The thing about Singing Telegrams is…

The thing about Singing Telegrams is…

Okay, so you’ve just graduated with a bachelors degree. You studied music theory and composition. You’ve somehow got to make some money. You’ve got to get a job.

You write music for (and direct music for) theatrical productions, but it’s not enough money, and it’s not steady work.

You dress up in your best clothes and go around trying to get a job as a waiter – no luck, but you do get hired for one lunchtime rush of dishwashing, at which you are horrible and which ruins your only good shoes.

You get a job as a sales clerk in a musty sheet music store, where all the music is stored behind the counter in dozens of file cabinets. Minimum wage, but at least it’s a job in the music business.

You try your hand at teaching piano to kids. But you’re just not the kind of guy who can get excited about “Hot Cross Buns”, and you’re not really the kind of guy who knows what to tell a kid who says “I hate practicing”. Your instinct is to tell them to give it up if they don’t like it. Heck, I did, and look where it got me…I ended up being a musician anyway.

Then you get your dream job. Singing Telegrams. Oh, it may sound hokey. It may BE hokey. But here’s the thing about it…

Western Onion Me and Little League Brother
Me and my brother, circa 1980

Every situation is brand new. All you’ve got is an address. You’ve got your bellboy outfit on, and you have to go find a particular person and sing them a witty song (memorized beforehand). You may be singing to a couple sitting at home watching TV. You may be singing at an office party where you’ve got to grab attention as if it were a bull. The recipient may be mortified – You’ve got to tone down the performance and work it to minimize their sense of embarrassment. The recipient may be thrilled – Give them the thrill of their life. The recipient may want to sing with you and take over your job – You’ve got to maintain control of the situation in the most friendly and funny way possible.

It was improv at its best. No, you’re not making it all up, but you’re paying attention to your own performance, you’re paying attention to your audience, there is no fourth wall, the people you’re singing to need to be reassured, your presence may embarrass them, but you have to take the sting out of it, and yet make it as funny and sweet as possible. I loved trying to take all that in and make the situation work.

And there was the down time between telegrams. Sometimes you’d drive 20 miles to deliver one, and then you’ve got another one in that neighborhood in 3 hours. You go to the local library, read some books. You go to the park, stretch out under a tree and write some music. The down time was a wonderful gift, too.

Nervous? Almost never. Singing to celebrities? No problem. Amazing to think that when I sang for Mrs. Walter Mondale (the Vice President’s wife), I was not vetted, did not have to sign a loyalty oath, I just went to the restaurant and sang to her. Different times, eh? The one time I got nervous was when Jim Henson sent a telegram to Frank Oz on his wedding day. I was given an Ernie puppet, and was to sing a custom wedding song in the style of Ernie. I was out of my depth – I don’t know puppets, and I’m not an instant mimic. I was nervous. I showed up at Frank’s parents house somewhere in Oakland, and it was just Frank, his new wife, and 2 or 3 others. They looked at me like I was from another planet. I warbled the song, feeling foolish with the puppet on my hand. I was glad when that was over.

I got my biggest tip in the same neighborhood some time later, At a house where there was big party going on. The telegram was addressed to “Stoney Feeney”. The sweet smell of pot was everywhere. I was offered tokes, but Bellboys don’t do that kind of thing. I found Stoney sitting on a bench in the semi-darkness of the back yard. I sang my song, and held out the telegram for Stoney to take from the silver tray. He took the telegram and, reaching into a large brown grocery bag, put a heaping mound of vegetable matter on my silver tray. It was the biggest tip I ever got (in terms of dollar value), but it was rather awkward trying to get it home. I ended up putting it in my leather “mailbag”, and later spent an hour trying to get all the seeds out of that thing.

The singing telegram gig only lasted 2 years at most. “Western Onion” (aka “National Onion”) was bought up and mismanaged into insolvency. But really, the days of the singing telegram were numbered anyway. Pet Rocks, singing telegrams, dance crazes- they all have their time, and then fade away.

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