In July 1933, a Western Union operator named Lucille Lipps delivered the first singing telegram, a birthday message sent by a star-struck fan to the famous crooner Rudy Vallee on his 32nd birthday.
George P. Oslin, Western Union’s public relations director, decided to capitalize on transforming the telegram, which had up until then been mainly associated with delivering death notices and other tragic news, into a more fun and humorous form of communication.
Fast-forward eight decades later, and although singing telegrams aren’t anywhere near their height of popularity (that would be the 1950s), they're still a viable form of saying “Happy Birthday,” “Congratulations!” or “I Love You.”
After the telephone ran it into near extinction, Western Union suspended its singing telegram service in 1974, but independent telegram companies have kept up the tradition.
Meet Kristin Barone, owner of Merry Melodies Singing Telegrams in Orange Park. The company promises “A Song for Any Occasion” and offers everything from a Beer Bottle Silly-Gram to a Classy Tuxedo-Gram to children-friendly characters like Fairy Godmother and Mermaid Princess delivering the messages.
Merry Melodies’ songs range from Big Band selections to today’s pop, personalized with the recipient’s name throughout. “Our singing styles range from Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli to Lady Gaga, Faith Hill and Jason Mraz, to name a few,” Barone said. “We take requests anytime, which are usually a couple's personal ‘love song.’”
Barone, who is a performer, actor and singer, said her company averages about seven singing telegrams per week — a number that increases on Valentine’s Day — with a total staff of 10 performers who work as independent contractors.
“I’m a hopeless romantic,” said Barone, who opened her singing telegram business on Valentine’s Day 2008 while living in California. She said the romance aspect of her business is “a ton of fun.”
“I just love that rush of playing cupid. What’s better than a guy in a tuxedo crooning a song for you with your name throughout?”
Barone relocated to Jacksonville in 2009 and brought her singing telegram business with her. Originally from Fernandina Beach, Barone is no newbie to the industry. She worked for now-defunct Monkey Business Singing Telegrams while studying music at Jacksonville University.
Barone has performed as a singer-dancer-actress all over the world at theme parks, on cruise ships, in regional theaters like Alhambra Theatre & Dining, and with national musical theater tours.
Certain clients who have used Merry Melodies Singing Telegrams’ services stick out in Barone’s mind — like Chris and Anita Thomson. The Thomsons were married in July 1982 in Toronto. For the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary, husband Chris went the singing telegram route.
“I had already done the usual things like flowers and jewelry and was looking for something different and memorable,” he said. “Someone at my office suggested a bouquet of balloons. I found the costumed balloon bouquet delivery service by browsing the Yellow Pages (there was no Internet then).
“Anita was working at a local bank branch office, so I had to arrange special permission for the delivery with the branch manager — they generally don’t like people in full gorilla costume walking into the bank. She was surprised, embarrassed and delighted when the gorilla arrived.”
This past July, Chris was once again trying to come up with a unique gift for Anita for their 30th wedding anniversary. The year before, he had sent an edible arrangement several days early with a card that said, “Happy 28 years, 11 months, 27 days Anniversary.” Someone at his office asked what other ways he’d gifted his wife in the past.
This sparked Chris’ memory. He immediately did a quick Internet search and found Merry Melodies to deliver a Gorilla-Gram and sing their song, “Endless Love.”
“Once again, she was surprised, embarrassed and delighted when she was called down to the reception area and saw the gorilla.”
Not all singing telegrams have happy endings. Barone remembers a female customer who sent a tuxedo-gram to greet her then-boyfriend at a local Carrabba’s Italian Grill to sing the song “Marry Me” and propose to him.
“I just got off the phone with her to see if she’d be interested in being interviewed,” Barone said. “Apparently, it didn’t work out.”
Barone describes another telegram greeting gone wrong. “One woman who works at a large corporate building here in Jacksonville did not accept her Tuxedo-Gram singing telegram very well. As the whole office, who were expecting his arrival, cheered him on, she ran into her office, hid in the corner as if he was there to attack her, with her hands in front of her face.”
Then there’s the soldier who contacted Barone while he was stationed at a military base in Afghanistan.
“It was very romantic,” Barone said of the 2011 Valentine’s Day singing heart telegram. “He told me many times how much he loved her and wished he could be with her while he was ordering. She and her coworkers were astounded by such a romantic act. Everybody was laughing and crying. These things provoke a lot of emotions.”
In late 2011, Western Union attempted to re-launch its singing telegrams. Instead of a gorilla wearing a coconut brassiere or a dancing whoopee cushion, Western Union elevated it to the 21st century by offering personalized songs delivered via email. And instead of Western Union employees doing the delivering, consumers could choose professionals like Snoop Dogg/Lion and Timbaland.
We couldn’t even get the site to launch wu-singingtelegram.com, so apparently it has not taken off. Maybe, for once, we should stick to the old school — even if that involves complete workplace embarrassment and failed marriage proposals.
“What is old is new again,” Barone said. “It’s so out that it’s in.”
Merry Melodies Singing Telegrams isn’t the only racket in town. Jim Thomas is the owner and founder of Jacksonville Singing Telegrams. Thomas, a standup comedian who has performed at The Comedy Zone, Gypsy Comedy Club in St. Augustine and Gainesville's Coconuts Comedy Club, is the go-to singing telegram performer for his company.
“Our most popular telegram for Valentine’s Day is the big red heart that gets a lot of action,” Thomas said. “Our clients range from hospitals to the fire department to the tax office and other workplaces. I’m a comedian, so I like to make them as funny as we can.”
Merry Melodies’ clients Brittany Smith and Josh Harman, both 24, claimed their own singing heart telegram last Valentine’s Day.
“I like to do stuff that’s a little different,” Smith said of sending the telegram to her boyfriend, Harman, while he was working as a certified nursing assistant at Baptist Medical Center Beaches. “I kind of wanted to embarrass him because he’s shy. He ended up being totally shocked and thought it was awesome.”
Barone remembers these two clients well.
“She was waiting outside the hospital to greet me, where she pulled some strings to let me in and help me to my way up the side staircase to his wing. Dressed as a heart, I headed up the staircase and down several wings of patients to get to the love of her life!”