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Singing Telegrams Deliver Messages with a Melody

Thursday, July 28, is a delightful anniversary. On this date in 1933, Western Union -- the company that had connected the vast United States by telegraph wires -- sent its first "singing telegram."

Until then, telegrams often meant bad news: "We regret to inform you that your son died in the service of his country" -- that sort of thing. The telegrams were hand-delivered on yellow paper with the teletyped message glued to the page.

The word "stop" was mixed in: "I love you. Stop." This was a holdover from the days when telegrams were sent by Morse code, and "stop" represented the period marks at the end of sentences.

A Western Union executive named George Oslin thought telegrams should sometimes be fun. So when someone sent Hollywood singing star Rudy Vallee a birthday greeting by telegram on this day in 1933, Mr. Oslin asked an operator with the apt name Lucille Lipps to sing the message over the telephone. Singing telegrams caught on. For years they were delivered -- and sung -- in person.

But Western Union evolved into a financial-services company, wiring money around the world. And then e-mail came along, and hardly anyone sent telegrams any more.

A sort of singing telegram is still around as a party gag. Novelty companies send out clowns or even strip-tease artists to sing a song and deliver cakes and balloons.

And old, reliable Western Union will still sing you a telegram on the phone, so long as it's written to the tune of the "Birthday Song." Something like:

"To friends of V-O-A
"Have a really great day!
"And remember, dear listeners,
"To this frequency stay."

Oh, she left out one word. "Stop"!