by Tom McBride


Singing Telegram….

Inspired Guess by the Young and Restless: Probably some sort of phone app that that gives you text messages set to music….

The Ancient Truth: Singing telegrams go back long before smart phones, but it was another type of phone—a regular old telephone (even with low-tech dial-up mechanisms)–that put the singing telegram out of business. The first singing telegram occurred in the early 1930s when a Western Union public relations guy—Western Union was the nation’s major telegram company—got the idea of having a telegram operator sing a message (over the phone) to the then famous entertainer Rudy Valle. At first everyone snickered at Western Union, but soon enough the idea caught on and became funny in a laughing with (not at) you sort of way. By the 1970s, however, telegrams themselves had become requested so infrequently that Western Union pulled the singing service. Now FAX machines, email, and text messages have put telegrams out of business completely—well, almost completely.

It is still barely possible that today’s Millennials will know what a singing telegram is. Private firms, mostly in our largest cities, offer singing telegram services, such as a babygram (the delivery guy is dressed up like a baby), or an Austin Powers or Barbara Streisand telegram, delivered by someone imitating these two luminary talents. You can get a message delivered by a belly dancer or (of course) a clown. In the past men and women in gorilla suits would do it. Pretty women and good-looking guys would also hand you the message and give you a kiss (a kissogram). There is no evidence of singing gorillas, but Western Union is still going somehow—mostly with money orders—and offers an online service in which you can get in touch with your cousin Margaret via a digitally composed (by you!) version of a Snoop Dog song. You’d better hope that Margaret hasn’t changed her preferences to Ice T.

Still, all this is esoteric and a far leap from the heyday of the singing telegram, when either the operator or the delivery boy would ring your doorbell and sing “Jenny and the kids do say today/Happy Birthday to Uncle Ray.” Even as late as the 60s there were cruelty jokes about singing telegrams, such as the one about the woman so lonely she insisted that a telegram be sung to her, only to learn, to the tune of Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races,” that her son had been killed in Vietnam. Doo-Dah.

What really killed the singing telegram, though, was the same thing that killed the non-singing telegram: the telephone. Before everybody had a phone, the telegram was the only way to get a quick message to anyone far away. There was an infallible inverse proportion between the availability of the telephone and the frequency of demand for the telegram. As the former went up, the latter went down. Unlike that new miracle of communications, digital emails and text messages, the technology of the telegram was not mysterious to most folks. They knew all about the Morse Code of long and short beeps sent through wires and decoded at the other end by the operator into the country’s native tongue. If text messages have their own argot—lol (lots of laughs, not love, as some think)—then so did telegrams, with their truncated, punchy discourse and elaborate STOPS for periods: ARRIVE DETROIT 12/02 STOP NEED MONEY STOP SELL CHICKEN FARM STOP COUSIN RENNIE Try singing that to the tune of, say, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” or “Climb Every Mountain.”

Today’s singing telegrams provide jobs for struggling actors and singers. Not just everyone can go the door in Toledo and belt out “Happy Anniversary” in a Burt Bacharach or Stephen Lloyd Weber melody. But in the glory days of the singing telegram, the job was trusted to ordinary delivery persons. The point wasn’t to do it well but to do it at all, as Dr. Samuel Johnson said about dogs walking on their hind legs or women preaching sermons.

What would today’s young people make of Singing Telegrams? They might see them as an older, pathetic form of “apps,” those links on a smart phone that let you do some sort of clever thing. Today there are apps that let you play games, tell you whether you’re paying too much for a mattress or water bed, give you the present time in Tokyo, or find out how to get to Panino’s Café’ and whether or not it’s cheaper than the nearby Purple Tiger Restaurant. Apps are really not new. Once upon a time you could call a phone number and get an instant Biblical devotional, or you could call another and get the weather forecast or a quick summary of today’s news. A singing telegram is an old-fashioned app: a clever, specialized thing that you can order up. The only problem is that you can’t pay a one-time fee of two dollars and have it for a lifetime on your smart phone. It’s a labor-intensive, clumsy, delayed app. No one uses it much any more. It involves too much direct reality: actual bodies and vocal cords and all that.

It’s far better to have a digital singing telegram. Someone needs to design one, with an electronic Justin Bieber singing Happy Birthday to your fifteen year-old sister on her I-Phone. She’ll be as thrilled as Rudy Valle was in 1933 when he got the very first, low-tech singing telegram.

Usage in a Sentence by the Old and Settled: “Let’s send Uncle Arlis one of those new singing telegrams for his 70th birthday; he’ll just hate it.” –Your great grandmother speaking about a certain mean and miserly relative, 1936


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