Steve Martin, who's just a dialed and crazy kind of guy, brought down the nation's toll-free phone lines twice this week - and there's no telling what's in line for the future.
It all started with a seemingly innocent enough ad in the current issue of Rolling Stone, plugging Martin's new album, "A Wild and Crazy Guy":
"For a special kind of message from Steve himself," the ad announced in very fine print, "call one of these toll-free numbers. In California (800) 232-2318. In the rest of the U.S. (800) 423-2632. (Sorry, offer excludes Hawaii and Alaska.)"
Warner Brothers Records, which placed the ad, expected maybe four or five hundred calls a day. Instead, there surfaced what Warner Brothers publicity director Bob Moore Merlis could only described as "heavy phone: over 1,000 calls in a five-minute period, several times during the week."
The result was overpowering. "It blew our WATS (toll-free) mechanism out of the water," explained Pacific Telephone's Anne Burkart, one of the company's marketing directors. "The 800 numbers all over the country were out of service as long as the surge kept up."
Which meant that calls to Hertz, American Airlines and American Express, to mention but a few, all went into the holding pattern of the busy signal as fanatic Martin fans made all other toil-free dialing impossible.
"They underestimated quite grossly the number of calls they'd get," Burkhart said of Warner Brothers, and speculated that the problem had been caused by disc jockeys giving the phone numbers out on the air.
"It's not often that you get that kind of call volume for anything," Burkhart said. "There are ways we can prevent it from happening, by limiting the incoming calls at their place of origin. When the system backed up on Monday we thought it was a fluke, but on Thursday it happened again, and in the afternoon we had to start limiting calls."
Whether the problem lies just with disc jockeys remains to be seen. Today the same ad will appear in 20 million copies of TV Guide, and Monday it will be released in People Magazine.
"We have no idea what's going to happen," said Merlis, who thinks the $7,835,28 the one-month phone service cost Warner Brothers would have been a bargain at twice the price. (Martin's album - with sales approaching one million copies - is No. 4 on the Billboard Magazine Charts.)
Except for one thing.
"I still don't know what the message is," said Merlis. "I've been calling the number and all I get's a busy signal."