HAGERSTOWN -- Halloween pranksters haven't wreaked havoc on the streets of this Western Maryland community for decades.
Instead, they dress in elaborate and funny costumes and join the revelry of the annual Alsatia Mummers' Parade, which organizers boast is the biggest nighttime parade east of the Mississippi River.
"It's one of the oldest parades in the country," says Ralph DeVore, a Williamsport artist whose floats are standard in the parade and others in the U.S., including the Cherry Blossom spectacular in Washington, D.C.
Held each year around Halloween, the Alsatia Mummers' Parade attracts between 100,000 and 150,000 people -- a number comparable to the more famous Philadelphia Mummers' Parade each New Year's Day, a fact that the Mummers Museum in Philadelphia acknowledges.
And this in a mountain town of about 35,000.
"Even as big as it is, it's still a hometown event," Mr. DeVore says.
This year's parade, the 69th, starts at 7 o'clock tonight. It boasts 180 units -- including some 30 floats and more than 20 marching bands, and as many as 10,000 participants. To see it all, you'll have to watch for three hours.
The parade clogs 2 1/2 miles of Potomac Street, Hagerstown's main north-south roadway.
Like its Philadelphia cousin, the Hagerstown parade features mummers -- people disguised in masks and costumes, some unusually elaborate. Swedish immigrants brought the idea of mummers to Philadelphia in the late 1700s -- and the idea spread. In Hagerstown, any kind of costume is allowed as long as it's family-oriented, organizers say.
"People get the impression that we're exactly like the Mummers' Parade in Philadelphia," says Jack Hildebrand, chair of the parade's ticket committee. "But we interpret mummers as being either comic or elaborate. People want to have fun."
In contrast, the Philadelphia parade divides its mummers into comic, fancy, string band and fancy brigades (groups that do routines with recorded music). No string bands march in Hagerstown, and the Western Maryland marchers' costumes are generally less ornate.
Although the Hagerstown parade has grown over the years, the number of traditional mummers has declined. Mr. Hildebrand theorizes that schools and businesses don't encourage group participation as much as they used to. The parade's focus, instead, has evolved toward more and larger bands, as well as floats.
"We still have about 50 people who will dress up in mummer fashion and walk in the parade," Mr. Stouffer said. "Mostly, local people dress up."
Begun in 1921, the parade has been conducted annually, except for a three-year respite during World War II. The Alsatia Club, a men's social organization founded in 1911, initiated the parade to curb Halloween mischief, organizers say.
"It's gotten bigger and bigger over the years," says Downs Hewitt, a longtime club member.
High school and other marching bands from Western Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania play prominent roles now. So do floats -- homemade as well as those built professionally.
Among this year's entries is a float called "The Land of Oz," featuring a 50-foot-long rainbow that rains into a 70-gallon pool. The back contains a miniature replica of Emerald City.
By invitation only
The Mummers' Parade is not a parade for political candidates or political groups. Participation is by invitation only. Over the years, organizers have said "no" to local and state office seekers, and even the Ku Klux Klan.
"It's a family-oriented event," says Joe Stouffer, the parade's treasurer. "We allow incumbents, but they can't do any campaigning. We invite the office, not the politician."
Cars built after 1940 are not allowed in the parade, either.
Former grand marshals have included country singers Patsy Cline and Jimmy Dean, Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas and Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famers Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson.
Air Force Master Sgt. Scott Fales, a Boonsboro High School graduate, is this year's grand marshal. Sergeant Fales, named one of the Air Force's Outstanding Airmen for 1993, was shot in the left leg during a recent rescue mission in Somalia.
Cost is about $35,000
The parade costs the club about $35,000, Mr. Stouffer says. The 230-member club defrays costs by selling some 5,000 curbside and bleacher seats for the parade and through profits from concessions, raffle tickets and craft-show sales this weekend.
Cash prizes are awarded for costumes, marching bands and floats.
Bob O'Connor, director of the Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau in Hagerstown, said the parade weekend typically means brisk business for Hagerstown-area motels.
One of the appeals for many visitors is nostalgia.
"A lot of people come great distances to see the parade because they remember seeing it as a kid," Mr. Hildebrand says.
"It has a real Mardi Gras atmosphere. People invite friends over and have parties on their porches. It's just a fun time."
Time: 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Where: Potomac Street, Hagerstown. Some downtown streets will be closed beginning at 6 p.m. Parking will be prohibited in some areas.
Tip: Arrive an hour before the parade, dress warmly and wear layered clothing.
Tickets: Some at $5 a seat along parade route may still be available.
Information: (301) 791-7151.