It’s 8:30 a.m., and unlike me, New York City is already fully caffeinated. I am an international woman of mystery, poised in the stairwell ready to carry out my orders. This is my mission, I have chosen to accept it.
Name: James Wolff. Age: fifty as of today. He stands approximately 5’11” with brown hair. With him will be Honey, his constant companion and German Shepherd. My command is to apprehend him when he enters. Minutes later, the eagle has landed. Next to him is what looks to be a German Shepherd. Must be Honey. Now it is time to carry my mission to completion. Jumping out of the stairwell, James looks alarmed. Honey barks ferociously. James says, “And who are you?”
I say, “Just what I look like, a girl in a cake. You can call me Cake Boss, Sugar Puff. And today is your biiiirrrrtthhhhdddaaay!”
That’s when I sing a special birthday song.
You thought I was a professional assassin, didn’t you? Nah, too much blood. I am a singing telegrammer. There is more than one way to be an international woman of mystery. In case you are wondering, James gave me a surprise fifty dollar tip and I won Honey over. She licked me on the hand. I think Honey’s seal of approval got me my generous compensation.
When I tell people I am a singing telegrammer, they always say, “I had no idea they still have those.” Obviously we do because all proceeds go to my food, clothing, and shelter fund. This novelty was born in 1933 when a teenage fan wanted to wish singer Rudy Vallee a happy birthday. George Oslin, head of public relations at Western Union, decided this would be a good opportunity and thus the singing telegram was born. The service became quite popular with singing bell boys who had a melodious message coupled with a time step. Western Union discontinued the service in the 1960s. Proving you can’t keep a good thing down, small singing telegram companies began to pop up all over the United States.
What has kept the singing telegram not only surviving but thriving is that there is a gram for every occasion. There are birthdays, anniversaries, congratulations, proposals, ruffles and flourishes at a board meeting, needs to apologize, and everything else in between.
* * *
I fell into telegramming by accident. After graduating from NYU with a theatre degree, wanting to pursue my dreams, and needing to pay bills, I looked for a job. After watching Beaches and seeing Bette Midler fail in a bunny costume, I Googled singing telegrams. Calling at 11 p.m. on a Monday night I expected to get an answering machine. Instead, a man picked up who had a hearty Southern Drawl and he said, “Broadway Singing Telegrams, Bruce Myles Beauregard speaking.”
“Yes, I just graduated from NYU with my B.F.A. and need a job. I can sing, dance, and do a back flip.”
Then Bruce asked, “Are you available next Saturday morning, I think I have a job for you…..” The rest is history.
Do not be fooled by my outward appearance as a petite blonde, I am part shapeshifter. A master of disguise, my job has me take the following forms, and sometimes as many as five in a single day. They include but are not limited to a chicken, pink gorilla, gorilla bride, hot dog, pickle, Hershey Kiss, M & M, heart, pizza, cow, duck, cat, cheerleader, French maid, naughty nurse, cop, Marilyn Monroe, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, and anything else a client wants me to be.
While I might not be working as an assassin or spy, I have defied death on more than one occasion while on duty. I caught on fire in a pink gorilla costume. It was after my Pepto Bismol colored
primate suit met with a trick birthday candle that went rogue. When I saw the flame on my fur I thought, “Holy shit! I’m on fire!” While I was terrified, I knew I had to act quickly. Throwing the cake in the air, I recalled my elementary school training when the man from the local fire department visited our classroom. I stopped, dropped, and rolled.
There was collective horror in the bar as I threw the cake in the air. The client, the owner of a Lower East Side dive bar who was dressed in leather from head to foot, sprinted to catch it at the speed of a wide receiver in the last ten seconds of a Super Bowl. Gasps filled the air as I rolled around on the whiskey infused floor boards hoping I didn’t need a skin graph. In the darkness and in my desperation, I didn’t see that I rammed into the leg of a woman on a bar stool. Through her yelp I probably accidentally struck her sober. When I was sure the fire was out I got up, calmly got the cake from the client, and did my routine. What can I say? The show must go on. Pleasantly, the bar was on my side. The man I sang to, apparently a well-known trust funder who liked Lower East Side dive bars, gave me a surprise tip.
I have not only narrowly escaped catching on fire, but on more than one occasion I have also evaded capture. Being sent to the Bloomberg building on assignment, I was frisked under suspicion of being in possession of explosives due to the bag containing my costume. The tall glass monolith in the middle of Midtown East already looked like a dark fortress and having no inside man this became even more true as my chicken suit became what was known as “contraband.” The stern guard said, “How do we know you are not a terrorist?”
I stated my case, “I have a chicken suit. I have a song. I have a time step. I have never known a terrorist to have these things.” A supervisor, who was sympathetic, came up with a compromise, I could deliver it on the sidewalk under their watchful eye. To their surprise, I was just a woman in a chicken suit, not Squeaky Fromme. They didn’t end up capturing me, but instead captured the occasion on their camera phones.
While fire and the threat of possible arrest are indeed stressful, the true doozies are the “I’m Sorry Grams.” When I get the call, I know it is going to be a Dionysian debacle of epic proportions. Going in to one of these, I often wish I can have either a bulletproof vest or hazmat suit. And I know I will always get the sordid backstory even if I don’t want it. One memorable moment was when a cheating husband sent me to his wife to be forgiven in a hot dog costume. Mid-routine, she stopped me, took the flowers her husband told me to give her and hurled them in my direction. She screamed, “Fuck that motherfucker, he gave me herpes!”
Instead of flowers, maybe that rancid wiener should have given her Valtrex. He was still a scumbag, but at least the check cleared.
* * *
Then at times my adventures are also magically delightful. I appeared as a singing pickle to a young man on his birthday. Turns out I was sent by this young man’s boyfriend, who could not make the party as he was overseas attending his father’s funeral.
I was ordered as a chicken to Kessler, a rehabilitation clinic in New Jersey, from a woman’s group. The lady I was singing to had been paralyzed from the neck down as a result of an auto accident.
The family of Herman Benson ordered me as a Marilyn Monroe to sing to him on his 103rd birthday. This New York legend of liberal politics and hero to the working people put in his ear piece and sang along with me. I kissed him on the cheek and he proclaimed, “While you are quite beautiful this is also sexual harassment!”
Then there was the practical joke involving Yodel Cakes between a father and son. Both men had been leaving the sweets on each other’s property in an effort of one-upmanship. The father had resorted to leaving yodels in the son’s garden. Determined to win, the son hired me to yodel, toss Yodels, and crash his aging father’s board meeting. The son, who won the contest, witnessed it from across the country via video chat.
On the set of Law and Order SVU, I was ordered by Kelli Giddish to sing to Wonder Woman superfan Marishka Hargitay. The Emmy winner cried as I sang her the personalized Wonder Woman song, and complimented me on my lasso of truth. A meme of us went viral, and my boss called and asked, “And Wonder Woman, where was your headband?”
Folks, you can’t make this stuff up.
Life is a storybook that is constantly turning the page, and someday I might be on the other side of your door in costume with a song and a message. However, for now the message I will leave you is that as an artist, you are often told you will never make your living at your craft. It is too late. You are too old. No one will listen to you. Each day, my fellow singing telegrammers and I disprove that myth. We come in a wide array of shapes, races, sizes, gender identities, orientations, cultures, and vocal ranges. We prove there is a niche for every creative person. Did I mention we also pay our light bill and get to wear a boa while we do it?
While I would love to elaborate, I have to cut this short.
I have a Marilyn Monroe in the Bronx I have to run to.
What can I say? Cubic Zirconia are this girl’s best friend.
April Brucker is a writer and comedian. She has appeared on Rachael Ray, Talk Soup, Inside Edition, My Strange Addiction, What Would You You?, Good Day NY, and Layover with Anthony Bourdain. Her books I Came, I Saw, I Sang: Memoirs of a Singing Telegram Delivery Girl and April Unwrapped: My Naked Dreams Revealed, both available on Amazon. April has served as lead editor for Lunch Ticket’s Diana Woods Memorial Award and is currently an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Antioch University Los Angeles.