Donald Currie, a respectable-looking fellow has in the course of his young career chased a businessman into the bathroom, leaped from park bushes at a romantic couple, and whipped open his overcoat in a crowded streetcar, toned double-breasted bellhop. All while dressed in a brass button suit. And singing, sometimes, to Handel's Hallelujah Chorus:
Happy birthday! Happy birthday!
Happy birthday! Happy birthday!
To day is your day!
"You have to keep singing," Currie says. "It doesn't matter what is happening, sing, sing, sing.
The Oniongram must go through.
With apologies to "Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey?" and lyriist, Aughie Cannon:
Oh, won't you please forgive me?
I'm so upset
I know I've acted wrong
I'm so embarrased really,
Can't show my face
And so I've sent this song.
Until he founded Western Union Donald Currie, who is 32, was marbling along the nightclub-concert circuit, singing what he describes as "pop chamber" music. Now he presides over a singing telegram empire in 10 American cities.
On Valentine's Day the Oniongram will descend on Washington.Couriers in shiny shoes and cocked pillbox hats will boldy march into anniversary celebrations and bar mitzvahs. Currie once delivered a singing telegram to a man inside sauna.
Oniongram Carriers also sing congratulations, condolences, apologies for past boorishness, and request to stop smoking.They also sing custom Oniongrams, like the one requested by the shy but ardent San Franciso suitor who had Currie appear at a department store, drop to his knees, and sing an Oniongram proposal of marriage. "Oh baby you know you're the one." Right there with the cash registers and perfume bottles. The woman got seriously red in the face and then accepted ("She said, 'Yes, yes - tell him yes," Currie says).
This historic pitch established the marriage proposal as a standard Oniongram. A New York woman recently betrothed by Oniongram sent her acceptance by return Oniongram. Some Oniongram recipients have set swapped such gracious resposals. One woman fainted. An executive crawled behind his office curtain and headed for the window ledge. A restaurant diner sank beneath the table, to no avail - the messenger squatted and kept singing. A businessman who had warned associates never to send him an Oniongram was led into his office by his fellow workers before the big moment and handcufed to a chair.
At the Philadelphia Stock Exchange an Oniongram messenger took up the microphone, beamed at a mortified broker, and sang, to the tune of the Can-can music:
Happy birthday! Glad you made it through. One more time I'll sing it so you won't forget. Happy birthday! This is just for you, Not just for him, not just for her, Not just for them, not just for me,
But for guess who?
The floor froze. "We stopped the entire stock exchange," boasts Jeffrey Andrews, Currie's 27-year-old partner.
To the "William Tell Overture")
What a break! Your career's up a gear and it's getting hot.
Applaud yourself cause of where you've got.
Hip Hurry! You've gone up a notch.
Back in 1933, so the official story goes, a melodious Western Union employee named Lucille Lips phoned up Rudy Vallee in New York and delivered, a coppeld and molto rivace, the world's first singing telegram. The precise precedent-shattering content of this message apparently has been forgotten, but Valle's response has not. "He was quite overwhelmed," says a Western Union spokesman.
The telegram people figured they were onto something.
The singing telegram flourished for awhile, belted out on doorsteps all over America by any Western Union messenger who could carry a tune. And some who couldn't. But World War II came, the novelty paled, and the telegram business cut back on its door-to-door service. By the early 1970s, America's only singing telegrams were a few uninspired birthdays and anniversary messages crackling out over the phone wires.
Enter Donald Currie, November 1975, in the back of a San Francisco bar. Then half of a singing duet, Currie had settled into a post-concert revelry with friends and was groping for a respectable birthday present for a person they all knew. Somebody wondered about singing telegrams and Currie called Western Union who told him the singing telegram died after one last performance in 1973.
All at once, Currie saw the whole thing - uniforms, spiffy caps, sincere vibratos. "I thought, 'Well, this is perfect,'" he says. He called a woman who had promised him a suit of clothes for his birthday. "Will you get me a bellhop outfit instead?" Currie asked.
The woman produced a bright red suit with black-and-gold epaulets. Currie teamed up with his friend Andrews, who had been doing free-lance business and theater work, and then wore his birthday present to San Francisco's De Young Museum to deliver a message of congratulations to the organizer of an art exhibit with a food theme? Currie marched into the opening night party, sang a song about Chiquita bananas, and presented the exhibit director with a bouquet of carrots.
"No one had ever seen anything like this," Currie says. They loved it. The word spread and Currie was in business. He sang an adulatory Oniongram to Bette Midler, who boogied around her dressing room with her hair in a towel and cold cream on her face. Andrews dispatched the orders and Currie dashed from one phone booth to the next and within six months they had assorted friends, all variously underemployed actors and musicians, poping up all over Northern California dressed like bellhops
You're probably wondering why I've come to call. Dressed up like this, bellhop suit and all. I've been informed today's a special day, You know the one I mean . . . Happy birthday to you!
An enthusiastic campaign worker Oniongrammed Jimmy Carter just before the presidential election in the lobby of a Sacramento hotel - "You've come a long way from Plains." (Carter is said to have flashed his famous smile and kissed the messenger, who was female.) An admirer Oniongrammed Lily Tomlin (I've always wanted to meet you . . . Hi Lily, Hi Lily, Hi Low"), who was delighted, and invited the messenger in for a glass of wine before Tomlin's opening.
Jack Nicholson got Oniongramed by a fan in Los Angeles, just before receiving the Academy Award (a Glockenspiel melody with a chorus of "cuckoo, cuckoo"). Leontyne Price got Oniongrammed by the San Francisco Opera Guild before her opening here in "Ariadne auf Naxos," her first German opera; Currie threw together a song with every German word he could think of, and when he was finished singing, the diva flung her arms around him, crying as he left, "Divine! He has a fabulous, glorious voice!"
(To the triumphal march from "Adia)"
Hooray! Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!
Ole! You will be married soon!
Won't it be a conjugal -
very soon, honeymoon -
Oh, what a thrill!
And will this be married bliss?
By now there are 70 Western Onion people, 50 of them singers. It is all much fancier than it was - a corporate division and an advertising agency and a management consultant firm and a "planning for the future national growth." A toll-free line (800-648-LOVE) sends singing messengers to the 10 service cities - a standard Oniongram costs $25 - and for $10.95 they will sing by phone anywhere in the continental United States.
After having hired messengers ranging from unemployed school teachers to a former New York Metropolitan Opera baritone, Currie says they're looking mostly for sincerity. "The person has to be able to sublimate his own ego to pay attention to the recipient," says Andrews. "It's the recipient that's on stage."
And that finally is what all those earnest young bellhops are about, carrying on the legacy of Lucille Lips. And some receipients watch helplessly and wish that the floor would open up and swallow them while they listen to a line like, "You improve each year like vintage wine - more outstanding all the time." Even then, there is quick and private spotlight in all this stillness that the best Onion messengers love to watch.
"You get very, very ordinary people who have had nothing very special ever happen to them," Currie says.
Like the bank teller who looked up at her next customer, took in the pillbox hat and the bellhop jacket, caught the first six lines of her birthday Hallelujiah Chorus and collapsed onto the floor. True to his profession, Currie leaned over the teller's cage and kept on singing.