Thursday, October 13, 2005
The Pink Flamingos Show Band of New Mexico Is the Entertainer to the Fortune 500
By Andrew Webb
Journal Staff Writer
For Tijeras-based rock band The Pink Flamingos, a successful gig means a middle manager or two loosened his necktie, grabbed an inflatable guitar and jumped onstage.
"We're not deciding what to play or do based on what we like," explains John de Wolf, who founded the Vegas-style show band in the mid-1980s with a group of performers from what was then Uncle Cliff's Amusement Park and has watched it grow to become one of the country's hottest corporate show bands.
"Our end goal is to create an event where people have experienced something very rare," he says. "If people tell us 'this was the most fun we've had in 10 years,' then we've succeeded."
Sixteen years since its first gig, The "Pinks," as they refer to themselves, has become a business-convention juggernaut, with some 50 members spread around the country, 100 gigs a year and an elaborate stage act filled with costume changes, lights, art and an uncanny knack for bringing even the most bashful people in the audience out of their shells.
And they're about to revamp the show to incorporate the artists, magicians, comedians and other performers who have latched on over the years as the group trekked around the world.
"We've always been a musical act," said Dan Moyer, another of the group's founders, as he enthusiastically flipped through a binder of bright costume designs and performance ideas for "Musique de Soleil," the band's new stage act that will incorporate comedy, rapid-fire portraiture and music.
"This new show is going to be a culmination of everything we've done since Cliff's in 1983," he said.
How The Pink Flamingos went from a group of down-on-their-luck hippies to performing for the Fortune 500 likes of IBM, AT&T, America Online and Boeing would seem as unlikely as the normally stodgy corporate executives who routinely join the band onstage.
"We started out in a half-sized yellow schoolbus in a campground with about $180 left," Moyer said of the founding members' inauspicious arrival on the outskirts of Albuquerque in the early 1980s.
A local offered the dozen or so travelers, who had left various jobs and educational pursuits behind to "bum around" the country, free rent in exchange for painting a house.
Cliff's, which at the time had a performance stage, eventually hired several of them to be jugglers, puppeteers, clowns and tightrope walkers and to perform as an oompah band.
"It was a blast," de Wolf said. "It was really good training."
Moyer, one of the two members of the troupe who actually possess musical skills, had done wedding gigs in other parts of the country, and conceived the idea of starting a band.
"We all just picked up instruments and started learning," de Wolf said. "We had to work harder than a lot of bands that have tons of hits."
He said the group quickly learned that most audiences responded to visual, rather than musical, performance a phenomenon that likely helped them coast through shaky early-'50s rock gigs as Frankie and the Corvettes.
"We focused on presenting a visually appealing show that entertains the eyes," he said.
By the 1990s, many of the group's members had moved to a compound of homes on shared land east of Albuquerque near Tijeras. Renamed The Pink Flamingos, the band grew to contain a revolving cast of young and old, couples who rotated between gigs and child care, and friends of the band who began taking on offstage responsibilities, such as handling the unimaginable logistics of airfare and lodging for up to 30 bandmates at a time or delivery of truckloads of equipment from show to show.
The Flamingos have played for nearly every Fortune 500 company and have toured around the world, playing for heads of state and even the Dalai Lama.
Inc Magazine, which has booked The Pink Flamingos' colorful show for several events, has called them "the official band of the Inc 500," the magazine's annual ranking of privately owned businesses.
In 1997, three founding members bought then foundering Big West Trucks, an Albuquerque light-truck sales and repair business that now employs 23 and has revenue of about $6 million a year. De Wolf, who still occasionally plays bass in the band, now devotes most of his time to running Big West, while his wife, Lisa, works at the band's management company, Celebrity Enterprises.
About 20 people call The Pink Flamingos a full-time job, while others hop in for a gig here and there.
"I just wanted this sort of lifestyle," said Shannon Lynch, who was working in a Naples, Fla., health food store when she saw the band play 11 years ago and joined. "It was just such a match."
Today, the band's 300-song repertoire defies categorization.
"We'll do big band, Broadway and '50s to contemporary rock," de Wolf says.
Given the average age of The Pinks' business convention and charity ball audiences, most of the tunes are taken from '80s and '90s rock, such as The B-52s' "Love Shack" and the Tommy James and the Shondells' 1968 hit "Mony Mony," which was later resuscitated by '80s rocker Billy Idol. A performance usually involves 10 to 20 band members on stage, singing, dancing, playing instruments and interacting with the audience, and may reach several crescendos during a night, with audience members dancing on stage and batting around beach balls and balloons.
One performance at a medical device trade show brought 50 audience members on stage, causing the platform to collapse, Moyer recalls.
The group typically doesn't start with a playlist, instead calling out the tunes on the fly as it gauges audience response, which can vary wildly between a gig at a bankers convention and a tech company gathering.
"If you make the wrong call, you can feel it in the audience's energy," Lynch says.
The group boasts a 40- to 50-percent return engagement rate considerably higher than the industry standard of about 10 percent, Moyer says.
And, like any popular band, it has its share of groupies. A Visa executive recently booked the band, which can command up to $100,000 a gig, for his birthday party. And a Wells Fargo boss not long ago asked The Flamingos to let his wife perform with them on stage a dream she had long let go unfulfilled.
"She was great," Moyer says.
The band now grosses about $1.2 million a year, though it had revenues exceeding $2 million in the years before 9/11. Now that it has become a business in and of itself, the band's income is very stable in contrast to the early years, Moyer says.
"Sometimes we didn't have enough money to get home," he says, recalling the early days on the road.
Though it originally traveled in buses, the band is so busy it now flies to most of its gigs so frequently, in fact, that Southwest Airlines has profiled them in its in-flight magazine.
"We wouldn't be able to make a profit if it wasn't for Southwest," Moyer says of what he calls the airline's flexible rescheduling and ticket cancellation policies.
The group plans to begin incorporating elements of the new "Musique de Soleil" show in the coming year. Besides original band members, the new act will involve former Broadway actors, comedians and the work of Michael Ostaski, who paints 6-by-7-foot murals and portraits in minutes.
Though they've considered it, Moyer says, The Pinks will likely never do ticketed shows.
"You lose control over your life if you do that," he says.
Besides, Lynch adds, "We wouldn't want to have to live in Las Vegas."