where:
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2301 Kentmere Parkway
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View map »


Website »

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Contact Name: Nanticoke Weight Loss & General Surgery
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500 North Market Street
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Cost: Free

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2nd Floor, Carvel Building
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View map »


Sponsor: Delaware Division of the Arts
Telephone: 302-577-8278
Contact Name: Roxanne Stanulis
Website »

More information

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Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
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View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

Uncover the facts, fictions, and fossils of Dinosaur Revolution as you LIVE LARGE in reptilian role-play activities at the Delaware Museum of Natural History's newest special exhibit. Undertake...

Cost: Adults: $9 Children (3-17): $7 Seniors (60+): $8 Under 3: FREE Members: FREE

Where:
Delaware Museum of Natural History
4840 Kennett Pike
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View map »


Website »

More information

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Cost: see description

Where:
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501 Chandler Mill Rd
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View map »


Sponsor: The Land Conservancy
Telephone: 610-347-0347 ext.104
Website »

More information

Uncover the facts, fictions, and fossils of Dinosaur Revolution as you LIVE LARGE in reptilian role-play activities. Undertake three Mesozoic Missions spanning 150 million years and mimic dinosaur...

Cost: Free with Admission

Where:
Delaware Museum of Natural History
4840 Kennett Pike
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View map »


Telephone: 302-658-9111
Website »

More information

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Cost: Free with Museum admission

Where:
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2301 Kentmere Parkway
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View map »


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More information

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Cost: FREE

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Telephone: 302-536-5395
Contact Name: Nanticoke Weight Loss & General Surgery
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Contact Name: Nanticoke’s Maternal Child Health Clinical Educato

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Join Hagley for a night at the movies featuring classic films we all know and love. Specialty themed cocktails and food available for purchase at the event. Wear your favorite science fiction shirt...

Cost: $2 per person

Where:
Hagley Museum and Library Soda House
298 Buck Road
Wilmington, DE  19807
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[Un]Ravel, a show of photographs by Joshua Meier, will be on view in the Mezzanine Gallery from February 3-24, 2017. An opening reception to meet the artist will be held on Friday, Feb....

Cost: Free

Where:
Mezzanine Gallery
820 N. French Street
2nd Floor, Carvel Building
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Sponsor: Delaware Division of the Arts
Telephone: 302-577-8278
Contact Name: Roxanne Stanulis
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February 3 – 25 Group Show featuring still life paintings in oil by Rosemary Castiglioni; gestural animal paintings by Gay Freeborn; and plein air landscapes from Zion National Park,...

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
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Telephone: 302-654-8638
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Uncover the facts, fictions, and fossils of Dinosaur Revolution as you LIVE LARGE in reptilian role-play activities. Undertake three Mesozoic Missions spanning 150 million years and mimic dinosaur...

Cost: Free with Admission

Where:
Delaware Museum of Natural History
4840 Kennett Pike
Newark, DE  19807
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Telephone: 302-658-9111
Website »

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Uncover the facts, fictions, and fossils of Dinosaur Revolution as you LIVE LARGE in reptilian role-play activities at the Delaware Museum of Natural History's newest special exhibit. Undertake...

Cost: Adults: $9 Children (3-17): $7 Seniors (60+): $8 Under 3: FREE Members: FREE

Where:
Delaware Museum of Natural History
4840 Kennett Pike
Wilmington, DE  19807
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Website »

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Between 1917 and 1944, the Society of Independent Artists (SIA) hosted annual exhibitions for its members. Famous painters and Sunday painters were able to exhibit their work in enormous open shows...

Cost: Free with Museum admission

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
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Website »

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The Rehoboth Beach Film Society announces the next play in the exciting series of National Theatre Live screenings. National Theatre Live is a groundbreaking project that presents the best of...

Cost: $18-$20

Where:
Cinema Art Theater
17701 Dartmouth Drive, #2
Lewes, DE
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Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
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Nanticoke Weight Loss & General Surgery will host bariatric support groups on Tuesday, Feb. 7 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. and Monday, Feb. 27 from 6 to 7 p.m. in the Medical Staff...

Cost: FREE

Where:
Nanticoke Memorial Hospital
801 Middleford Road
Seaford, DE  19973
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Telephone: 302-536-5395
Contact Name: Nanticoke Weight Loss & General Surgery
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Tutto Fresco has live entertainment every Friday night from 6:30–9:30 p.m. Call for details. http://tuttofrescode.com/

Where:
Tutto Fresco
514 Philadelphia Pike
Wilmington, DE  19809
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Meeting every Friday, Bayhealth Kent General Hospital, 640 s. State Street, Dover, 7:30 pm., Private Dining Room #3 in the basement. For those who have, or think they may have a gambling problem....

Cost: 0.00

Where:
Bayhealth Kent General Hospital
640 S. State Street
Private Dining Room #3
Dover, DE  19901
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Telephone: 800-855-2CALLGA
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JOHNNY WINTER ALL STAR BAND The Johnny Winter Band has been wowing audiences everywhere with incredible music played by Johnny's band and guest artists. Join Paul Nelson and The JW Band in a...

Cost: $20 ADV + $22 DOS + FEES

Where:
World Cafe Live Wilmington
500 N Market St
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Telephone: 215-222-1400
Contact Name: MP Intern
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Now in its 8th year, the PAWS for People Conference/Annual Meeting is designed for those who love their pets, are pet enthusiasts or who want to learn more about the world of Pet Therapy. This...

Cost: $45 through 2/14; $50 after that date; $5 discount for PAWS members.

Where:
Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children
1600 Rockland Road
Wilmington, DE  19803
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Sponsor: PAWS for People
Telephone: 302-351-5622
Contact Name: Clarice Ritchie
Website »

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February 3 – 25 Group Show featuring still life paintings in oil by Rosemary Castiglioni; gestural animal paintings by Gay Freeborn; and plein air landscapes from Zion National Park,...

Cost: free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

Uncover the facts, fictions, and fossils of Dinosaur Revolution as you LIVE LARGE in reptilian role-play activities at the Delaware Museum of Natural History's newest special exhibit. Undertake...

Cost: Adults: $9 Children (3-17): $7 Seniors (60+): $8 Under 3: FREE Members: FREE

Where:
Delaware Museum of Natural History
4840 Kennett Pike
Wilmington, DE  19807
View map »


Website »

More information

Uncover the facts, fictions, and fossils of Dinosaur Revolution as you LIVE LARGE in reptilian role-play activities. Undertake three Mesozoic Missions spanning 150 million years and mimic dinosaur...

Cost: Free with Admission

Where:
Delaware Museum of Natural History
4840 Kennett Pike
Newark, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-658-9111
Website »

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The Wilmington & Western Railroad's Hockessin Art Festival is a fundraising effort to benefit the railroad. Over 25 artists will be displaying and selling limited-edition...

Cost: $3 for art show admission; $5 for train fare (children under 2 are free)

Where:
Hockessin Memorial Hall
606 Yorklyn Road
Hockessin, DE  19707
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Sponsor: Wilmington & Western Railroad
Telephone: 302-998-1930
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Are you interested in learning more about what volunteer opportunities the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation has to offer? Consider attending our Volunteer Open House at our shipyard in Wilmington, DE from...

Cost:

Where:
Kalmar Nyckel Foundation
1124 E 7th St
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Website »

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Between 1917 and 1944, the Society of Independent Artists (SIA) hosted annual exhibitions for its members. Famous painters and Sunday painters were able to exhibit their work in enormous open shows...

Cost: Free with Museum admission

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Parkway
Wilmington, DE  19806
View map »


Website »

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DCM Guests will experience, engage in, and take home different STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathmatics) activities run by Science Ambassadors from the Charter School of Wilmington...

Cost: $8.75

Where:
Delaware Children's Museum
550 Justison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Telephone: 302-425-4890
Contact Name: Joe Valenti
Website »

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The Rehoboth Beach Film Society announces the next play in the exciting series of National Theatre Live screenings. National Theatre Live is a groundbreaking project that presents the best of...

Cost: $18-$20

Where:
Cinema Art Theater
17701 Dartmouth Drive, #2
Lewes, DE
View map »


Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
Website »

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Build a hydraulic-powered machine while learning about pressure, water, and power. Families work together to solve science mysteries and engineering challenges. Activities are included in regular...

Cost: Adults: $14, Children 6-14: $5, Children 5 and under and Hagley Members: FREE

Where:
Hagley Museum and Library
200 Hagley Creek Road
Wilmington, DE  19807
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Nanticoke Weight Loss & General Surgery will host bariatric support groups on Tuesday, Feb. 7 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. and Monday, Feb. 27 from 6 to 7 p.m. in the Medical Staff...

Cost: FREE

Where:
Nanticoke Memorial Hospital
801 Middleford Road
Seaford, DE  19973
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Telephone: 302-536-5395
Contact Name: Nanticoke Weight Loss & General Surgery
Website »

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An evening of entertainment and hope at the 2017 Wilmington Heart Ball. Each year, community members, medical professionals and corporate leaders come together to celebrate the lifesaving work of...

Cost:

Where:
Chase Center on the Riverfront
815 Justison St
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Website »

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Join us for an unforgettable evening of entertainment and hope at the 2017 Wilmington Heart Ball.  Each year, community members, medical professionals and corporate leaders come together to...

Cost: $175

Where:
Chase Center on the Riverfront
815 Justison Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
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Sponsor: American Heart Association
Website »

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We are a mixture of some of the best and hardest working musicians in the Philadelphia area specializing in a mashup concept, fusing the music of The Allman Brothers Band and The Grateful Dead....

Cost: $10 + FEES

Where:
World Cafe Live- Wilmington
500 North Market Street
Wilmington, DE
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Mo Lowda & The Humble is a three piece Indie-rock group from Philadelphia, PA. The band has created a unique musical style combining various genre's ranging from garage rock to jazz fusion;...

Cost: $10 + FEES

Where:
World Cafe Live- Wilmington
500 North Market Street
Wilmington, DE  19801
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