The Gobi Lumberjacks and the art of urban pranks 

Atlanta's urban jesters and merrymakers and their quest to gain critical mass

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Todd, who's benefited from the experiences with an elevated profile in the cutthroat NYC comedy scene and inked a TV pilot and book deal, views the missions as both a civic exercise and a way to shatter notions of what is or isn't entertainment.

"It's important for people to have experiences exercising their freedom of expression in public places and doing so without having someone's approval," he says. "As long as it's safe, fun and no one's getting hurt, I think people should have the right to do something silly on MARTA or the streets of downtown Atlanta. And it awakens people to the idea that art and creativity and comedy can happen anywhere — and not always in preapproved, expected places."

The event that really put IE on the cultural map took place on a cold Saturday afternoon in January 2008, when more than 200 people of all ages, races and backgrounds converged in Grand Central Station's vast terminal and simply froze in place.

For five solid minutes, a man leaned over to pick up a stack of scattered papers. Two lovers remained locked in a kiss. A man held bunny ears over friends' heads as they posed for a photograph.

A well-edited YouTube video of what was dubbed the "Grand Central Freeze" became a viral sensation; to date, it's been viewed nearly 29 million times.

Flaschen, a fifth-year computer science undergrad at Georgia Tech from suburban Philadelphia, and Riley, a 48-year-old graphic designer with a lifelong love of comedy, were among those who watched.

"I knew about improv, but I'd never seen people doing it in everyday life," Flaschen says of the clip. "That to me was unique. There was nothing close to that in Philly I could compare that to."

Riley, who says he's been chronically shy for most of his life, was looking to shake out of his routine, entertain strangers and seek out new experiences following the death of his wife of 17 years. Impressed by IE's brand of humor and knack for surprising the unsuspecting, he was sold on trying something similar.

"It was witty, amusing, entertaining, sometimes silly," Riley says. "But it was never stupid."

Shortly before the Grand Central Freeze hit YouTube, Todd launched the Urban Prankster Network, a message board that gave people in different cities and countries a virtual meeting place in which to organize missions.

Flaschen, who says he'd never before been involved in the performing arts, realized that Atlanta lacked a presence and started the group.

Ideas were punted around: Inviting people to an elaborate fake outdoor concert in downtown Atlanta, replete with fliers and a MySpace page for the fictitious band; staging a showdown between rabid fans of the colors red and blue; and taking over a college class midlecture. But when someone broached the idea of joining more than 20 other cities in a worldwide tribute to the Grand Central prank that helped put IE on the cultural radar, the choice seemed obvious.

On a day in mid-February, 12 members of the still unnamed group — it wouldn't get a name until several months later, when Riley suggested the Monty Python-esque name "Gobi Lumberjack Society" — met in a northwest Atlanta park to cobble together plans for the Atlantic Station freeze.

A week later, a group of about 65 met in the retail mini-city's parking lot and went over final plans. Participants set their cell phone alarms, placed them to silent mode, and started milling about Atlantic Station's courtyard.

When agents' phones hummed at precisely 6:15 p.m., the participants froze. A father and son had spilled a drink and newspaper and were frozen in the process of picking up the mess. One young guy, who bought a ring from a nearby department store minutes before the mission started, knelt in midproposal before a surprised "girlfriend."

Chefs, waiters and store clerks ventured outside to see what was happening. Bystanders, some of who thought they were witnessing a commercial shoot, tried to provoke reactions from the agents. A few onlookers even joined in.

Five minutes later, the participants unfroze and walked away without explanation. No harm, no foul. Mission accomplished.

For months, Lumberjacks would meet on the group's Urban Pranksters Network page or Facebook to offer mission ideas. Members would critique each concept or strike it down all together.

They'd also follow some simple ground rules. Getting kicked out of private property is OK and sometimes even expected, but it's important to stay on the right side of the law, Flaschen says. Equally important is that no one, bystander or participant, gets hurt. If anyone's to look like a fool, it's the participants and not the audience.

Creative Loafing Atlanta presents: Subway riders in their underwear invaded MARTA on January 10, 2010. Though the No Pants! ride is in its ninth year, many onlookers were still not in on the joke.

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