tuxedo-clad Kerry Prep floats through the lobby of the Con Edison
building in Brooklyn, N.Y., clutching three shiny silver balloons.
Once inside the customer service department, he heads straight
for Sherlene Blake, who sits unsuspectingly behind a Formica counter.
"Are you Sherlene?" he asks.
Blake replies sheepishly.
with wispy brown hair and a diamond stud earring, bursts into
song. "Sherlene, it's for you I sing./These balloons for you I
bring./Don't worry, there is no chance./I don't strip or belly
dance," he croons.
proceeds to sing from custom-written lyrics -- based on information
provided by Blake's two daughters -- to the tune of "Santa Lucia,"
a traditional Italian holiday song. Blake and her co-workers delight
in the performance. This is her first singing telegram, she says.
"Can I get a picture?" she asks Prep afterwards. He happily obliges.
is the founder of Preppygrams, a singing telegram service that
serves the New York City area. A part-time actor and former theater
major, he started the business in 1980 "because I didn't want
to be a waiter," he says. Prep runs Preppygrams from his home
in Huntington, Long Island. And while he often showcases his own
talents, he also hires freelance musicians to perform original
songs for clients.
writes the lyrics himself, using over 50 different melodies, and
charges $79 and up for each performance. Customers can choose
from a wide range of costumes, from a rabbi or gorilla to Winnie
the Pooh. The price depends on costume and location, says Prep.
Jobs that require extensive driving or specialty costumes -- like
Minnie, Marilyn and Elvis, for example -- cost more. Preppygrams
brings in $100,000 to $130,000 a year, he says. Prep also works
as an actor and appears occasionally in off-Broadway shows.
says that people order singing telegrams to celebrate a variety
of occasions, most commonly birthdays, anniversaries and holidays.
The busiest day for the singing telegram industry -- by far --
is Valentine's Day.
morning, the cost of Blake's telegram comes to a grand total of
$106, including balloons and taxes. She also receives a copy of
her song, mounted on a scroll. Blake's daughter, Asha, will foot
the bill. A student in California, Asha ordered the telegram for
Mother's Day. She discovered Preppygrams on the Internet and wanted
to surprise her mother, says Prep.
singing telegram originated in the 1930s, according to "The Story
of Telecommunications" by George P. Oslin, the creator of the
singing telegram. After World War I, when most Americans associated
telegrams with news of death or injury, Oslin, a public relations
director for Western Union, wanted to show that they could be
fun. In 1933, Lucille Lipps, a Western Union operator, delivered
the first singing telegram to the singer Rudy Vallee on July 28
for his birthday.
singing telegram business immediately took off and thrived until
the popularity of the telegraph began to wane in the 1960s, with
the widespread installation of telephones, according to Oslin's
book. In the early 1970s, Western Union was forced to close many
of its telegraph offices and the company suspended its singing
telegram service in 1974.
small private services like Preppygrams soon emerged and kept
the singing telegram business afloat. Several telegram businesses
still exist in many U.S. cities, while rural America has access
to online and telephone versions.
says he books several performances each day and delivers an average
of 25 to 30 telegrams a week. Owners of other services in the
New York area -- like Relvis Singing Telegrams on Long Island
and Best Singing Telegram in Hoboken, N.J. -- say requests fluctuate.
Jim Roth, the owner of Best Singing Telegram, said he can book
anywwhere from five to 30 singing telegrams a week.
of the unpredictable nature of the industry, performers usually
hold second jobs, mostly as singers and dancers. For freelancers,
the business brings in $3,000 to $4,000 a year, says Danny Gulbin,
of Queens, N.Y., who works part time delivering singing telegrams.
Gulbin supplements his income by working as a magician and entertaining
at children's parties. "The magician business is really hot right
now," he says. "I only do a few telegrams a week."
Rivera, who prefers her stage name, Delilah, has been delivering
singing telegrams for six years. She also dances and works the
children's party circuit. The 39-year-old Rivera graduated from
George Washington University with a psychology degree. But her
passion for song and dance led her to performing singing telegrams.
works as a freelancer and advertises her own singing telegram
service, Delilah's Delightful Song and Dance Grams, in the Yellow
Pages. As a freelancer, she takes home $30 of the $85 to $100
fee, so she prefers to work for herself. Delilah usually books
one or two telegrams a week, she says. Business has slowed considerably
since the late '90s, when the strong economy created a high demand
for singing telegrams. "Now the novelty has worn off," she says.
"People are more budget conscious."
they do call, clients mostly request the gorilla suit, says Delilah,
who has accumulated so many costumes that she had to build a loft
in her bedroom to create space for them. She sleeps in the eaves
and her countless outfits fill the room below. "My roommate tells
me that if he had known I had all of these costumes, he never
would have let me move in," she says.
while most performers who deliver singing telegrams would prefer
to focus on acting or dancing careers, Prep describes the telegram
business as a "perfect" gig. "I like doing it. It's always a happy
occasion," he says. "But I am an actor," he adds. "I would give
it all up to act.
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