The Music Man showed up here the other day, hoping to separate school kids from their money.
Like the fictional Prof. Harold Hill, whose fast talking convinced residents of River City, Iowa, to invest in a boys’ band, this Music Man raises hopes, makes promises and leaves town with the loot. He’s worked this con across the U.S. for more than a decade.
Each year some 20 schools cough up a total of over $5 million because they mistakenly believe they’ve earned the “honor” to play in London’s New Year’s Day parade. In fact, it’s no more an achievement than, say, getting an encouraging letter from Publisher’s Clearing House.
The charlatan is Roger Bramble, who carries the meaningless title of Deputy Lord Mayor of Westminster, and represents himself to U.S. schools as an emissary of Queen Elizabeth II. He pulls into town bearing trinkets, such as royal cuff links, tells school officials that their band has been “selected” to play in London, and gives them a full year to beg or borrow enough money to pay for it. In the case of Scottsdale’s Desert Mountain High the tab is $300,000.
It is stunning that year after year high school music teachers and administrators -- along with local media -- are taken in by this scam. Bramble and his confederates operate a travel agency. They “select” schools, usually in affluent communities like Scottsdale, without so much as a tryout or audition. They make a grand appearance, often in costume, whipping up interest.
The catch: schools can only attend if they travel to London, at inflated prices, via the organizers’ own agency. It’s no different than if a car dealer “selected” you to buy a new Cadillac and required you to pay more than the sticker price.
There are similar scams preying on students in the U.S., usually involving trips to Washington, D.C., for which students are misled into thinking they have been chosen based on merit. Often the promoters hide behind non-profits with official-sounding names, while funneling the travel money through for-profit agencies.
Impressionable students and even careless educators can be forgiven for falling for these schemes, but the degree to which local media take the bait is shameful. Recently, for example, CBS News in Baltimore gushed that the Dulaney High School band performed so well in 2011 that, “in glorious British fashion, two reps from the London parade showed up (in September) in person to ask the band to come perform in 2014.” Cost: $350,000.
On Oct. 24 The Oklahoman newspaper reported: “It’s not every day that the Queen of England invites your band to play in London on New Year’s Day.” That’s for sure. In fact there is no way that Her Majesty had anything whatsoever to do with the “invitation” to the 200-member Southmoore High band to make the trek to Europe in 2016.
Frequently Bramble conveys the impression to students that not only have they been selected by the queen, but that she’s likely to be there on New Year’s Day to hear them play - which is, as the British say, rubbish.
Here in Scottsdale, the Arizona Republic ran the story about Desert Mountain High on Oct. 26 without qualification. “We’ll start selling chocolate and washing cars,” band director Michelle Irvin told the paper, “and see if we can schedule some performances to pay for this huge expense.” The report dutifully noted that the visitors, “presented gifts to the band and the school, including a plate commemorating the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation.”
Fact is, some students do enjoy these overpriced trips, even if there is no particular honor connected with the experience. But collecting money under false pretenses is nothing more than Trouble - with a capital T, and that rhymes with C, and that stands for Con.