The History of the Fralinger String Band

On a Friday evening, December 18, 1914, the Fralinger String Band was organized by a group of young men playing music on the corner of Second and Sigel Streets in South Philadelphia. It was on that corner where Dr. John J. Fralinger, a physician and pharmacist, owned and operated Fralinger’s Drug Store.

Leading the group was Joseph A. Ferko, who worked at the drug store. Ferko was able to convince Fralinger to buy a banner and sponsor a 28-member band in the annual Philadelphia New Year’s Day Parade. The philanthropic Doctor was a logical choice, being extremely well regarded for his leadership and interest in promoting promising young people. In fact, two years earlier Dr. Fralinger helped Ferko realize his career dream by subsidizing his tuition at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science.

The Fralinger family was already well known in the area. Dr. Fralinger’s uncle, Joseph Fralinger, founded Fralinger’s Salt Water Taffy in Atlantic City, New Jersey in the late 1880’s. Dr. Fralinger also sponsored the J.J. Fralinger Field Club, which competed as one of the top semi-professional baseball teams in Philadelphia and many of whose ranks later became musicians in the string band.

With a mere two weeks’ practice and preparation, the newly-formed J.J. Fralinger String Band made its debut in the annual Philadelphia Mummers’ Parade on January 1, 1915, led by Dr. Fralinger in a horse and carriage. The marching front man, or Captain, was none other than nineteen-year-old Joe Ferko. The band entertained its way to a third prize out of five, wearing pink and white costumes and playing “When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose” and “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”. The $25 prize was split twenty-eight ways among the bandsmen, or a whopping $.89 apiece. It was a memorable day and the dawn of a great performing organization.

The Fralinger Band continued to compete successfully in the Mummers Parade, culminating in a 1st prize in 1920 for their “King’s Jesters“ presentation. The following year, Joe Ferko was presented with the opportunity to open his own pharmacy in North Philadelphia. He subsequently resigned his pharmacy position with Dr. Fralinger and as captain of the Fralinger String Band. With his resignation came the disbanding of the Fralinger organization, as many of the original members moved with Ferko to the newly formed “North Philadelphia String Band”. The Fralinger String Band would be absent from the Philadelphia New Year’s Parade for nearly twenty years.

In 1939, several men began to meet, hoping to revive the Fralinger String Band. Their goal was to put the band back on the street in the 1941 parade. Spearheaded by Dr. Fralinger’s son, John J. Fralinger, Jr., and a man named Jim Reilly, the band once again entered the Mummers Parade on January 1, 1941. Harry Oakey was Fralinger’s captain. The band’s revival proved very successful. John J. Fralinger, Jr. would march as the band’s captain from 1942 to 1974. And Reilly’s son and grandson are members of the band today.

In 1974, the band was purchased from John Fralinger, Jr. and reorganized as the Fralinger String Band, Inc. The organization continues to operate today as a non-profit corporation run entirely by volunteer membership. The clubhouse, located at Third and Mifflin Streets in South Philadelphia, is just a few hundred feet from the original Fralinger Pharmacy where it all started in 1914.

The Fralinger String Band continues the tradition of excellence carved out by Dr. Fralinger almost a century ago. In 2008, the band made history by winning its sixth consecutive first prize in the Mummers Parade. Ironically, in winning its sixth straight, Fralinger broke the 75 year-old record of four straight first prizes set in 1932 by none other than the Joseph A. Ferko String Band. In the last 40 years, Fralinger has finished in first, second or third place 30 times, with a total of 13 first prizes – a record unmatched in modern times.

The Fralinger String Band has been a trailblazer within the String Band division, with many “firsts” to its credit. The band was one of the first to introduce the saxophone, now the predominant instrument among String Bands, and was the first to use vocalized harmony in its musical performances. Fralinger was also the first String Band to emulate brass instrument sounds with reed instruments (1971), the first String Band to feature the “Big Band” sound (1972) and the first String Band to explore the Dixieland Jazz music genre (1973). Of local distinction, Fralinger was the first String Band to receive the Philadelphia Mayor’s Achievement Award (1973) and the first to appear in a major Hollywood film (“Blowout”, featuring John Travolta in 1981).

Fralinger’s Musical Director Emeritus, Herb Smith, now in his 60’s, still parades in costume with the band. He has been a member of the band since 1959, and the musical director from 1965 until retiring from that post in 2003. Presentation Director, Mike Rayer, has been the choreographer and developer for Fralinger’s New Year’s Day productions since 1975, and a member since 1965. Both are Mummers Hall of Fame recipients and are key contributors to Fralinger’s consistency for excellence and success. Herb’s successor as musical arranger, John Wernega, has never written a score for Fralinger that has not received first prize.

Elected Captain in 1982, Bill Bowen, Jr. celebrated his 27th consecutive year in 2009. He also won the First Prize Captain award in 2008. By finishing 26 out of 27 years in a top-five Captain’s prize, Bill has amassed an unprecedented record. Overall, Bill has received ten First Prizes (1983, 84, 86, 87, 92, 98, 2000, 04, 05, 08), seven Second Prizes (1995, 97, 99, 2002, 03, 06, 07, 09), three Third Prizes (1991, 93, 2001), three Fourth Prizes (1989, 94, 96) and two Fifth prizes (1985, 88). With ten First Prizes, Bill is the “winningest” Captain in String Band history. He was inducted into the Mummers String Band Hall of Fame in 2000, along with his father and former Fralinger Captain, the late Bill Bowen, Sr.

Throughout the years, the band has traveled all across the United States and the world, as a goodwill ambassador for Philadelphia and for the mummers, performing in parades, corporate and civic events and concerts. Some highlights include the International Chinese New Year Parade in Hong Kong (2007), a march down Main Street USA in the “SpectoMagic” Parade in Disney World (2007), a trip to Ireland to perform in 2002, the 2003 Pennsylvania Governor (Ed Rendell) Inauguration Parade, several Miss America Pageant Parades, Milwaukee Circus Parade, West Virginia Strawberry Festivals, Bristol Rhode Island’s Fourth of JulyCelebration, Virginia Apple Blossom and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parades, Holyoke, Massachusetts’ Saint Patrick Day parade and a concert at the Congressional Building in Washington, D.C. In 1973, Mayor Moon Landrieu and the City of New Orleans invited Fralinger to the Mardi Gras, and the band was honored with top prize as the best musical organization. In 1997, Fralinger traveled to Hawaii where the band performed in concert and had the honor to play at the Pearl Harbor Memorial.

Since 1914, it has been a pleasure for many generations of Fralinger members to perform and delight audiences of all ages. We hope this tradition of Philadelphia Mummery and Fralinger entertainment excellence continues well into the 21st century.