Pablo Helguera, a Brooklyn, NY-based performance artist and John Spiak, director and chief curator for California State University Fullerton’s Grand Central Art Center (GCAC) have revived the singing telegram for the COVID-19 era. Western Union video producer, Casey Clark, and I recently had an opportunity to catch up with Helguera and Spiak for a brief video interview.
The History of the Signing Telegram
- On July 28, 1933, a Western Union operator named Lucille Lipps sang ”Happy Birthday” to Rudy Vallee, an American singer, actor, radio host and teen idol.
- George P. Oslin, Western Union’s public relations director at the time, is credited with creating the singing telegram.
- Oslin worked at Western Union for 35 years, until his retirement in 1964. In his book “The Story of Telecommunications” he reveals that when he invented the singing telegram he was angrily informed he was making a laughingstock of the company.
- Often sent as a gift, Western Union messengers delivered musical greetings in person until World War II.
- Singing by phone operators was resumed after the war, but faced declining popularity until Western Union dropped the service in 1974.
- In 1980, the company returned to the singing telegram business, but only over the telephone and only “Happy Birthday.”
- Western Union discontinued its telegram business in 2006, which included its singing telegram business.