Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Story Behind Singing Telegrams and How One Company is Keeping theTradition Alive

Established in 1977, entertainment company Merry Minstrel has been providing the nation with singing telegrams as the first to do so. Michele Peterson now owns the company and is keeping her line of work as traditional and as can be, in spite of the bad reputation this surprise gift has received from movies, TV commercials, and even by word of mouth over the years.

"It's a lost art form. So is a strip a gram, it was not designed to be distasteful, but to be very vaudeville," Peterson says. "The whole point is to embarrass the victim - make the person feel like the center of attention for a little while."

Whether it's in the office, at your home, at the store, their slogan is "any time, any place, any occasion," and they mean it. Singing telegrams are meant as a surprising gift to a loved on a couple's anniversary or as an unexpected prank aimed at an overly serious co-worker who just needs a little help to lighten up. This is not something the victim will easily forget or even regret, if done properly, but poor judgement and childish antics have skewed the lighthearted nature of the act.

“You know that show Punk’d? Well, we’ve been punking people since 1977. I’ve been to a dentist’s office as a patient, told him I had a tooth ache and it was really interfering with my work. Then when he least expected it, I would jump up and start singing.”

In her established line of work, Peterson's done thousands of singing telegrams. In the 80s and 90s, she couldn't walk down the street without someone recognizing her.

Peterson has dressed as a police office and arrested a man for being "over the age limit" and for "conducting lude behavior" and she also helped one guy propose to his fiancee while she was in class in college.

There are times, of course, where the message was received with more of a negative reaction.

“I went to a bar once to do a strip a gram for a man’s birthday and I sang for him and danced around, but near the end I stopped and said, ‘Now, for most guys a single song would be enough, but you’re the lucky victim of Merry Minstrel’s singing telegram,’ and I did a little strip tease for him. The next thing I know is his wife comes out of nowhere and jumps on him, screaming, ‘That’s my husband, that’s my husband, don’t touch my husband.’"

"It was a set up by his family who wanted to videotape the whole thing, but she [the wife] finally grabbed the keys and ran out the front door and he followed after her.”

The way she understood it, the telegram should've been a simple gig that would've been a great success, had all parties involved been informed as to what was going to happen. But, sometimes such surprises aren't met with wholehearted enthusiasm.

“I had no idea what I was walking into,” Peterson says.

In the past, Merry Minstrel saw a lot more business than they average today. On a rare occasion, the victim was the owner of a restaurant who once had a bad experience and decided he wanted nothing to do with singing telegrams, add to this the social deprecation the image of singing telegrams has faced over the years. Peterson says "it's been contorted by companies who are trying to make a buck. There have been so many people who have done inappropriate things in public places, or offended somebody in an office, that a lot of restaurants won't even let you come in." She knows of 8 managers who were fired due to the impromptu shows of singing telegram performers.

The media doesn't seem to be of much help, either.

"Portrayed on TV, people think singing telegrams consist of a guy in a nerd costume, who can't sing," Peterson says.

The nurse who sang for Ferris Bueler's get-well telegram in the 1986 movie certainly dented my perspective of the whole business, but Merry Minstrel holds the standard for how the show should really be executed. "What we do is top quality - only the best service," she says.

There is one holiday that still brings in a lot of requests for this specific type of gift, and that is Valentine's Day. Merry Minstrel delivers about 20, 70, or even 80 singing telegrams a day on Valentine's.

They also maintain to be the only company to deliver the "we want your business," "happy divorce," and "no occasion" songs. They even have songs for those who are just coming out. Merry Minstrel was the one to launch this particular party favor, and it's only natural for competitors to come along and "borrow" their songs and gimmicks.

Peterson says that to this day, she's sent cease and desist letters to nearly everyone else in the business.

With this sort of following and with Peterson as president, there's no doubt that her company will be the one to keep the tradition alive.