Guerrilla Handbell Strikeforce

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Produced by Charlie Todd and Matt Adams / idea by Jason Eppink

For our latest mission, a 13-member handbell choir provided some unexpected accompaniment for a Salvation Army bell ringer on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. Enjoy the video first and then go behind the scenes with our report below.

Still Photos: Katie Sokoler and Chad Nicholson.
Video: Chad Nicholson, Erik Martin, Keith Haskel, Steve Marinconz, Drue Pennella & Erik Paulsen
Sound: Paul Reed
Idea by: Jason Eppink

Agent Eppink came up with the idea for Guerrilla Handbell Strikeforce several years ago but couldn’t find a handbell choir to pull it off. When he approached me about doing it with Improv Everywhere I immediately loved the idea. It sort of felt like a Christmas version of our old Best Buy mission.

Agent Eppink got in touch with Cory Davis, the bell choir conductor for Christ Church United Methodist in Manhattan, and he quickly agreed to have his choir help out. The church was located right in the heart of Midtown, which made their rehearsal room a perfect staging point for the mission.

The bells

Agent Davis arranged a version of “Joy to the World” that could start with one bell and gradually grow to include the entire choir. We wanted the mission to have a slow build.

The choir rehearsing before the mission

Since this mission was all about sound, we brought Agent Reed on board to make sure we got the best possible audio. He put wireless mics on three of the bell ringers.

Agent Reed puts a mic on Agent Davis

After the choir finished rehearsing we spent some time staging the choreography of the handbell ringers’ entrances and coordinating our video strategy. Most of the cameras used to document this mission were DSLRs. Because they look like still cameras, our agents were able to blend in with the other tourists on the street snapping photos of New York.

On the move

Agents Eppink, Adams, and I spent a couple of nights scouting the neighborhood to figure out where the Salvation Army bell ringers normally set up shop. During the day you’re likely to find them all over the place, but at night there was only one spot where they stayed late– Bloomingdale’s.


The choir hiding around the corner

As we hoped, there was a bell ringer stationed in front of the entrance to the store. The Salvation Army often uses volunteers for this job, but in New York almost all of the bell ringers are paid, seasonal employees. Our goal with this mission wasn’t to make any sort of statement about the Salvation Army (an organization that I’m sure does lots of great charitable work, but also is not without controversy), but to create an awesome moment for one bell ringer and the random New Yorkers and tourists who happened to be in the right place at the right time.

The bell ringer, moments before

The bell ringer was set up right by the curb, facing the store entrance. In order to stand behind him, some members of the choir would have to stand on the edge of the street. I was worried about the busy traffic on Lexington Avenue, so as a safety precaution I stood in the street to make sure cars stayed clear. The lane was mostly used by cabs picking up customers, so we wouldn’t gum up traffic too much for the two minutes we were there. All I needed was an orange vest and a traffic cone to look official.

Agent Davis walked out and stood next to the bell ringer with his enormous bass bell and red apron. “How you doing?” he asked, and then started playing. The juxtaposition of his huge bell and the bell ringer’s tiny one was really a prank all by itself. The bell ringer immediately started laughing.

The second agent arrives

More arrive

8 more choir members create a back row

The Salvation Army ringer becomes part of an ensemble

Once everyone was in place, the choir began their rendition of “Joy to the World.” Christmas shoppers on the street starting stopping to watch and take photos.

An employee ducks his head out to see what’s going on

My guess is that most of the people who witnessed the mission figured it was either an official Salvation Army performance or perhaps a promotion that was produced by Bloomingdale’s.

After the song ended, the handbell choir starting leaving in the reverse order in which they came, working back down to just Agent Davis and the Salvation Army worker.

Just a few minutes after it had begun, the bell ringer was again by himself on the street and the choir was nowhere to be found.

Shortly after the mission, Agent Eppink and I had conversations with the bell ringer, posing as random curious people. He didn’t speak much English, but fortunately a friend of one of the choir members who happened to be standing nearby was fluent in Spanish. We recorded a little interview with him in Spanish and then translated it:

Well, first I thought they had come from the store here, that they were part of the business. “That’s fine,” I said to myself. I saw that they all had red aprons like me… When the first guy came, I wanted to say, “Hey! Give me that bell, and I’ll give you this one!” Then I saw that they were all coming up surrounding me and I said to myself, “OK, what’s going on?” It’s Christmastime, so we’ve got to be merry… If we’re not merry here amongst ourselves, then what do we have to be merry about? But yeah, the whole thing was really nice.

Mission Accomplished


Agent Sokoler’s Flickr Set

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184 Responses to Guerrilla Handbell Strikeforce

  1. Naomi says:

    How sweet! Lovely ‘prank’, I bet you guys really brightened up his day :)

    • Craig says:

      I have to say you also generated a huge buzz in the handbell community as well. Wife is part of 2 different choirs. This would be a really neat thing to see emulated in all the state capitals of US. Question is…could you pull it off?

      • Gail says:

        I agree! Fellow bell-ringer here who is enamored with this mission. Improv Everywhere and handbells? Gotta love the combination! I’d love to see this replicated :D

  2. Veronika says:

    This is fantastic. bring out that great christmas spirit

  3. Greg says:

    Brilliant. Really nice to watch and very Christmassy.

  4. Mark W says:

    Doesn’t Salvation Army discriminate against gays? Nice effort, but not sure they’re worthy.

    • Charlie Todd says:

      This is mentioned in the mission report (I link to the controversy).

    • Amanda says:

      Great idea guys!!

      And actually, no the Salvation Army doesn’t discriminate at all! They spend an awful lot of time with everyone, doesn’t matter if they are gay or not,

      • TruthTeller says:

        Actually, Amanda, you’re just dead wrong about that. The Salvation Army has a long history of discriminating against gay people, and in fact have threatened to shut down soup kitchens that feed homeless people in both New York and San Francisco if they are forced to treat their gay employees the same way they treat their straight employees. When the San Francisco office granted health coverage to the same-sex partners of their employees, the central office of the Salvation Army changed their entire health-care policy for the whole world, just specifically to discriminate against gays. So please don’t say that the Salvation Army doesn’t discriminate, when clearly you have NO IDEA what you’re talking about.

        • Pence says:

          This is taken from the public portion of the Salvation Army’s website (under “About Us” > “Position Statement”)
          The Salvation Army holds a positive view of human sexuality. Where a man and a woman love each other, sexual intimacy is understood as a gift of God to be enjoyed within the context of heterosexual marriage. However, in the Christian view, sexual intimacy is not essential to a healthy, full, and rich life. Apart from marriage, the scriptural standard is celibacy.

          Sexual attraction to the same sex is a matter of profound complexity. Whatever the causes may be, attempts to deny its reality or to marginalize those of a same-sex orientation have not been helpful. The Salvation Army does not consider same-sex orientation blameworthy in itself. Homosexual conduct, like heterosexual conduct, requires individual responsibility and must be guided by the light of scriptural teaching.

          Scripture forbids sexual intimacy between members of the same sex. The Salvation Army believes, therefore, that Christians whose sexual orientation is primarily or exclusively same-sex are called upon to embrace celibacy as a way of life. There is no scriptural support for same-sex unions as equal to, or as an alternative to, heterosexual marriage.

          Likewise, there is no scriptural support for demeaning or mistreating anyone for reason of his or her sexual orientation. The Salvation Army opposes any such abuse.

          In keeping with these convictions, the services of The Salvation Army are available to all who qualify, without regard to sexual orientation. The fellowship of Salvation Army worship is open to all sincere seekers of faith in Christ, and membership in The Salvation Army church body is open to all who confess Christ as Savior and who accept and abide by The Salvation Army’s doctrine and discipline.

          Now they may not agree with someone’s choice to practice homosexuality but they will not discriminate in their charitable giving or employment at stores, admin support, etc. There is a difference and they do have the right to hold their views. Many practitioners of Judaism, Islam, Mormon, to name a few follow similar beliefs.

          Does agreement to disagree make any person less of a person. We may follow different beliefs but there are great needs that can be met when we can put aside our differences and work together to meet them. SA is just one of many organisations that do a great job of meeting those needs, regardless of one’s personal creed.

          • thekirk says:

            I think the target here was the bell ringer who is the only one out still ringing his bell for charity at night in the cold.

        • Karl says:

          However, those that receive assistance from the Salvation Army are NEVER discriminated against. And I do know of what I speak.

    • Jonathan McCravy says:

      Mark W, you get a facepalm.

    • Geosota says:

      Mark – You are wrong. I have worked with a variety of charitable organizations and the Salvation Army is by far the most outstanding I have ever encountered. I don’t know where you got your anti-gay story from, but it is false. They won’t refute it because they just don’t, but I will. I don’t know if you do any charity giving, but I can assure you that the Salvation Army gives the most bang for the buck. The bell-ringers get a cut from their bucket, of course, but all of the ones I have met are honest and seriously down on their luck. Unseen are many others, given jobs fixing things that are donated. They are paid, too. They are also given kindness and help repairing often seriously broken lives. Most of the people in the Salvation Army are volunteers. Their professional staff is paid far less than those in any other charity. They don’t make a big deal about that because they just don’t. If you have it in your heart this holiday season to open your wallet for the needy, I could not recommend the Salvation Army more highly.

      By the way, nice job Improv. My only complaint is that I wish it lasted longer. – George

      • TruthTeller says:

        You know, you wrote an awful lot of words words words about the Salvation Army, and even told Mark unequivocally that he was wrong…but Mark is right! The Salvation Army DOES discriminate against gay people, it always has, it says openly that it does, it does not apologize for its hatred, and your entire paragraph had nothing at all whatsoever to do with the fact that Mark was 100% correct! Really people, if you think the Salvation Army is a good organization despite the fact that they hate gays and deny them equal treatment, just admit that you’re a homophobe and be done with it. Don’t lie, don’t make uninformed statements that are wrong, and don’t say other people who are educated about the issue are wrong, when they’re not. It’s sad. Can you imagine if they treated black people the way they treat gay people? If the Salvation Army refused to give benefits to their black employees, and only gave them to their white employees?? None of you would donate a dime. But they only discriminate against gay people, so you have no problem with that at all, and even tell the gay people bringing up the subject that they’re wrong and they should shut up and go away. Very, very sad.

    • No they most certainly don’t discrimate gays, my goodness
      get your facts straight,
      Anna Beth

      • Thomas says:

        Like michelle said, they don’t allow gays in the organisation I think that counts as discrimination.
        I think you should apologize to Mark ^^

      • TruthTeller says:

        Yes, they absolutely do discriminate against gay people in their hiring policies and in their employee benefits, just to name two areas. Why you would go out of your way to make a totally factually incorrect statement like that, without bothering to do 60 seconds worth of research, is beyond me. It could only be motivated by utter ignorance and sloth, or extreme homophobic hatred. Anna Beth, are you a liar, just incredibly lazy, do you hate gay people, or is it all three…?

      • Me says:

        Not everyone may have the same experiences with the same organization, especially one as large as Salvation Army.
        It is fairly widely known that they supported efforts to overthrow anti-gay discrimination laws in certain states to avoid hiring gays.
        The organization does great work. But good work in one area does not excuse discrimination in another.

    • Scott C says:

      you do realize that the salvation army is a church? They’re not just a random charity…

      the word Salvation (as in Jesus came and died for your SALVATION) didn’t give it away?

      lol silly people

    • michael says:

      Oh relax….I’m a gay civil rights activist and don’t mind a at all. They added a bit of light to the guys night, not to mention probably brought in extra money for those in need. Do you stand outside in the freezing cold for hours ringing a bell for charity? No need to respond.
      Happy Holidays everyone.

    • Peter N says:

      This really nice display of Christmas harmony is exhibited and somehow homesexualtiy comes in. Well so long as it is going to be made an issue let me say this. Practicing Homosexuals do not line up with Christian teaching. Therefore they are not qualifed to represent a Christian organization. Just like I am excluded from an operating room to perform surgery since I know nothing about it. It is that simple. Homosexuals who recognize the practice as a sin like so many sins that we all commit are welcome in the Chruch to worship like all the rest of us sinners.

  5. mike says:

    At first I thought it said “Gorilla” and I got really excited…now I’m a little disappointed..

  6. Michelle says:

    So far as I can tell, the only way they discriminate against gays is that they won’t allow gays to join their army. But that’s enough to keep me from donating anything to them.

    • Ithinkyernuts says:

      Yeah the US Army doesn’t allow gays either, so I don’t pay any taxes whatsoever. And Canada doesn’t allow convicted DUI’s into the country either, so I boycott all canadian bacon. And the AARP doesn’t allow people under 55 to join, so I boycott all businesses that employ seniors. and… and… and… and…. the girl scouts don’t allow boys to join, so I call the police on any trespassing cookie sellers. (Just kidding!!!)

      Of course you know, hating people who hate gays is still hating.

      • carol says:

        Way to go, Ithinkyernuts – well spoken. This discrimination thing is (as always) so sad. Hate is what it is – hate. We get so busy figuring out ways to ‘boycott’ somebody or some group on a “principle’ — wait a minute — isn’t a ‘principle’ (in this case) based on a MORAL stand? Isn’t MORALITY based on biblical truths (since biblical truth – like it or not – is the basis of morality.) Taking a stand is what the Salvation Army is doing by NOT including Gays. Taking a stand is what YOU are doing by not contributing to them because of it. But I wonder — if you were in need — and the Salvation Army offered to help you — would you turn it down? Don’t be too quidk to answer….Think about it!

        • Gabriella says:

          Are you kidding me? “Biblical truth” – whatever that is – is NOT the basis of morality as a whole. I’m sorry. Next thing you’ll be telling me all people who aren’t from nations mostly populated by followers of Abrahamic religions are amoral.
          It may be the basis for your morality, but don’t tar everyone with it.
          As an aside: we were also NOT founded on Christian values.

          • Scott C says:

            ok soooo evolution is true right? and you’re an animal and I am an animal, and we make up our own rules, then why is it wrong for people to kill and eat each other? or burn down houses and schools or rape women and children?

            Three Cheers for Gabriellas Morality!!

          • audm says:

            Sorry, but historical facts refute your statement that the United States was NOT founded on Christian values. Check out a coin, a state building, etc. etc. How about reading a book on historical facts: “The Book that made America: How the Bible formed our nation” Author: Jerry Newcombe. or you can check the U.S. Government historical archives. All of the founding fathers unedited speeches and the constitution include the fact and in fact, warn that if we walk away from this principle we will face a loss of freedeom…something which is happening today as people such as you ignore the foundation on which the United States was built.

          • Tanner says:

            The The Treaty of Tripoli (an official US document) specifically states that the US was NOT founded on christianity.

            Most of the things Audm mentions as “proof” that the US was founded as a christian nation started in the 1950s! That hardly proves anything! “In god we trust” was put onto money in 1957 & the creator of the Pledge of Allegiance did NOT originally have any mention of god in it.

            Also, the main people who wrote the Constitution were people who did not believe in the christian god! How can you say that the country is falling away from the way it was founded? Don’t beleive what your church tells you, look up documents that these people actually wrote & you’ll see the truth.
            You do NOT need the bible to be moral (ask anyone not christian!). Since many of the recent wars have been waged because of your book, I don’t even see how comments like this make sense.
            Hate is hate, that was said correctly. Speaking your discontent with your wallet is hardly considered “hating” though.

        • MoralQualms says:

          i think morality is not originally based off of the bible, because wasn’t there morals before the bible was written? i think the bible is just a document that in a way was an ancient constitution, providing simple guidelines to life. as an anarchist i don’t believe in written law, but there is no doubt that the bible has AFFECTED our modern moral beliefs, especially for those who follow the bible. i also believe that there are morals that the bible is wrong about, but saying that morality is PURELY biblical is incorrect, as is saying that it is NOT AT ALL based on biblical concept. the salvation army just uses the BIBLE as a model for the goals of their institution, to give to the needy and provide “miracles” to those who need them. i personally dislike religion however, but one must be blind not to see just a few of the positive effects, even if they don’t outweigh the negative.

          you can debate it all you want, but remember to respect each others opinions. its not about winning, its about finding truth. don’t be dickholes.

        • iwonder says:

          in the bible there were instances of genocide (sodom and gomorrah) and human sacrifice. that doesn’t seem to be high up on a scale of morality to me..

      • james says:

        Ithinkyernuts, ithinkyerverycleverandfunny.

      • Sammy says:

        Thank you!! If you disagree with an organization, don’t donate to it, don’t help it, but stop with all the name calling! I believe in religious tolerance, which means we should tolerate religious beliefs, yes, even Christians. Those Christians would be fake and phony if they didn’t stand up for what they believe in. So give them a break.

      • My-knife says:

        Well, technically, ithinkyernuts, the US Army does allow gays in as long as you don’t tell them you’re gay.

        Also, anyone can join the AARP. If you are under 50 (not 55), you can join at the associate membership level. The only difference is that you don’t get a membership card and are not eligible for SOME, but not all of the discounts the group offers. Most of these are bogus and far worse than what you’d get through a AAA membership or from your college’s alumni association, but these are the facts.

        Anyway, just some fact checking for you.

        As for donating to the S.A., there is a lot of competition for my charitable dollar, I’ll choose to give it to a group that doesn’t discriminate in employment. My choice.

  7. Julie says:

    Well done, guys. A surprise Christmastime celebration for shoppers, donors, tourists, and that awesome Salvation Army volunteer alike. Wish I could’ve seen it!

    • Cindy says:

      I love the randomness of it all!!! One minute the guy is just doing his job, the next he is surrounded by a dozen bell ringers. Thanks for the smile!

  8. Mark Hurst says:

    Great job to Charlie, IE, and the Christ Church bell choir! Really nicely done.

    And for New Yorkers in the neighborhood – Christ Church itself is a hidden architectural gem in midtown – worth taking a look at the mosaics in the space – it’s open most days. Park Ave and 60th St.

  9. ashlayne says:

    Great idea!!

    To the people talking about Salvation Army — If you’ll read below the 7th picture, it clearly states: “Our goal with this mission wasn’t to make any sort of statement about the Salvation Army (an organization that I’m sure does lots of great charitable work, but also is not without controversy), but to create an awesome moment for one bell ringer and the random New Yorkers and tourists who happened to be in the right place at the right time.” They didn’t do it because it’s the Salvation Army. They did it to brighten that one guy’s day. I can respect your decisions wholeheartedly regarding the SA, but be sure you’re reading the info before you post. kthxbai

    • GC says:

      Unfortunately in this day in age people just skim through posts and do not get all the facts before commenting. Seems like that article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” is correct.

  10. Kate says:

    I bet he’ll talk about this for years to come! Way to make a man smile from ear to ear!

  11. Christina says:

    I think this was one of the best pranks yet! I love you guys!!!

  12. Aleix says:

    Sweeeeeeet! :D

  13. Jay says:

    I love the “did that just happen?” look on his face when it was over. Well done.

  14. Bill Smith says:

    What a wonderful act of kindness. Happy holidays, folks.

  15. Steve K says:

    How totally awesome! What a wonderful way to brighten peoples evening on a cold night in the city. You guys need to do something like this in Roanoke, VA. I just hope a camera man happens to be there to capture it.

    Keep up the good work!

  16. Lori L says:

    What a fabulous holiday gift to the guy and the shoppers nearby.


  17. Alison says:

    I’m smiling! Thanks for the present.

  18. the silver fox says:

    best one ever. you guys are prime time ready. the network guys need to get off their butts and get you into the game.

  19. Mickey says:

    Nice idea. Sadly, almost too simple though or over too soon should I say?

    I don’t see how one should have animosity against an organization where it’s based around a religion who doesn’t respect gays. It is their belief & it is a free country. The money you don’t give them is money that doesn’t go to a good cause. Because they don’t use the money to do anti-gay rallies, they use it to feed the poor & help the needy. Seems a sad excuse not to donate to me. They are one of the few trustworthy organizations out there (I know, I’ve had them help my family when I was young).

    • PepGiraffe says:

      That would be a good point if this were the only organization out there that helped worthy individuals, but it is not. You’re right in that it is a free country and they can believe what they want, but if I have a choice of helping people through an organization who practices beliefs similar to mine and one that practices beliefs that I personally think are wrong, there is no question about where I am giving my money.

      As for trustworthiness, I find it’s always a good idea to check the rating that gives an organization.

    • D.Nash says:

      The question you should be asking is how much MORE money would the Salvation Army bring in if they stopped discriminating against gays and lesbians? I pass their bell ringers in Chicago all the time and would be happy to toss in some change if only their “aid to the needy” didn’t come with so many unpleasant strings attached.

      Yes, it’s their belief, and it’s a free country. And they’re only hurting themselves by not opening their minds and hearts to see gays as equal citizens.

      But anyway – I still love this mission. I actually think handbell music is lovely. I would have loved to be someone walking down the street when this happened!

  20. Nacho says:

    I love how the bell ringer kept on ringing his bell to contribute to the performance.

    • Jess says:

      Me too! He looked a little intimidated at first, but the guy behind him gave him a “you too!” nod, so he kept going! That was my favorite part of the video :)