FREEPORT — It was a seemingly normal shopping day at L.L. Bean.
That is, until the giant conga line formed.
Southern Maine Flash Mobs, founded by Nick Salve of Saco, organized an event that drew more than 30 participants. Flash mobs are situated all over the world and take everyday activities, such as shopping, and add a bit of the unexpected to spice up people’s lives. They don’t conduct any illegal or dangerous acts, but they do try to elicit a positive reaction from observers.
Inspired by New York-based Improv Everywhere, a group that organizes pseudo-impromptu events like the New York City No Pants! Subway Ride in which more than 1,000 people rode New York City subways without their pants, Salve decided that Maine was ripe for creating laughter through the unforeseen.
“People have enough stress in their lives,” he said. “If they show up somewhere and something ridiculous is happening, if it’s able to make them laugh, that’s what we’re really doing it for.”
Saturday’s mission: form a conga line through L.L. Bean’s factory store, wind down Main Street and enter Friendly’s restaurant.
The goal: to get people to wonder what just happened, to attract others to join in and to bring a smile to the faces of onlookers.
Participants met at the store’s iconic boot at 1:30 p.m. and were anxiously milling around while they awaited instruction. Many in the crowd had never participated in a flash mob event and were looking forward to being part of the spontaneity.
“I found out about this through Facebook and had never done anything like this before,” Shanelle Dugan of Portland said. “It sounds random and totally fun. Hopefully, we get a really big line.”
Rumor had it that the location had been tipped off about the proposed flash mob happening, but it didn’t deter Salve or his excited assembly.
At L.L. Bean’s third floor café, participants blended in as shoppers until a concealed boom box began blasting Quad City DJ’s, “C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train),” the cue to form the conga line.
Shoppers laughed and watched in awe as the 38-person line wove itself through the upstairs, down into the hunting and fishing department, through the main floor and out the front doors.
“I don’t know what they’re doing, but they’re having fun,” said Judy Schrem of Wales. “They’re making everyone in the store laugh!”
The line danced its way down the steps between Ben & Jerry’s ice cream where Natalie Barkman of Amherst, Mass., bolted out from getting a cone to join them.
“Oh my God, that’s awesome! I just want to join,” she said. “I’ve never seen a giant conga line in the middle of public like that!”
Continuing down Main Street, passers-by stopped, cheered and waved, horns honked and many joined in on the fun.
It all went off without a hitch until they were turned out of Friendly’s restaurant. In keeping with the true randomness of the event, they decided to take the dancing line of people to McDonald’s, where the group entered clapping and dancing to the music emanating from the makeshift boom box.
Then, as quickly as it began, the mob dispersed, leaving people in McDonald’s stunned.
“When two people do something like this it’s annoying, but when 100 people do something like this people find it hilarious,” said Salve, “It’s all just to get a positive reaction out of people and to throw their day off in a positive way. We want to make them laugh and question what it is they just saw.”
Organizing a flash mob
Salve organizes his events through social networking sites and text-messaging services. His Web site, smflashmob.com, corresponding Facebook page and postings on Criagslist.org list events the group is organizing and help to recruit potential participants.
Those connected to him tell their friends, who tell their friends and, well, you get the point. The group has 775 dedicated followers, but Salve hopes to break 1,000 so more people show up to take part.
His first major success was in March 2009. More than 100 “mobbers” froze in place for five minutes at the Maine Mall food court, creating a surreal atmosphere for unsuspecting shoppers. After that, Salve knew he wanted to keep doing flash mob events — but bigger and better. So, he dreamt up the conga line and posted the idea.
“It really doesn’t take a whole lot of effort on my part,” he said. “I come up with an idea, I put it out there and people show up. It’s all very passive.”
But this time he attracted the attention of local photographers and videographers Mark Hensley of Yarmouth and Gary Lowell of Biddeford who will help produce a documentary about the Maine group and videos for YouTube.com.
“We’re doing this just for giggles,” Lowell said. “In Maine, you have to be creative; you have to make your own fun and the more footage you get, the better.”