Two years ago, Cameron Hallenbeck and his girlfriend, Whitney Dunkle, dreamed of helping Orange County's ska scene to flourish. The Anaheim pair was tired of only throwing a ska show or two every few months and knew fans would appreciate more shows that were appropriate for all ages. So they took it upon themselves to make it happen.
When they entered an unassuming venue, Out of the Park Pizza in Anaheim, which happens to be owned by a former musician, Hallenbeck and Dunkle knew they found their outlet. The couple formed Pocket Entertainment soon after. "We try to make sure that it's a welcoming environment," says Dunkle, 26. "We like to make sure that our touring bands are taken care of, the Out of the Park staff is happy, and the crowds are happy. The coolest thing for me is to see the kids who usually can't see these bands play."
Pocket Entertainment routinely offers local, as well as visiting, bands an all-ages venue to play. Most of the shows are available at little to no cost for attendees.
At first, the company put on shows only on the weekends, but the schedule has since spread to include multiple shows throughout the week in genres including ska, pop/punk, soul, indie and rockabilly. Pocket Entertainment also hosts such annual events as the Skacademy Awards, which pokes fun at the uptempo, horn-driven music with a series of recognitions and performances by bands including Skapeche Mode, Comrade Cat and Karate In the Garage.
"It's no longer one or two ska shows every couple of months at the House of Blues [in Anaheim] or Slidebar [in Fullerton]," says the 27-year-old Hallenbeck, who formerly played guitar in the now-defunct Pocketeers and now plays with Half Past Two. "Now we put on ska shows usually once or twice a month. We are cultivating a scene and helping it grow. . . . It's my hope that when people come out to one of our ska shows, they won't see the same bands they always do."
According to Dan Smith, owner of the 7-year-old Out of the Park Pizza, the venue would occasionally host cover bands and karaoke, so it was a no-brainer to host the Pocket Entertainment shows. "We've always had a nighttime atmosphere, with young crowds, which is why I think it works so well," he says, "so adding on the live music has just added another component to what we kind of already had here."
Hallenbeck says he has tried booking at other venues, but none of them have fit as perfectly as Out of the Park Pizza.
Smith, who formerly played in rock bands, says the only struggle has been figuring out how a small pizza place "could fit into the music world" because it is not like most venues, which charge for tickets or have drink minimums. Bands do not have to pay to play here either. "We expect the bands to bring in the people," he explains. "I used to play at the House of Blues, Chain Reaction and all those places, then we as the band would have to sell tickets to even try playing at a place. Now, we've kind of changed that up: We open the doors for smaller bands to be able to play at an actual venue in front of people. . . . It's a struggle to find a place to play nowadays."
Evan Wohrman, lead vocalist of Orange County ska band Hooray for Our Side, says he considers Out of the Park Pizza "home."
"It's a comfortable, intimate space," he says. "And when you pack who-knows-how-many people in there, it just makes it feel like a party with all your closest friends every time."
Lucas Jakobi, bass player of OC Ska Kids, says he believes Pocket Entertainment is "solely bringing back the OC ska scene.
"As a group of kids who are mostly under 21, it is hard to find shows, so we usually have to throw our own DIY shows," the 19-year-old says. "But Pocket Entertainment has always been there to provide us with awesome shows."
He adds that while Pocket Entertainment shows have mosh pits and beer, just as at any other show, there's also a more relaxed, cool vibe. "It's always like everyone is just hanging out together," Jakobi says. "As someone who manages bands and plays in them, playing at Out of the Park is always stress-free. You just show up, plug in and rock."
The entertainment group will host its largest show in July, the second annual Ska-mic Con festival featuring Orange County ska heroes Reel Big Fish and East Coast punk/ska band Less Than Jake. "We decided to try to reach out to the biggest bands possible, and we happened to land two of the biggest ska bands in the world," Smith says. "This is definitely going to be one of the smallest shows these bands have played in a while."
The event, which takes place the same weekend as the San Diego Comic-Con, will also include performances by the Maxies, Codename: Rocky, Kill Lincoln, the Phenomenauts, GOGO13, Jelly of the Month Club and the Ziggens.
"It seems so surreal to say that we have Reel Big Fish and Less Than Jake playing [Ska-Mic Con]," Hallenbeck says. "It means a lot to me, personally, since I grew up worshipping those guys, throwing strange stuffed animals onstage and trying to sneak backstage."
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Reel Big Fish, who struck it big in the '90s with the song "Sell Out" and continue to play large venues, say they're excited to co-headline the festival, which will take place in the parking lot behind the pizzeria. "I've been hearing a lot about the shows at Out of the Park Pizza, and I think it's really cool that they have so many local bands play and are helping to keep the scene alive," says Reel Big Fish vocalist Aaron Barrett.
Because Out of the Park Pizza isn't a traditional venue, the bands won't have a green room, so they will instead hang out in the restaurant. "We don't have a space where the bands can just hang out by themselves," Smith says, adding that VIP ticket holders will have access to the eatery.
Vincent Fiorello, drummer and lyricist of Less Than Jake, says he believes Pocket Entertainment embodies the same DIY attitude that elevated ska and punk bands decades ago. "Punk shows were never regulated to just clubs in the '90s," he says. "So, hell yeah, bring on a pizza place."
Ska-mic Con at Out of the Park Pizza, 5638 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim; bit.ly/2pOZhWQ. July 21-22. $40-$80.