Have a pastrami; have a dill pickle.” That’s for a bar mitzvah. “You can quit…chew lots of gum.” That’s encouragement to stop smoking. “You don’t know me very well; I hope I’m not being too rash.” Obviously, a request for a date. There are 27 other tuneful messages in the repertoire of a San Francisco company called Western Onion, which has brought back the singing telegram—and is making money on it—three years after Western Union canceled the service as unprofitable.
The entrepreneur responsible for breathing new life and lyrics into an old tradition is Donald Currie, a 31-year-old thwarted actor and songwriter. He got the idea in an inspirational flash two years ago: “I saw it all—myself in costume, an expanded range of songs, a national operation.”
Western Onion is still limited to the West Coast but in its first 20 months has delivered singing telegrams to Jimmy Carter, Beverly Sills, Jack Nicholson, Barbra Streisand and Cary Grant’s small daughter. “We were,” Currie says, “overwhelmed by business from the very start.” This year his co-founder and business manager, Jeffrey Andrews, expects—at fees of $10.95 for a telegram sung over the phone and $20 and up for a personal appearance—to gross over $500,000.
Currie, whose own tenor warbles like that of a quavering madrigal singer, insists all his messengers have more than just competent voices. “After all,” he says, “if you’re going to walk into a restaurant and interrupt everybody’s life, you’ve got to be pretty good.” (He auditions all new employees.)
Reactions can be unpredictable. One newly hired Onioneer, for instance, reported back that the first woman he sang to crawled under her desk, the second fainted and the third locked him out of her office.
To date, Western Onion’s 25 messengers, all wearing the familiar Philip Morris monkey suit, have performed on crowded buses, at airports, on shipboard and added their melodies to countless office parties. Currie has every hope that his musical telegrams will replace traditional gifts like candy and flowers, and plans soon to open offices in New York and Chicago. “We express the intimate thoughts people can’t say to each other,” Currie says. He’s even dreamed up a familiar-sounding promotional slogan: “When you care enough to send more than just another card.”