On the night of June 6, under cover of darkness, members of the "Albany Key Society" put up fliers inviting prospective initiates to join their shadowy group. The handbills did not provide specific instructions on how to become a "Key Keeper," but rather vague clues about the odd induction process.
Calling the number on the flyer led one to 1330 Solano Ave., address for the shop Flowerland, where interested citizens received a package of materials necessary for the tests ahead. That in turn led to the torch monument at the intersection of Solano and Key Route Blvd., where a dial code from the Flowerland package enabled callers to hear an automated message from the society's "audio stratum," leading to yet another clue.
- The society recruited members via fliers such as this.
The bizarre ritual quickly caught the attention of Albany residents like Tamara Borgfeldt. "So my friends and I went cult hunting today," she posted on Facebook. "Turns out it was just a scavenger hunt. Or is it? This is some weird Gravity Falls/Riverdale kinda shit. Pls lemme know if you got any info, my dudes."
Albany resident Mary Johnson quickly emerged as a counterforce to the Key Keepers, which she conspiratorially described as a secret society that had infiltrated Albany's government. Almost rabid in her hatred, Johnson and a small band of followers took to defacing the Key Keepers' posters. Taking to Facebook to warn Albany about the society, she posted a video alleging to have first encountered it in the 1980s at the Hotsy Totsy, where a group of men wearing key pins were reviewing papers and acting suspiciously. Once she got closer, she said, one of the men spilled his drink on the papers so she couldn't see what they said. Johnson later attended a city council meeting at which she said all the council members wore identical key pins.
Johnson posted fliers of her own, which included her phone number, but she wouldn't talk to callers because she said the Key Keepers had compromised her line. Instead, she texted one caller a copy of a threatening letter she said she had received from the Key Keepers. "It seems you have been prying into matters that do not concern you as of late, but nothing goes on in this town without our knowledge of it," the letter said. "You were observed in the act of removing posters from Solano Avenue which were deployed by our organization. This reckless action has interfered with a critical operation of ours and you would be wise to cease this behavior and keep your knowledge of our existence to yourself. You have no idea of the scope of our influence or the kind of people you are dealing with. We run this town and should you take any further actions against us we will have no choice but to bring down severe repercussions upon you and anyone else you may be working with. This will be your final warning."
- Mary Johnson was threatened by the group..
But Johnson didn't give up, instead attempting to infiltrate the group's July 7 new-member induction. Almost exactly a month after the group's fliers first appeared, Johnson and her associates assembled at the parklet in front of the As You Wish frozen yogurt store, two blocks down from the Albany Twin theater, where city councilmember and former mayor Peter Maass led the Key Keepers' initiation ceremony. Johnson harassed both passers-by and theater employees, shouting obscenities, banging on the theater's doors, and appearing mentally ill. "My impression was ... 'This an Albanyite who has gotten disturbed and freaked out,'" said Albany resident Jennifer Sanchez, (full disclosure, the mother of this reporter).
Suddenly, amid Maass' speech to the initiates, the audio cut out. A voice took over the presentation and the screen changed. Out of nowhere, Johnson and accomplice Tod Abbott commandeered the meeting, only to steal Maass' briefcase and escape with it. Other members of Johnson's group accused the Key Keepers of being a corrupt organization planning to dominate Albany. An Albany police officer arrived and arrested Maass, who was accused of plotting to use city resources to overthrow and replace Berkeley mayor Jesse Arregiun.
As Johnson's group faced off with the other Key Keepers in the median of Key Route Blvd., they made peace under the direction of society leader Alastair Faramund. He described his group as a charitable organization comprised of super-intelligent alien beings like himself who came to earth to help the people of Albany. Amid the chaos of the 1906 earthquake, Faramund said, he was stranded on earth with no way to get home, so he dedicated himself to making Albany better and created the Key Keepers. Johnson's team then built a radio to help Faramund and the Key Keepers contact their home planet. When assembled, the radio playing the lilting tones of "I Love Albany CA," which inspired a dance party with the two groups — who finally parted as friends.
In reality, the police officer who arrested Maass was none other than Albany resident Joey Rees-Hill — in character as one of several actors in what he called the "Avenue Adventure." The whole thing was an alternative reality game planned by him and Sam DuBois, who graduated from Albany High School last year and now attends the California Institute of the Arts, where he majors in technical direction and experience design. DuBois and Rees-Hill and their former Albany High classmate Kai Gerard designed and planned the game over the course of several months, receiving funding from the Albany Chamber of Commerce and the Solano Avenue Association. DuBois is already a bit of a local legend as the host of the Albany Haunt. DuBois started the now-legendary haunted house when he was only 12, and ended it in 2017 when he graduated from Albany High.
- Game designer Sam DuBois, in hardhat, and his mother Nancy DuBois, aka “Mary Johnson,” in scarf, with other co-creators.
DuBois is a bit of a natural trickster, and enjoyed people's confusion and bewilderment by the game, which was essentially a very complex and lengthy theater piece involving two entire story lines being managed simultaneously as the Key Keepers and Johnson's counter team.
Chris Treadway posted on Facebook about some of the fliers, only to eventually discover that it was part of DuBois's game. "I really liked all the acknowledgement of local history," he said. "I found the original announcement for the game very intriguing and that's why I suspected what I saw on the bulletin board was connected to that. Sam is very astute about things and I thought it was a very clever promotion." Treadway knows DuBois from the Albany Haunt. "I hope he does something like that again it was I have to say very advanced and one of the better business type promotions I've seen."
The game involved several avenue businesses, and engaged dozens of people. DuBois made it his personal mission to engage people with Solano Avenue stores. The Albany Twin was obviously involved, and rented the space to the game, which a manager said was a "cool event." It is unclear whether all of the employees harassed by Johnson were aware of the reason for their abuse. Flowerland employee Carrie Schulze who gave participants in the game clues says, "We like to do anything to support people coming in and out of the businesses on Solano Avenue... It was kind of fun to have a bunch of people."
Chamber and Avenue Association Board Member Tod Abbott said both groups thought DuBois' game was an interesting way to bring people to Solano Avenue. Abbott participated in the game and says he loved it, particularly a part that involved a hike at the Albany Bulb. But admitted there was some controversy around the game. "The signs scared some people because they didn't realize it was a game, and there was some contact I think with city officials that were kind of in character and they didn't know the context." Abbott said some people were also concerned about Johnson's state of mind.
Indeed, Johnson, played by DuBois's mother Nancy, was the character who most alarmed people. She never broke character, even when Albany resident Amy St. George posted on Facebook that fliers were probably about the Albany Haunt, and Johnson responded "This isn't benign." St George, who lives down the same from DuBois, calls him a "prankster kid" and suspected his involvement. But she thought that Johnson was genuine, and questioned her own conclusion that it was all a harmless game.
DuBois said he developed Johnson based on a stereotypical Albany resident. "She doesn't even live in Albany in the best part," he said. "She was like the quintessential Albany citizen, which we kind of poked fun at — only in the most positive possible manner." Johnson's character was very deeply developed in DuBois's mind. She was a native Albanian, a journalist, and a dog lover running a business for human dog treats that people can share with their pets. "She kind of seems crazy, and she kind of is, but there's a lot more too it than that. She's a very sweet individual who cares a lot about dogs and Albany and just sometimes a little too much." Despite the character being completely "absurdist," to go with a game that DuBois described as a comedy, a lot of the acting from DuBois's cast was improvised, and Johnson's character ran wild.
"I had a lot of people not thinking she was an actor," he said. "At one point, one of our actors who hadn't met her and then ended up together as they were assembling the torch, they didn't realize she was fake, which I hadn't really thought to brief them on. So that was really entertaining for me."
DuBois recruited Peter Maass after having been helped by him with planning and zoning issues for the Albany Haunt. "Some of this was sort of a way to both encourage him to keep his creative ideas going but also anything that could bring a little interest in life and to Solano Avenue," Maass said. "I think as a councilmember it was a great idea."
However, Maass agreed to help without being told about his characters' villainous role. "I was one of the villains in the game, which I didn't fully understand until I got into it." Maass said. "I wanted some kind of papers or lockbox back and then somebody was revealed and it turned out I really wanted to be the mayor of Berkeley?" he said. Maass confirmed that he does not, in fact, want to be mayor of Berkeley.
DuBois was happy to have him. "Me and him share kind of this understanding that there is a need for public part and for interactivity and immersiveness in small communities," DuBois said. "Sure, Disneyland exists and other larger productions ... but people need similar forms of entertainment that are not staring at computer screens and cell phones."
Overall, the game was well-received, with the exception of a few people who thought the city really was in danger. On Reddit, one concerned citizen wrote that they kept seeing posters about defending Albany on Solano Avenue and asked whether it was some sort of weird conspiracy.
Joey Rees-Hill, a friend of DuBois responsible for building the "computery stuff" such as the Key Keepers phone system, said his favorite part of the game was watching people deface the Key Keepers fliers. "I had been working on this project since January and up until that point it was very abstract, but once I saw that people were actually going out and playing our game it was really exciting to me to know that we were reaching people and they were interacting with the stuff we had been working on for so long."
DuBois made a point of having the game end happily. "I really don't like stories that end bad, end with any animosity," he said. "So I didn't want there to be animosity in the end. I wanted everyone to come together."
"Some people had a silly conversation with Mary and that was all they did, but they had a good time," he said. "And some people just encountered Mary on the street and that was all they did and they were either confused or hopefully had a laugh. ... And for me we were winning. We're just creating entertainment on Solano regardless of how deep you interact with it. And some people are going to go really deep, and befriend Mary, and hide notes in library books at the Albany library."
And the games have only begun, DuBois assures. To see what is coming next, visit SamDuBois.com, or AlbanyHauntCA on Facebook and Instagram.