I had only seen it done in sitcoms — a giant hairy gorilla proposing to a girl standing shocked at the front door — until last week. A friend relayed her proposal story. It wasn’t a hairy gorilla but a purple bear and a boyfriend holding roses and an engagement ring peeking from behind the furry singing creature. “I was completely surprised,” she laughed, “it was nothing I expected.”
The story jogged my memory. My best pal Bernice has been snooping around for an unusual birthday surprise for her sister-in-law. They haven’t spoken in years, and Bernice hopes to break the very thick ice and reestablish friendly relations. Perhaps a singing telegram message might do the trick?
“We can come out for any special occasion, and yes, we have been everywhere,” explained Claudia Cannon, business development coordinator for the San Diego Chorus of Sweet Adelines (619-794-7700). The group is an a cappella all-female chorus, 100 voices strong, that sings in the barbershop style. “I got a guy out of a manhole to sing to; he was very greasy. We’ve sung to people in traction at the hospital. Another time we sang to a guy from the back of a supermarket, and then the manager wanted us to sing over the loudspeaker. So the whole store came up to the front and watched us. People really appreciate it; it is something very unique that doesn’t happen to you every day.”
The singing greetings are handled by quartets or double quartets. The chorus also performs for small parties and other special occasions. “For Valentine’s Day each year, we do hundreds of singing greetings. For $40, we go out and sing two songs, and the person receives a gift — a rose or a box of chocolates.”
This Christmas, the group will be sending holiday singing greetings. “We’ll probably do two Christmas carols. And we’re also organizing a day where we sing over the phone. So there will be singers from first thing in the morning until late at night able to deliver those greetings over the phone to, say, somebody in New York.
“For anniversaries, people frequently ask us to do a custom song they want us to learn, so then it is a negotiable rate based on what we are going to have to do to work up the program as they want.”
The group will also do longer performances for private parties and events. (Thirty minutes runs up to about $250.)
We dove into the history of barbershop singing. “Barbershop is an American art form, one of the only American art forms. Doo-wop harmony is another one. But barbershop came out of the pioneer times, when people didn’t have a piano or an instrument. Family groups would sing in church or at home, and they didn’t have any instruments, so they would just find the close harmony parts, and that is how barbershop evolved. It started before the turn of the century, but then at the beginning of the 20th Century, it got to be really popular. When barbershop first started, it was kind of a particular type of ’20s and ’30s song because that is when it got real popular in the United States.” Cannon says there is a lot of music arranged in the barbershop style that can be sung a cappella. “We have arrangers of our own, so we sing very contemporary music as well — show tunes, movie music.”
The chorus members’ ages span from a 20-year-old up to an 84-year-old. “The thing that we love about singing together is that the generations just disappear. We have very high levels in the society — 50-year veterans — and they are very astute teachers. And it is passed down, women teaching women harmony.”
A Class Act Balloon & Singing Telegram (619-223-7241) offers several acts. “The singing telegram is kind of that niche business, which is short, hit them hard, surprise them at any location, leave them laughing,” said owner John Nettles. “It’s a very flexible service, the novelty entertainment, so we can work with a customer to design something for a specific occasion, pick a song, a costume, a theme.
“We have the traditional formal wear with a personalized song which is a professional singer with a song that we change the lyrics to suit the occasion.
“Then we have comedy costumes like the Birthday Fairy, the Gorilla, full-body costumes.
“And we also have celebrity-icon-themed telegrams — Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Austin Powers, Frank Sinatra. Usually, the telegram is one song with one message [$100 to $150]. Price adjustments have to do with location, or if there are any additional costume fees, or if you have to hire a different performer. Sometimes people want something more extravagant. You can add balloons, flowers, and we have standard songs, but we can usually learn a song request.”
I asked about a memorable telegram. “Probably the most unusual reactions are when somebody sends a telegram to their ex. Those are a little awkward, but we go where they send us.”