Chris Higgins chases down Portland’s bagpiping, Darth Vader mask wearing, unicycling hero.
Brian Kidd rolls two unusual hobbies into one character. As the Unipiper, Kidd rides a unicycle while playing the bagpipes. He performs in a variety of costumes—most notably Darth Vader, Santa Claus, and Gandalf—while performing character-appropriate tunes on the pipes. He’s best known for playing “The Imperial March” while dressed as a kilted Darth Vader, making the rounds of a Portland parking lot.
Although the Unipiper seems tailor-made for the age of YouTube (and indeed that video topped 1.8 million views this month), his origin story begins in 2005. While Kidd studied marine biology at the University of Virginia, he found a unicycle in a dumpster and learned to ride it over the course of three weeks. He had already begun learning the bagpipes with a local group of pipers, though it took him a year to become truly proficient. He started by playing the practice chanter, a sort of training-wheels instrument that is bag-free, making it blessedly quiet.
After graduation, Kidd moved to the Outer Banks of North Carolina and began a paid internship at an aquarium. He found that he was the only bagpiper for hire in the area, and often performed at weddings and funerals. “Weddings were usually around $250, funerals were $150,” he says. Although he also rode his unicycle from time to time, he had not yet combined the two disciplines.
Beer plus bagpipes
The two hobbies came together one fateful evening in 2007, after Kidd and his friends from the aquarium had been drinking. While he says he had thought about bagpiping while riding the unicycle before, he had always been afraid of falling off and damaging the pipes. That’s a real concern when a good set of pipes runs north of $1,500.
A healthy dose of beer eliminated that worry. When a friend asked Kidd if he was capable of playing the bagpipes while riding his unicycle, Kidd put down his Corona and said, “You know, I bet I could.” And so he did.
When Kidd first combined his avocations, he lived in a cottage with his aquarium buddies, located among the strip hotels and vacation homes along the beach. “[The combination] worked so well the first time—it was actually not a disaster—so I saw an opportunity.”
He began riding up and down the strip in the evenings and recalls, “Families would call me over, people would just start throwing me money, and to this day I’ve never found any place that’s worked out better in terms of making money. You have this constant turnover at the beach, and it’s a vacation setting. People on vacation are willing to spend money.”
Restaurants also hired Kidd to perform, though he hadn’t yet added the outfits that would later be a key part of his style, nor had he adopted the Unipiper name. The appeal of a unicycling bagpiper was enough to entertain a crowd. “I was making more money busking than I was working at the aquarium,” he recalls.
He moved to Portland in late 2007 and adopted the name Unipiper, continuing his mobile busking at farmer’s markets, weddings, and funerals.
The Force is strong with this one
In 2010, Kidd got the idea that would make him a viral video legend. “I thought of Darth Vader when I went to audition for America’s Got Talent. They had try-outs in Portland that year.” Kidd got a Darth Vader mask, cut a hole in it so he could get the pipe into his mouth, and learned “The Imperial March.”
But the show’s coordinators were concerned about securing music rights and nixed the plan, forcing him to audition without the Darth Vader angle. He didn’t make it onto the show. He tried again in 2011 in Seattle, this time switching out various hats and routines, and again didn’t make it. He hopes to try again soon.
But if America’s Got Talent didn’t want a Vader-cycling piper, the Internet did. “I made a sort of heart-hearted, half-assed proof-of-concept video of me doing that, in the costume, in a parking lot, just going in a circle. That’s what ended up going viral.”
“Jay Leno has used my videos, as have Good Morning America, Inside Edition, The Soup…and I’m happy with the coverage.” Kidd says his videos first went viral around St. Patrick’s Day 2011. The day after the first Darth Vader video was featured on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, the Unipiper was scheduled to appear at CelticFest Vancouver. “I pulled out Vader for that, and it was right when it was blowing up. I got an amazing response. People lined up to take pictures with me.”
Gandalf, Mario, and dragons — oh my!
The Unipiper is malleable. Performing a new character is as simple as choosing an outfit and learning a tune. His first character was Santa Claus performing a medley of Christmas songs, and Kidd credits that idea as the seed for his popular Darth Vader performances. He has also performed as Gandalf, Mario, a red-shirted Star Trek crewman, and even a Game of Thrones dragon. (For GoT he cycles around his wife Sarah, who is naturally dressed as Daenerys Targaryen.)
“This year I added flames.” After seeing YouTube videos of other bagpipers whose pipes emitted dramatic bursts of flames, Kidd did some research. “I discovered that there’s a company in Australia that specializes in making flaming versions of all sorts of different things, including bagpipes. I worked with those guys to make a mount, custom for my bagpipes, and that was that — it seemed like a natural evolution.”
The system includes a propane tank, a small pilot light on each of the three drone pipes, and a button that allows him to release a burst of fuel. He shot a new flame-enhanced version of the Darth Vader video, in a slightly nicer parking lot next to a mural reading Keep Portland Weird. This landed him on Good Morning America again, among others. Behold:
Kidd even integrated Unipiping into his wedding in 2012. “My wife has a thing for guys in kilts,” he explains. “So it was a no-brainer for the wedding that we’d do a Scottish theme and have kilts.” At the wedding, Kidd performed using Fireside bagpipes, a quieter version of the instrument.
He posted a wedding photo on Facebook in which he wears a Darth Vader mask, a fancy kilt/suit combo, and is balanced on his unicycle. His wife Sarah wears a traditional wedding dress, but grins broadly. (Kidd confirmed that he only wore the mask for that photo; the wedding was otherwise pretty traditional.)
Kidd has heard from men in South Africa and Australia who also combine unicycling and bagpiping, but admits that he’s likely the most prominent unicycling bagpiper in the world.
“Recently, a lady sent me a video via Facebook of her 10-year-old son unicycling and playing the practice chanter. She told me that I was the inspiration for that.…One day, he’s gonna be better than I am, starting at that age.”
Update: After this story appeared, Kidd was invited to show off his skills on the Jimmy Kimmel show, where he aquitted himself nicely and freaked out Kimmel.
Chris Higgins writes for Mental Floss, This American Life, and The Atlantic. He was writing consultant for Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters. His new book is The Blogger Abides: A Practical Guide to Writing Well and Not Starving.
Chris is a frequent contributor to The Magazine. His most recent article, Boldly Gone, told the story of Trek in the Park, a summer tradition in which a Star Trek: The Original Series episode was performed. Sadly, 2013 marked the end of its precisely five-year journey.