Don Williams had a surprise recently.
The Montgomery Village Texaco manager was having an otherwise normal day when he was led to a seat in his station's office and handed a birthday hat, which he refused to wear. A crowd gathered and he began sweating.
Williams was the recipient of an Eastern Onion Belly-Gram, a message with a twist from one of the companies that has made the novelty entertainment business a fast-growing local industry. As he sat in disbelief, Middle Eastern music began playing from a portable tape recorder and a belly dancer clad in an exotic costume started to gyrate in front of him, with an occasional nudge of her hip to his shoulder.
The staff of Williams' Texaco -- including his wife Jean, who is the station's secretary, and his son Doug, who pumps gas -- chose to honor the boss' birthday with a Belly-Gram.
But they just as easily have ordered a "Strip-O-Gram" or a "Go-Go To Go"; a performance by "Miss Wonderful," a "toga party barbarian" or "Mae East"; the delivery of a dozen 17-inch silver balloons, or a picnic and limousine ride to Great Falls.
Legend has it that the singing telegram originated in New York in the 1930s, when a Western Union employe named Lucille Lips sang a message for crooner Rudy Vallee. The singing telegram flourished briefly, but by World War II, the novelty had paled and the telegram business cut back on its door-to-door service.
The singing telegram and related entertainment services were revived in the mid-'70s and have been available in the Washington area since then, but in recent years the demand for the services and the number of companies to fill it has ballooned.
Individuals involved in the business differ in their opinions on why the market for their services is flourishing.
Jan Cogley, owner of Town Clowns, said that because of the "bleak economic situation," people are looking for a laugh, "especially in the dreary government buildings."
Cogley said more novelty message services are being started because "it's an easy entry market" with low overhead
But Cogley warns that to be successful, a service must be reliable and the owners must be "experts at scheduling and pleasing all kinds of customers."
The owner of The Balloon Man message service chain, Ted Hoskinson, said the recent surge in the novelty entertainment market stems from the consumer's desire to send gifts that are more unusual than the traditional flower bouquet.
Larry Orlov of Eastern Onion says his service sells because it is different. Even though recipients may be embarrassed by a Belly-Gram or a balloon delivery, Orlov said, "they will remember it rather than the shirt from Uncle Sam or the bottle of cologne. Even with the recession, people still want to say 'happy birthday' or acknowledge an occasion."
Orlov's rates for a standard singing telegram begin at $35. A "Mae East" performance costs $55. A "Harem-Gram," with two belly dancers, costs $150.
Washington's Eastern Onion is part of a seven-year-old franchise operation that operates more than 40 units in this country and Canada. Orlov saw his first Eastern Onion telegram in Atlanta four years ago and liked the idea so much that he quit his job as general manager of the Dulles Marriott Hotel and bought into Eastern Onion. He now has 40 employes.
In 1981, Orlov established another company called "Personal Pickets." For $85, three brightly costumed messengers will deliver a miniature picket sign inscribed with a personal message and then picket outside for 20 minutes with 4 1/2-foot tall signs bearing the same message.
He also established "Peel-A-Gram" in 1981 when Strip-O-Gram of New York opened a Washington office. The act is expensive and he says deliveries will not be made in the city's "high crime areas."
Orlov says 90 percent of the Peel-A-Gram acts are ordered by women for men.
Town Clowns, established in 1979, takes the business of clowning seriously. The company offers a "History of Clowns" show, comic and seasonal performances for adults' and children's parties.
Glimmer Productions, touted by its President Rob Hoffman as a "one-stop entertainment network," also offers more traditional clowns and magicians along with the singing telegrams. Glimmer is distinguished by its "Perfect Party Guests," for those who need guests to fill out their party list or impress clients, or "Fighting Party Guests," who create a scene by tearing off each other's clothes as they wrestle to the ground.Hoffman said his strip acts have also been performed for members of the D.C. Metropolitan Police. He said his dancers are hired from Washington nightclubs.
Glimmer Productions was established seven months ago and has four full-time employes and about 50 others on contract, Hoffman said. Employes receive between 30 to 80 percent of the fee.
Western Pickle was started in October 1981 and now has 14 part-time and full-time employes, said company President Carole Klase. The company offers offers belly dancers, balloons, gorillas, chickens, and characters such as "the French maid," Playboy bunny imitations, and "the Olde English wench." Several of the characters do strip acts.
The Balloon Man was established here in 1979 and has since added stores in Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York. Messengers in T-shirts with the company's logo and rainbow suspenders will deliver pranks ranging from a dozen 17-inch jumbo balloons with matching ribbons for $26 to a 40-inch "Around the World Balloon" with netting and hanging basket containing a bottle of champagne or a teddy bear.
Owner Hoskinson leads a double life -- he is director of special projects at St. Albans School. He uses a computer to control scheduling and employs 15 people, both full- and part-time.
Balloon Bouquets was started here in 1976 by owner Joe Delvecchio and now has 22 franchises throughout the country. Delvecchio actually had a background in the balloon business: his father had been a balloon vendor in Boston and Joe, after becoming bored as a consumer affairs specialist with the Department of Transportation, took to selling balloons on Washington street corners.
Delvecchio's business blossomed and now Balloon Bouquets' corporate headquarters is located in Boston where his father and brother help run the business.
Balloon Bouquets specializes in a "straight, tasteful delivery," according to manager Andy Laventure. The company features "You Were Great Last Night" balloon bunches. Most frequently requested are birthday and lover's bouquets -- last Valentine's Day they made 60 deliveries.
The Balloon Man and Balloon Bouquets both operate a nationwide balloon referral service. For a fee, they will refer deliveries to an affiliate in areas where they have no operations.
Overhead in the novelty entertainment business consists primarily of advertising and labor costs. Employes are paid either by the hour or receive a percentage of the fee plus tips. For driving long distances or blowing up their own balloons, they receive extra pay. Eastern Onion's belly dancer receives $25 from the $80 price for her act including the singing messenger.
The messengers, dancers and singers are usually aspiring or professional actors, musicians or singers, but some are simply daytime professionals, mothers or students looking for extra work. One male stripper keeps his part-time employment a secret from his wife. But as Western Pickle's Klase explains, being a messenger is "different and more fun than the usual part-time or second job." The messengers "love the applause and the attention they get," she said.
Town Clowns owner Jan Cogley says she has had to quadruple her advertising budget since she started because of growing competition. The companies primarily advertise on radio to attract impulse buyers and in the Yellow Pages and Washingtonian's classified section. Most of the local companies favor the Washingtonian because of the social and entertainment nature of the magazine and the "upwardly mobile socio-economic readership" it draws, according to The Balloon Man's Hoskinson. Orlov says the magazine is the preferred advertising medium because "it's so Washington."
Balloon Bouquets' averages 20 deliveries per day and while Laventure declined to provide figures on gross income, he decribes the business as "pretty lucrative." He said the company has had a 500 percent growth rate in sales since it began in 1976. Starting costs for a Balloon Bouquets franchise, including a vehicle, are about $10,000. Balloon Man made 12,000 deliveries last year and business has doubled since it began three years ago.
Larry Orlov says he has the "lion's share of the business" with Eastern Onion, Personal Pickets and Strip-O-Gram. He said he does "substantially well" and his profit margin is about 15 percent. He, too, declined to discuss specifics about revenues, but business has remained consistent even with the recession, he said.
Three-year-old Town Clowns grossed $60,000 in 1981 and Cogley said she expects to gross $80,000 in 1982.
But not everyone loves a clown or bouquet of balloons: the CIA won't let them in; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission runs balloons through a scanner, the White House requests two-days' notice and the Secret Service demands that balloons be filled under their watchful eye.
But most people are good sports.
Chevy Chase dentist Steven Cohen asked his wife for a belly dancer after seeing a friend receive one. And on his birthday two weeks ago, as he sat in his patient-filled waiting room watching Eastern Onion's Stevie Banks wiggle her shapely figure to the music,, Cohen smiled and said: "I feel young."