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Salvation Army bell ringer told he can’t play trumpet at Walmart


POTSDAM - Since the Potsdam Walmart store opened in 2008, Robert A. Gibbs has enjoyed standing outside the store and playing his trumpet to help raise money for the Salvation Army.

This year, however, after playing there on Wednesday he was told on Thursday that he could no longer do so.

“I was out on Wednesday and Thursday, and it was then that they stopped me,” said Mr. Gibbs, an 81-year-old retired professor who taught at the Crane School of Music in Potsdam from 1962 through 1999.

“I was playing and along comes some young fella who works for Walmart. He said, ‘You have to stop playing. You can’t do this; it’s a company policy.’ I told him that I wanted to speak to his manager and then a nice young lady, who was the assistant manager, came out and said the same thing. I told her I wanted to speak to the manager,” he said.

The manager, Chad Bogacz, who deferred comment to the store’s corporate office, then came out to speak with Mr. Gibbs.

“I could have stayed if I wanted to ring the bell and sing, which is the crazy thing. I just couldn’t play my horn.”

Mr. Gibbs said he was familiar with the story of Carl Zender, a bell ringer from Massena, who was told by the Walmart store there he couldn’t use a boom box to entertain customers while ringing the bell.

“I could understand if a guy goes out there with 16 people and has microphones and cords all over the place, but this is one guy playing a horn and ringing the bell with his other hand,” he said.

Mr. Gibbs said he felt disrespected by the situation.

“I’m not just some drunk out there flying around,” he said. “I’m saddened by this.”

After being told he could no longer play his trumpet at Walmart, Mr. Gibbs said he went home for the day, but he’s planning to continue ringing the bell for what he considers to be a great cause.

“I’ll go someplace. I’ll probably go somewhere else in town. There’s lots of places, but there’s just not as many people,” he said. “At Walmart there are always people coming in and going out.”

In fact, that’s part of the reason why Mr. Gibbs said he began ringing at Walmart.

“For years I did it in Massena at the mall, but when Walmart opened up here I started doing it over there,” he said. “It saved me from driving all the way to Massena, plus there’s a lot of people there and you want to be where there’s a lot of people.”

While he said he could understand the store not wanting to have cords on the ground, he doesn’t understand how anyone could have a problem with a man, and a very skilled one at that, playing the trumpet.

“People like it,” he said. “They would put a lot of money in that kettle for a great cause. The Salvation Army is a great cause.”

Some of Mr. Gibbs finest memories come from watching children dance around and simply drop in whatever change they had in their pockets.

“Little children would come by, and I would always think perhaps this is the first time they’ve heard live music,” he said. “They would do a little dance and then drop their pennies in the kettle.”

Offering up a bit of a history lesson, Mr. Gibbs said he can recall bell ringers wearing Santa Claus suits and being accompanied by small bands that played while someone was ringing.

“The Salvation Army is a great promoter of instrumental music. In Canada, they have Salvation Army bands and they’re good bands too,” he said.

Mr. Gibbs said he would like to see the rules enforced on a case by case basis, where local store managers are allowed to use their judgment on whether to allow an entertainer at their store.

“I understand where they’re coming from in one sense. You can’t have a bunch of drunks doing this or people with cords all over the place, but they should be able to amend the policy to the situation,” he said. “I’ve been playing trumpet for 72 years. I started when I was 9 and now I’m 81.”

Salvation Army National Public Relations Director Jennifer Byrd said in a statement released Friday afternoon the decision to not allow instruments was one made jointly between her organization and Walmart at the national level.

“The Salvation Army and Walmart welcome bell ringers that are willing to work and maintain a safe and obstruction free environment for Walmart shoppers and those who donate to the kettle. The plan we developed in coordination with Walmart excludes music and musical instruments,” she said. “The local chapter will reiterate the guidelines for this year’s plan with all of the volunteers.”

While the policy is a national one, Walmart spokesperson Kayla Whaling said incidents of bell ringers being displaced by the policy appear to be limited to Northern New York.

“We are not aware of this happening elsewhere,” she said, adding that Walmart enjoys a strong relation with the Salvation Army.

“As part of this relationship, last year we helped the Salvation Army raise $46 million,” she said, adding the decision to prohibit boom boxes and instruments was part of an annual review of the agreement between Walmart and the Salvation Army.

“Each year we develop a plan to ensure the safety of their volunteers, as well as our employees and customers,” she said, adding Walmart and the Salvation Army’s partnership includes bellringers at more than 4,000 locations across the U.S.

“With more than 4,000 Walmart locations participating in the Red Kettle program this year, we appreciate the thousands of people who are volunteering their time to help those within their own community. We understand that some bell ringers have developed a unique way to bring in some holiday cheer, however, the plan we developed with the Salvation Army excludes music and musical instruments,” Ms. Whaling said in a statement released Friday afternoon.

Ms. Byrd said despite these incidents, the Salvation Army is thankful for Walmart and all the franchise does for them.

“The Salvation Army is deeply appreciative of our more than 30-year partnership with Walmart,” she said.

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