The drummers don’t need disguises — they’ll sneak in through a service entrance where mall employees dump their refuse. The pipers, entering through a main door, have to get more creative. A teenager has telescoped his instrument into a lawn chair case and slings it over one shoulder. A man with a Sam Elliott moustache totes a holiday shopping bag with a strategically placed tube of wrapping paper. A third has stolen his grandson’s baby stroller and tucked the instrument inside, under a blanket. Having tuned up in a nearby parking lot, the 22 musicians stream toward the mall, their faces full of purpose.
A few years ago — around the time footage of dancers performing The Sound of Music in a Belgian train station went viral — Rick Freed got hooked watching flash mobs on YouTube. The former Newbury Park High School physics teacher, who once worked in Navy intelligence, was fascinated by the premise: Apparent strangers materialize in a public place for a brief, spontaneous performance, then disperse.
Rick has been a piper with the PCH band for 25 years. His son Doug, a history teacher at Westlake High School, is the drum sergeant. (Full disclosure: My sister joined the band as a drummer 18 months ago before going on hiatus to enter graduate school. I’ve been friends with the Freeds ever since.) The bagpipe, they note, barely outranks the recorder and tin whistle in respectability.
“It’s frumpy,” says Doug. “Americans see bagpipes the same as a kazoo band.”
But the flash mob idea looked too fun to resist. Rick pitched it to his bandmates, a mix of mostly male, kilt-owning adults and teens who regularly perform throughout California. The place and time were no-brainers for the SoCal holiday season: the Thousand Oaks Mall, five days before Christmas.
Two weeks until kickoff, and Rick is doing reconnaissance. After much hand wringing, the band has opted to request clearance from the mall, rather than rely on a guerilla-style approach and risk getting thrown out. “We want to be good guests,” he says.
It was a wise move. Tish Cabezas, the senior marketing manager who grants permission, says, “These unplanned performances can really disrupt the flow of traffic. With the bagpipers, we weren’t in danger of somebody trying to copy them. It wasn’t going to grow.”
The band has selected the hub outside the Macy’s Home store. Here, as throughout the shopping center, the bare floors and walls offer little to soak up sound waves. Once years ago when they were playing an outdoor gig with a petting zoo, the music got so loud the animals started stampeding. For this show, PCH has teamed up with Gold Coast Pipe Band of Camarillo, doubling their numbers.
“We’re used to people covering their ears,” says Rick. “We like to think it’s because of the volume.”
T minus two days, and the final participant tally still isn’t pinned down. The two bands haven’t practiced much together, or onsite, but everyone seems unconcerned. Bagpipers internationally share a “culture of organization,” explains Doug. For the brief set list, they’ve chosen three massed band tunes — standardized songs that any piper, anywhere in the world, knows how to play — which should make the execution a breeze. They’re like an entire fleet of flash mobbers, ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.
That is, says Rick, provided anyone cares to watch. “My fear is that everyone will be very blasé and go on their merry way.”
PCH pipe major Mike Reynolds stays on his cell phone with the drummers while they dart through the back alley, confirming that they make it through unchallenged. Finally, everyone is in place.
At 6:30 sharp, he pauses amid the throng of shoppers outside Macy’s. He opens a guitar case, tucks the bagpipe under his left arm and begins playing “Jingle Bells.” Curious shoppers stop to watch. After a few bars, he launches into “The Green Hills of Tyrol.” Within seconds, two more pipers join.
Bagpipers are entering from each direction, joining Reynolds in an ever-widening circle. The sound has drawn out shoppers and vendors from nearby stores. They line the upper railing, and downstairs a crowd has gathered. People watch the action through the windows of their cell phone cameras.
Suddenly, the rat-a-tat of the snares and the ponderous thud of the bass rumble above the wail of the bagpipes, and the drum corps bursts from an authorized personnel door near Macy’s. A cry that won’t be captured on camera erupts from the crowd. When the players finish the first song, the cheers are so loud they can’t hear Doug tapping his sticks together, calling off the final drum roll.
“At first, I thought it was kind of random,” says Rebecca Del Sesto, 20. She and her sister had only ever heard recorded bagpipes in a school talent show.
Alyssa, 21, is more emphatic. “It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard. It was so unexpected.”
Susan Deems of Camarillo was inside Macy’s when the music started, but she hurried off the escalator to watch. The drum entrance gave her chills, she says. “It was a nice holiday pick-me-up.”
Not everyone is enthusiastic. Some vendors anxious to maximize pre-holiday sales brush me off when I inquire about the music. Jose Lacayo, a Godiva associate speaking from behind a glass display case, probably speaks for many when he complains, “That was annoying. It was beautiful, but it was too loud.”
Mall Guest Services representative John Kourounis filmed the event from the second floor. Bagpipes “can be kind of an overwhelming sound,” he acknowledges, “but it’s still a public place. And it’s all in good spirit.” He grins. “I give them an A-plus.”
At the after-party, pizza and beer abound and spirits are high. There were missteps, of course: Eager family and friends hovered before the performance began. The drummers debuted a couple beats late and scrambled to catch up. As the Reporter’s theater critic, I couldn’t help longing for a bit more stagecraft. And in the days ahead, the advantages of nominating an official videographer next time around will become apparent. The first video posted to YouTube becomes the authoritative version by default, racking up hits and complicating any post-production editing.
But serendipity came through. The drummers’ thunderous entrance — an eleventh-hour addition because smuggling their instruments proved impossible — created the exponential-increase effect that distinguishes the best flash mobs. Ever the physics teacher, Rick is pleased that with 15 pipers, they ended up with an “acoustically optimum number.”
“The best-laid plans,” he jokes. “You have to improvise. It’s part of the adventure.”
For more information about PCH and Gold Coast, www.pchpipeband.org and www.goldcoastpipeband.com.