A tribute, as only the Mummers know how

The Goodtimers Comic Club will remember one of its own this year.

By Natalie Pompilio

Inquirer Staff Writer

No one knew the Mummers like Al Heller.

He knew the history, the trivia, the secrets. He could rattle off the rules and the reasons for them. Each New Year's Day, as his Goodtimers Comic Club reached the judging stand, the cowboy-hatted Heller would step into the spotlight, announcing his entries, providing a play-by-play as they performed, sometimes singing and stepping along.

"There's no way you could replace Al at the stand. He loved it. He loved every Mummer, every club," Jim Dotzenroth, the Goodtimers' director, said. "He was amazing."

Heller, 60, a retired pharmacist, died of heart failure in August, but he will not be forgotten during this year's parade: The 1,000-plus members of the Goodtimers are dedicating their 2006 strut to him.

They will remember him as more than a Mummer historian who offered advice - or an answer to Mummers trivia - to anyone who sought it. They also will remember the man who helped pay for members' funerals and hospice care, who aided people searching for jobs or places to live, and who welcomed all to the clubhouse he owned on Third Street near Snyder Avenue.

"He was unbelievable," Dotzenroth said. "He was probably the most generous person you'll ever meet."

On New Year's Day, the Goodtimers will memorialize Heller by having a black-and-white-wearing wench place a pair of golden slippers, facing south, in front of the Broad Street judging stand.

Other clubs will put his photo on their cars or his name on their umbrellas. One Goodtimers' brigade, the Two Street Stompers, will honor two members who died this year - Heller and Francis Hilsee, 66, of Philadelphia - with its theme "Saints Resurrected."

"This is our way of remembering them and letting people know we're sad, but we also know the Mummers is all about fun and tradition and celebration," Stephen Young, the Stompers' cocaptain, said. "Even though they're not here, they're shining down on us and they'll march with us forever."

Heller grew up on "Two Street" - as Second Street is known in Mummerdom - and began strutting as a child. He founded the Goodtimers and also, at different times, was with the Murray Comic Club, directed the Phillip Hammond Club, and served as secretary of the Philadelphia New Year's Shooters and Mummers Association.

Heller believed in and fought for Mummers traditions. When the city wanted to curtail the wench brigades, he argued against it. When the parade was temporarily moved to Market Street, he fought to bring it back to Broad.

But he was also willing to change with the times: For years, he led his brigade in the traditional tuxedo and top hat. More recently, he had shifted to a rawhide jacket and cowboy hat.

"As much as things have been changing over the years, he was the liaison with the city," said Al Butikis, a member of the Goodtimers' board. "He knew just about everybody, and he was the voice of reason."

Mummer artist Mark Szpyrka said Heller always had great ideas about costumes. On his Web site, Szpyrka features a Heller quote, "Be big, three-dimensional and [use] lots of glitter."

"He said, 'The judges love glitter. They want everything to spark and shine.' Even if you're a comic, which he was," Szpyrka said.

Even when he was hospitalized this summer, Heller fretted over his beloved parade. During one of Dotzenroth's visits, Heller lay in bed making to-do lists.

"The last thing he said to me was, 'Promise me the club will go out New Year's Day,' " Dotzenroth recalled. "I said, 'Don't worry, Al. Don't worry.' And the next day he was gone."

Contact staff writer Natalie Pompilio at 215-854-2813 or npompilio@phillynews.com.