Home » General subjects. Excelsior, you Fathead! » JEAN SHEPHERD–mills and flash mobs

JEAN SHEPHERD–mills and flash mobs


As some Shep enthusiasts may remember, among his acts of what may be described as a form of “performance art,” he invented “mills” which consisted of suggesting that listeners to his broadcasts gather at some public location and just quietly mill around and eventually disband as casually as they had assembled.

The ultimate example is when he was being fired in August 1956 and he suggested just such a gathering–at an empty parking lot near the then recently-burnt-down Wanamaker Building in lower Manhattan.

wanamaker 1 

wanamaker 2

(Click on the images to be able (one hopes) to read the newspaper text.)

Subsequent to Shepherd’s early mills, a somewhat related fad called “happenings” started.  The first ones were semi-planned gatherings that were somewhat scripted by what might be described as early “performance artists.” However, the participants being manipulated as part of the event, were unaware of what was planned. They were intellectually entertained by participating in an experience roughly arranged for their benefit. (Later the word came to mean any unexpected occurrence.) Recently, some extraordinary events were planned and executed–some involving professional musicians gathering in  public places and gradually beginning to perform, to the amazement and entertainment pleasure of the general public there. At least a couple of these have appeared on YouTube. I easily encountered some by typing  FLASH MOB MUSIC on YouTube.

Now, in our absurd and crass times, a bastardization of the form has begun. Paul Krassner, founder and editor of the underground REALIST of the 1960s-? and friend of Shepherd’s, just wrote an article about it:

How Corporations Co-opted the “Flash Mob”

Many companies are now producing flash-mob happenings.

September 16, 2013    

 And God said, “Let there be co-option.” Corporations are currently hiring flash mobs for marketing purposes. It was inevitable. Those rehearsed gatherings of fake spontaneity in public places were fun for the sake of fun — mostly featuring musical instruments, singing, and dancing –- that served as magnets for inadvertent audiences with smartphone cameras, helping to push such heartwarming events into viral cyberspace.

Trending is the new fad. What were once free flash mobs have been blossoming into an industry. Many companies are now producing flash-mob happenings, charging from $2,000 to $4,000, even as much $10,000. In fact, last year at a conference of pharmaceutical executives in Las Vegas, Flash Mob America was paid $35,000, in the hope, said Elizabeth Marshall — vice president of marketing for Decision Resources Group, which organized the confab — that such a happening would “get our clients excited so that they would tweet or discuss it on LinkedIn.” Ask your doctor if flash mobs are right for you.

Krassner goes on to describe the pure and non-commercial predecessors: Shepherd’s mills and other events, and adds in broadcaster (and Shepherd listener) Bob Fass and his similarly improvised events.

Why didn’t we anticipate that what started as performance art would now be debased into the inevitable commercial garbage?




  1. mygingerpig says:

    Our hero would call it “creeping meatballism.”

  2. Frank says:


    One of the seemingly non co-opted versions of the flash mob is something called Improv Everywhere that has a lot of postings on You Tube. Many of them are very clever like everyone showing up at a Best Buy store wearing blue polo shirts in the same color as the staff shirts.



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