Zoiks, I missed a week! Sorry about that – busy, in a tizzy, etc. Plus I’m supremely annoyed that I can’t find any old photos from this period of my life and there were some good ones (like of the green taffeta dress). But that’s life and I’ve finally decided to suck it up, find an image (that can be shared via a Creative Commons-license) and move on!
Image courtesy of Jerry Downs.
UPDATE: After I posted this my dear Mami asked me why on earth I hadn’t asked her for photos of the green dress, she has some! Also a rather pathetic photo of my old pale blue Hyundai (in worse shape than I remembered!) So in order to complete the effect, I’ve add the photos where I had wanted to plug ’em in before. Gracias, Mami!:
Yes, that’s right. I used to perform singing telegrams. Not only singing telegrams. Singing balloon telegrams. As in, walking into an office building in a sparkly green dress with a taffeta petticoat carrying a cloud of balloons and singing a silly song to a stranger. Well, it beat working at McDonald’s.
So how does one become a singing telegram performer? Well, for me, it was through a fellow cast member during Alhambra Dinner Theater’s production of Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I was Ginger, the head whore. The distinction of being the head whore was that I got to have my dress ripped off while standing on a platform, then carry off a small man in a Stetson (it was part of the audition.) Fun fact: one of my co-whores was Leanza Cornett – aka Miss America 1993. But she wasn’t the one who got me into singing telegrams. That was Heather, the other tall whore. This was around 1987 and I was a junior in college. Heather and I got along great in the show – goofing around backstage or between shows on the weekends. Heather’s a hoot and a half! Heather and her then-husband had a singing telegram business that included typical singing telegram characters such as the sexy policewoman/policeman. But they wanted something a bit classier for more special occasions and I became the Broadway lady.
To be the Broadway lady, I had about three songs in my repertoire: My Funny Valentine for the more romantic messages, Big Spender for guys and Zippity Doo Da for the ladies (this was the South in the days before this song was considered controversial). We’d even alter the lyrics slightly to befit the occasion. In Big Spender, “I don’t pop my cork for every guy I see.” became “I don’t sing a song for every guy I see.” Clever!
So, we dug up this green dress. I actually think I maybe sorta “stole” it from Jacksonville University’s theater department. There’s a statute of limitations on stuff like that, right?
It was perfect for this gig. As I mentioned, it was sparkly green and the skirt was above knee length and the petticoat would make it puff out to the sides. I’d wear my hair in a more 40’s/50’s style ala Veronica Lake (EDIT: Looking back on the actual photographic evidence, I guess this was an 80’s version of 40’s Veronica Lake – but anyway, I digress.) I’d do the red lipstick, glittery earrings and heels. Then I’d go by Heather’s place to pick up the balloons.
The balloons were the trickiest part of the gig. The suckers have a mind of their own! And my car barely had enough room to fit them all. I was driving an old powder blue Hyundai hatchback (EDIT: Again, now that I have photographic evidence, I realize memory is fickle: is this even a Hyundai? I’m beginning to think it was a Datsun. At least I was right that it was pale blue!)
I learned a LOT about Jacksonville in this gig. It really took you all over the city – and Jacksonville is a wiiiiiide open city. This was also in the days before Google Maps and GPS and cellphones. So Heather would give me directions from the client and you had to hope they were right or you were left to your own devices in a glittery green dress in a car full of balloons asking strangers where Such and Such Street was.
But most of the time, I went to an office. Seems lots of folks love to embarrass their co-workers as well as find an excuse to goof off at work. So I’d arrive at the building, carefully unload the balloons from my car, gather up all the dignity a 19-year-old girl can muster in such a situation and saunter gaily into the lobby and up the elevator.
Let me tell you, in a job like this, you learn to stop being embarrassed real quick. Well, that process already started in theater. I’ve been in my underwear on stage so many times I can’t even count. And I don’t LIKE being in my underwear in front of other folks. But a show’s a show and a character’s a character. So before long, it didn’t faze me at all to see the wide-eyes and hear the giggles that accompanied me and my balloons anywhere we went.
But the coolest thing about this job is just how happy you make people. Even if the person was red-faced embarrassed and would laugh and cover their face, still they were smiling the brightest smiles I ever saw. And then there were the really touching gigs – like the birthday telegram I performed for the wife of a deployed soldier. She lived in the outskirts of town and it had taken me forever to find the house. The sun had started going down and I was sweating in my dress hoping to God I could figure out the directions before I had to pull over and sleep by the roadside. But I finally found the small boxy house on a dilapidated block overrun with weeds. When I got to the door and started singing Happy Birthday, her eyes filled with tears and she was almost overcome. I can’t remember the message her husband had dictated, but when I was finished, she said she hadn’t heard from him all day and thought that maybe he’d forgotten. But having something as special as this was just the highlight of her year. Then the phone rang – her husband dialing in somehow from the Persian Gulf. I tiptoed back to the car, ripping my hose on some brambles but sporting a pretty big smile myself.
I learned a lot from that job. Not only how to grow a thick skin and how to get anywhere in Jacksonville, but also how much people love gestures and a bit of glamor in the everyday. After a year or so, I moved on. The money was decent, though sporadic. But I hated being on call – having all your plans dashed by a single phone call. Heather and her husband broke up and we’ve lost touch, so I have no idea how much longer their business lasted. But I held on to that dress for a long time. I gave it away long ago – but maybe somewhere else, there’s a young college girl sporting a showbiz dress and putting a smile on other folks’ faces.