Chuck (charlesofcamden) wrote,

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Never Try to Blackmail a Singing Telegram Messenger

When I was in my twenties, I spent two and a half years working for the Eastern Onion Singing Telegram Company. I delivered well over a thousand singing telegrams during that time. It was a strange, semi-nomadic existence, particularly on Saturday nights. That was the night when one would usually do most of one’s telegrams for the week, driving from one end of town to the other, out to far-flung suburbs and back again, with the night’s work often ending at midnight or later. Frankly, it was an awfully fun way to spend an evening – going from one party to another, always being the center of attention when I walked in the door, making hundreds of people laugh, maybe even getting a tip for my trouble, and going on my way before I had a chance to wear out my welcome.

[SIDEBAR: I would love to have illustrated this post with a photograph of me in one of my messenger tuxes, but I do not own a single picture of myself in costume. That’s kind of funny in light of the fact that untold thousands of photos were taken of me in costume, but they were all taken by friends of the telegram recipients. So while my face probably graces countless photo albums to this day, it does not grace my own albums.]

You should understand that I played a variety of characters in this work, each with its own corresponding costume. An incomplete list includes Eastern Onion Man (red leotard, tights, and cape), Mr. Wonderful (all white tux, white top hat, white cane, white shoes, long-stemmed rose in my teeth), and the one and only Chuckie Chicken (red & pink fun fur, big red chicken feet, and giant chicken mask headpiece). These costumes were typically strewn about the back seat of my car along with various standard accoutrements, including my big red tambourine, a battery-powered monkey that clanged his cymbals together, and several obnoxious whistles. This was in addition to a generous supply of party hats and noisemakers and boxes full of hot pink Eastern Onion business cards.

There was usually no time to go home between telegrams on a busy night. This meant that I was often obliged to completely change outfits while scrunching my 6’2” frame around the passenger compartment of my Plymouth Valiant. That’s day or night; rain or shine; frigid winter through sticky summer. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised the day I was changing costumes at the side of a rural highway and a police car came rolling up. They said they’d gotten a call that someone was having a seizure in their car. I explained that it was just me changing clothes, and because I was at that moment wearing a top hat, a pink ruffled shirt and a bright red cummerbund, they believed me and drove on without further interrogation.

There are many stories of triumph and tragedy I could tell, though the better ones will probably never appear in print form. Not with my name on them anyway. So let me jump to the end of the story.

After two and a half years, I’d gotten all I could get out of the singing telegram business in terms of training and experience. And that’s a big thing, by the way. To this day, I consider that time to have been the best training as a performer that I’ve ever received. One had to learn how to work a crowd; how to perform when it’s just you and the audience; no director, no critics, no supporting cast. One learned how to play any conceivable (and inconceivable) sort of venue, from bars, restaurants, and bowling alleys to fancy reception halls and swanky nightclubs; from business offices to hospital rooms; from supermarket parking lots to the pitcher’s mound at a softball diamond in the middle of a game.

But at a certain point, I hit the wall. I began to dread doing even a single, brief telegram. It was time to go. I decided to give myself a Christmas present. Sometime in October, I advised management that December 22nd was to be my last day. They thanked me heartily for giving them such generous advance notice.

It seemed I realized something at that moment that management did not – that they would not be happy losing me right before Christmas. Christmas through New Year’s was a busy time in the singing telegram business, and scheduling was made all the more difficult by the many messengers who took time off during that period.

I was therefore not in the least surprised when I received a phone call from the boss in early December, asking me if I could stay on through the end of the year. Well, no. I was already insanely looking forward to being done with the job and enjoying my holidays, so there was no way. The boss was dismayed with my intransigence in the matter; with my utter refusal to negotiate on that point. He then tried blackmail: “Wellll… if you’re not going to be available then, we need to give work for the next few weeks to the messengers who are going to be here for us.”

I replied in a chipper, cooperative tone: “I understand completely. If that’s what you need to do, then that makes perfect sense.” And so we concluded our phone call.

Well of COURSE there was no drop-off in my bookings for those last few weeks. They were already short-staffed and were in no position to be petty just to punish someone on their way out the door, so even if I was eager for the job to end, I could at least go out the door with a decent paycheck in my hand. On December 23rd, I paid another visit to the office to drop off my costumes and other company property. The phones were ringing off the hook with holiday bookings so there was no time for management to wish me well with great ceremony. I set my stuff down in the supply closet, waved goodbye to the staff, and stepped out into the brisk air of freedom. And anyway, I wasn’t there to rub their noses in it; it was simply time for me to go.

The next time I write about my time with Eastern Onion, we may discuss the darker side of the business, replete with criminal activity, news reporters, threats, lawyers, and depositions.

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