The turn-of-the-century sidewalks of New York had their organ grinders. Renaissance faires had their strolling minstrels. And for years now, modern shopping centers have had their Muzak.
But in 1987, the teeming marketplaces of Orange County also serenade shoppers by pianist, harpist, flutist and even string trio.
A Steinway has been making music on the second floor of Nordstrom in Costa Mesa's South Coast Plaza since the store was remodeled and expanded in May, 1986.
"It's a special touch that adds an ambiance," said Nordstrom spokeswoman Carolyn Lathrop. "It provides a nice background for shopping."
Daniel Stokols, UC Irvine professor of social ecology, said the advantage of a live performance is that it humanizes the space, making it more pleasant for shoppers to be there. "The music provides kind of a filler, or a point of interest, especially if it's a live performance," said Stokols, a music lover himself who also plays keyboard instruments.
"The people who stop to listen begin to relate to each other on a more informal basis rather than passing through as complete strangers. It may put people in a better mood because of that."
For the weary holiday shopper, the live musical performances can also provide a respite and refuge.
On a recent evening, Mike McKenzie of Orange escaped the flow of Nordstrom shoppers for a few moments by sitting on the base of a decorative pedestal as his 14-month-old daughter, Crystal, enjoyed the playing of pianist Candy Clarke.
"She's really a music lover," McKenzie said of his daughter, who listened attentively from her stroller. "It's great. It's soothing."
Clarke, who was trained in classical piano and performs 20 hours a week at the department store, played the theme from the film "Somewhere in Time" as a crowd of onlookers grew.
"I saw the movie, and I just fell in love with the music," said Cindy Howard of Costa Mesa, one of those who stopped to listen. "They just seem to play it when I'm in here."
Clarke's repertoire ranges from classical to show tunes to pop. She is one of seven pianists who perform at the department store. Another group of pianists plays at the Nordstrom in MainPlace/Santa Ana shopping center. The Nordstrom chain began putting pianos in its stores in Seattle in the late 1970s.
But Nordstrom has no lock on live entertainment. Across the street on the second floor of the Broadway in South Coast Plaza's Crystal Court, another piano is played for the enjoyment of shoppers.
Three pianists share the duties after 4 p.m. on weekdays and all day on weekends. As at Nordstrom, the pianists at the Broadway are chosen by audition.
"At this time of year it's Christmas (music), very lively upbeat tunes and some classical," said Broadway personnel manager Marina Aguilar. "It's just an added incentive to the shoppers. It gives them a calming effect.
"They stand there and request tunes. Some even walk by and sing."
A few miles to the south, at Fashion Island in Newport Beach's Newport Center, there used to be a pianist at the Irvine Ranch Farmer's Market. But early in December, when the shopping center began to pipe recorded Christmas tunes throughout the mall, the piano music was temporarily halted.
Lovers of live music need not despair, however. Fashion Island has added a flutist, a harpist and a string trio for the holiday season.
"It's not like it's a featured lounge act or something like that," said Kathleen Flood, Fashion Island marketing manager. "We aren't looking to promote an individual group, just provide nice, general entertainment for our customers."
The same reasoning is carried a bit further a quick freeway trip to the north at The City Shopping Center in Orange. But appreciative shoppers there don't pay compliments to the piano player. That's because the May Co.'s Cafe Metro features a player piano.