In 1976 or thereabouts, I acquired an answering machine.
Which, in 1976, was quite a big deal. In 1976, there were no personal answering machines in use at all. None. No voice mail, no call waiting, nothing. In fact, there weren’t that many businesses that used answering machines, either. In 1976, if you called a business, you usually got a person.
Back then the only recorded phone announcements you heard were from businesses after hours, movie theaters (sometimes), or from doctors who were too stingy to have an answering service. And certainly no private person had an answering machine. If you called someone and the phone rang too many times, you hung up and called back later.
Radio Shack or similiar stores (this may be before Radio Shack, too, I’m not sure) didn’t have a dozen answering machines to choose from. If you saw one, it was an exotic device, and it cost $200. Maybe $300.
I was working in the advertising department of a big retail chain in Philadelphia. The direct mail manager was concerned that she was missing important calls because she and the department receptionist took overlapping lunches. She convinced her boss she needed an answering machine. A few months later, she quit for another job. Her office was right around the corner from my desk, and when she left, the office was empty for a few weeks. One evening, I got home to discover that the answering machine had fallen off her desk into my bag.
My wife and I used it for a while – as a joke, really. Then the novelty wore off and we packed it up and didn’t open the box again until 1979, in Brooklyn, while we were divvying stuff up for our separation. The machine came to live with me.
When it answered a call, the thing clunked and banged and whirred like a steam press at the dry cleaners. I didn’t really need it, because the people I knew (not many) were all aware of when I was at work and when I might reasonably be expected to be home (Note: no cell phones, either). So I set up the machine and put a funny announcement on it. Some variation on “I’m out, please leave a message.” Nothing brilliant, I’m sure, but reasonably droll. Ha ha. I set it up, turned it on when I left in the morning, and turned it off when I got home. I told one or two people to call my machine and check it out.
The reason I’m going through all the wordy exposition is to set the context, if I can. Nobody had an answering machine. Really nobody. If there was something funny on an answering machine, it was like hitting the Double Word Score in Scrabble..
Friends of mine called. And because this was such a novelty, they told other people. Pretty soon I was getting calls from friends of friends, who left messages because leaving a message was wild and new, too. One evening I got home to a recording of cheering and applauding from a conference room full of people who’d called my machine from a speakerphone.
This encouraged me. I changed the message. I told my friends. Here was something revolutionary yet again. A new message? Changed? Just like that? Such madness. The whole cycle restarted.
I got a kick out of it, so I started changing the message every week. I put music on the stereo, and figured out where everything should be placed so that when I recorded a message I had a good balance between the music (tinny sounding after the crappy recording was filtered even more by the phone) and my voice. The momentum of the word of mouth cycle picked up by a smidge.
I did character voices (badly), I used sound effects of trains and birds in the background, I wrote and delivered raps (badly), anything that came to mind. It was fun. And then a dime dropped. If I asked a question that people could leave an answer to, then the announcement would write itself. I could just incorporate what they said, and voila. So the first time, I asked for dedications, like there used to be on Top 40 radio: “This one goes out to Gina, from Tony and all the guys at Anna’s Pizza Paradise.”
No more pretenses of utility. No more humorous variations on “I’m not home, leave your number and the time you called..” I passed that moving in the other direction, going fast. Now it was just about the questions and the answers. Response was very good, maybe 20 people left dedications. I wrote a new piece incorporating everyone’s answers, picked out music, read it with a new question at the end, and set the machine. Word of mouth grew. When people called and I was home, I’d sometimes answer the phone and hear the person on the other end hanging up. They were calling the machine, not me. A common question in the messages was “What is this, anyway?”
What it was, I decided, was Ralphie’s Bop City; a combination of the name of a store we used to live across the street from – Ralph’s Discount City – and a New York jazz club from the 50’s named Jimbo’s Bop City. The ID eventually became “Ralphie’s Bop City, The Home Of Fun.”
Time went by. I changed the outgoing message every week. I asked more questions, like: What’s your nickname? Why do you live where you live? More people left messages, I had a ball listening to people’s answers. Which is when the other dime dropped. The quality of their responses, the tone of their voices, the way they spoke – it was way more fun to listen to that than my nasal voice. I rigged up another cassette recorder, and figured out how to get everything routed through my DJ mixer (a cutting-edge Numark, the only brand at that time), and I started to produce outgoing message cassettes that had the best responses edited together, pause button style. I showed up at the end, identifying Ralphie’s Bop City, sugggesting that people write in for a free “Representative’s Kit,” which was about a dozen business cards (see the photo), and asking the next question.
At first, the number circulated locally, in the NY/NJ metropolitan area. It began to spread when several people at a Wall Street brokerage house began giving the number out to their customers, many of them in the Midwest. And it seemed that the GTE Telephone system for all of Southern California had its operator center located in… New Jersey. If you called to have a repair person dispatched to fix the phone line in your house in San Diego, the person you spoke to worked in a large windowless room in Paterson. And the people in that room passed the number on to people they dispatched in Cali. The number made it on to the list of interesting places to call maintained in the bowels of the NY Telephone Switching Center, a huge bombproof building in Tribeca, and the folks there passed it on through their system. Within a few months, people were calling 24/7 from all over the US, and I had a separate phone line put in to my apartment just for Ralphie’s Bop City. Over time, I got regular calls from Canada, England, Germany, and the US Naval Base in Okinawa, among other exotic locations.
I met many of the local callers, had parties, took a picture or two, and have a lot of anecdotes, but more of that later. This post is way too long already. I’ve attached a representative outgoing message here in MP3 form, so you can feel it the way any caller did in the 80’s and 90’s (I maintained the project for 16 years, and yes, I have all the tapes). When you called, you figured out what the last question was from the answers you heard. This message is almost 10 minutes long, which was average.
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