A loose-knit musical group has abandoned the Fallbrook Village Square amid a long-running pay-to-play dispute.
The decision by the Fallbrook Drum Circle is the second of its kind by a musical group that does not charge dues to its participants or fees to its listeners. The disputes center on a small parcel that many area residents incorrectly assume is a San Diego County pocket park.
“The misconception is that is a public square,” said John Maus, whose group of bluegrass pickers and performers was the first to run afoul of the Fallbrook Village Association. “It didn’t work out real well. It just surprised us that we weren’t welcome there.”
Faced with a similar showdown, drum circle organizers gathered at the square in April for what might have been the last time. That event attracted about 25 drummers playing a range of percussion instruments, six dancers, two flute players, one guitarist and a Fallbrook resident who blurted shrill tones out of an Irish tin whistle. About 15 passersby drifted in and out while the event unfolded.
The group shifted to a less visible, but more hospitable location for their May 26 gathering. The drummers have scheduled two more sessions outside that nearby sculpture studio – June 23 and June 29 – and they hope that fledgling relationship with the studio prevents them from skipping a beat. The June 23 event will be the group’s regular gathering for the month. The June 29 gathering is planned to augment a public “iron pour” event at the California Sculpture Academy, which is located at 300 E. Alvarado Avenue.
“Rather than focus on the down side, I’m trying to give a flair to it,” said Tom Rondeau, who launched the eclectic, monthly event about a dozen years ago. “I like to say that the town’s drumbeat and heartbeat is moving three blocks.”
On the flip side, representatives of the Fallbrook Village Association say they have tried to work patiently with the drummers with little success. They say all regular users of the square are required to offset its maintenance and operating costs. They note that a lack of controls could lead to disputes over the site’s availability, or business or community complaints could surface over possible inappropriate uses.
“It’s really quite simple, it’s a privately-owned park,” said Jeannie Hathaway, who serves as the secretary of the association’s board and oversees the day-to-day operations of the Village Square.
“There are a lot of nonprofits that rent the square. The only group that has a problem with it is Tom Rondeau’s group.”
She said the drum circles are not random gatherings. Organizers send email alerts telling of upcoming events, and their stools, tents, drums and other instruments take up most of the square for an entire afternoon on event days, she noted.
Hathaway said drum circle members collected donations at one time to help offset the cost of the square’s maintenance. But those contributions disappeared and the association’s patience dwindled, she said.
The association grew out of the Fallbrook Revitalization Council, which formed in 1988 after a push to form a city sputtered in the rural unincorporated community. The Internet site for the association, which is led by a board of directors, states that its mission is to: “Increase the viability of Fallbrook’s economic, civic, cultural and artistic revitalization.”
Over the years, the association acquired the Village Square and a small park that flanks a sliver of land along South Mission Road.
The current dispute took years to reach the bubbling-over point. It comes about four years after the loose-knit group of bluegrass performers, which had dubbed itself “The Village Squares,” abandoned the site that doubles as a veterans’ memorial and contains a fountain and an information kiosk surrounded by a wrought-iron fence.
The organizers of the bluegrass group unleashed a written parting shot, but efforts to keep the group intact foundered as it shifted from one location to another before members drifted off or decided to pursue other activities.
A four-paragraph letter printed by the Village News in February 2009 detailed the standoff and asked for recommendations on another place to play. That letter noted that the drum circle also used the square, and it said Fallbrook visitors enjoyed listening to the music as they ate ice cream, sipped coffee or took a break from shopping.
“Many communities encourage this type of activity as a way to bring people downtown and maybe stay a bit longer,” John and BJ Maus said in their letter. “We felt that we were an asset to the community and, in a small way, helping to do just that.”
Rondeau and several other drum circle participants feel the same way when they contemplate being asked to pay the $20 per hour rate that the association charges local nonprofit groups to use the square.
That seems excessive, they say, especially since the drum circle doesn’t charge a fee to participate or to listen. In addition, they say it attracts many spectators and the monthly gatherings help cement Fallbrook’s reputation as a vibrant arts community.
“We are already subsidizing the arts,” said Daniel Ide, who discovered the drum circle shortly after he moved to Fallbrook about 11 years ago. “We pay for our drums and our (shade) tents.”
The May 26 move to the sculpture studio, where classes are held and studio members use the equipment to create their pieces, left some of the drummers a bit downbeat.
“We can improvise,” said Rick Krotz, who lives in San Jacinto and tries to participate in all of the Fallbrook Drum Circle outings. “The other place was good. It has a higher visibility there. People would stroll by. But it sure was nice of (the sculpture studio) to loan us this space.”
Krotz said Fallbrook Drum Circle outings are far different from the “boom fests” held on beaches or at regional parks or other locations. The Fallbrook group aims for a pleasant, melodic tone despite its constantly-changing mix of new and longtime participants and beginner, intermediate and expert performers.
“It’s always different – the people and the composition of the drums,” Krotz said. “This kind of mixture is really unique. You’ve got a lot of pros and semi-pros playing here. It’s really an interesting mix of people.”
The May 26 event was no exception. Besides many new faces, the event include a pair of participants who coaxed melodic tones out of an armful of Australian didgeridoos, and a man who played a drum, pedal and string contraption that he called a “gut bucket.”
Vanessa Powers, a Newport Beach resident, made her first visit to Fallbrook when she and a friend made a point of attending the recent drum circle event. She and her friend soon found themselves thumping some of the extra drums that circle regulars usually bring to share.
She and her friend were making plans to eat dinner at one of the local restaurants as the event wound down. A drum circle onlooker asked her if she might return in the future.
“I will if (my friend) remembers to remind me,” she said. “It was fun.”
Harriet and Joe Fleisher were another pair of newcomers. Joe is 98 and lives at Regency, a Fallbrook assisted living center. Harriet said she brought her dad to the drum circle because he enjoys taking part in music-related related activities at Regency.
“I thought, let’s try it. I had to see if he likes it,” Harriet said. “Immediately he started smiling and drumming. He’s doing something new. We’ll be back. He’ll come every month.”