David Bruce: Telephones Anecdotes

• En route to a poker game at the County Building, Chicago Herald-Examinerreporter Bob Fraser saw a weeping washerwoman. He asked why she was crying, and she explained that she had learned from a letter posted several days ago that her father was ill back home in Poland and she did not know whether he was alive or dead. At the time, telephone long-distance calls to other countries were very expensive, and few individuals could afford them. Bob wondered whether he could put through a long-distance call at the County Building. It turned out that there was no problem — the long-distance telephone call went right through and the weeping washerwoman learned that her father was alive and getting well again. This was a good deed, but the reporters playing poker abused their newly discovered long-distance calling ability. They racked up a bill of $7,000 that the county officials did not want to pay. The county officials were going to force the reporters to pay it. Of course, the reporters also did not want to pay the $7,000 bill. Reporters publish a lot, but they know more than they publish. One reporter mentioned that it was time that he broke a story about a land deal that would be embarrassing to the county officials, and other reporters mentioned breaking other stories that would be embarrassing to the county officials, and the county officials paid the bill. Thereafter, however, reporters were not permitted to make long-distance — or local — telephone calls from the County Building.

• When young-adult novelist Robert Cormier was the 8th grade, his house burned down, and the suit that he was going to wear to his 8th-grade graduation ceremony burned up with it. Fortunately, the Cormiers’ neighbors contributed money to buy clothing for them, and young Robert was able to wear a suit to his graduation ceremony. As an adult, Mr. Cormier did good deeds for other people. His novel I Am the Cheesecontained a telephone number, which happened to be his. He once received a call from a girl in a psychiatric institution who felt that she could identify only with the protagonist in the novel. Mr. Cormier says that he and she “had a long talk about how this Adam [the protagonist] in the book was really a reflection of her own life, even though the circumstances were much different.” In the novel, Adam calls his friend Amy Hertz three times. That is the telephone number that the girl in the psychiatric institution called, and many other young people also called it. Sometimes they would ask for Amy. If Mr. Cormier answered the phone, he would pretend to be Amy’s father. If his youngest daughter, Renee, answered the phone and was asked if Amy was there, she would say, “Speaking.”

• Richard Bellof North Carolina has a trick for dealing with harassing telephone callers: “One of my all-time favorite tricks for any harassing phone caller is to get a tape or mp3 of the late Alexander Scourby reading some esoteric verses from the Old Testament handy to play into the handset.” And Tom Brennan of California received a telephone call from a debt collector in 2006. The caller asked, “When do you think you will repay this debt?” Mr. Brennan replied, “No comment.” In fact, that was his reply to every question the debt collector asked. Eventually, he did say something different; he said that “No comment” was the only reply he would ever make to the debt collector’s questions. Mr. Brennan says, “He laughed and I laughed and we said good night and they never called again.”

• Jack Benny and George Burns were best friends, and Mr. Benny laughed at Mr. Burns more than he laughed at anyone else. Once, Mr. Benny called Mr. Burns to invite him to dinner at a restaurant. During the call, they were disconnected. When Mr. Burns showed up at the restaurant, Mr. Benny started laughing. Mr. Burns asked, “What are you laughing at?” My Benny replied, “You’re the funniest man in the world. You hung up on me in the middle of a phone conversation.” Mr. Burns said later, “After that I always hung up on him. I wanted him to go on thinking I was the world’s greatest comedian.”

• Tony Hillerman wrote mysteries set in the west. Although vastly talented, he sometimes made mistakes in his novels. He once said, “I always put safeties on guns that don’t have safeties and leave them off ones that do.” One night at about 10 p.m. he received a call from a reader who told him, “I used to have a lot of respect for you until I’ve just been reading Dance Hall of the Dead. Don’t you know deer don’t have gall bladders?” Mr. Hillerman said that is the best telephone call from a reader that he has ever had.

• In 1960, jazz guitarist Jim Hall couldn’t afford a telephone. Jazz tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins was reclusive and didn’t want or have a telephone. Nevertheless, they communicated. A note by Mr. Rollins appeared in Mr. Hall’s mailbox one day. Mr. Hall then put his own note in Mr. Rollins’ mailbox. They exchanged notes for a while, and when Mr. Rollins decided to start playing jazz in public again in 1961, he offered Mr. Hall a job playing in his pianoless quartet.

• Songwriter Sammy Cahn, who won Oscars for “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “Call Me Irresponsible,” “All the Way,” and “High Hopes,” is often asked, “What comes first — the music or the lyric?” He always answers, “The phone call.” (Whenever he answers the phone, he says cheerfully, “Here I am!”)

• After Margot Fonteyn had retired and was ill, Rudolf Nureyev was speaking with her on the telephone. Worried that her illness might tire her too much, he said, “I should go, or I tire you out.” Ms. Fonteyn replied firmly, “Listen. You never tire me out. Never.”

• As a young teenager and an elite gymnast, Kerri Strug often trained away from home. However, she did manage to keep in close contact with her family. Frequently, the monthly bills for her long-distance telephone calls home were over $300.

• David Byrne of the Talking Heads knew that some of his fans were rather odd, so he frequently had his telephone number changed.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved




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David Bruce: Telephones Anecdotes


New York Ranger Rod Gilbert (Public Domain)

Not every retired NHL player expects to be voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Former New York Ranger Rod Gilbert, who played — very well, in fact — from 1960 to 1978, did not. When the call announcing his election to the Hall of Fame came in 1982, he was sound asleep, taking a nap, because he figured that no such call would be coming. Judy, his wife, answered the telephone, then woke up her husband to give him the good news.

Joe Franklin interviewed celebrities for many years on radio and TV. One of the people who got him his celebrities was Phil St. James, a man who gave people a telephone number along with the strict instruction not to call before 2 p.m. Anyone who called before that time discovered that the telephone number was for a public phone booth. Still, Mr. St. James brought talent to Mr. Franklin, including talent from the famous Cotton Club, which was noted for its African-American entertainers. In fact, Mr. Franklin was one of the first to have black people on his show, simply because he was interested in showcasing talent and didn’t care what color skin the talent came wrapped in. One day, he met a huge, intimidating, African-American security man. Fortunately, the security guard told him, “We black people, we love you. Anybody in the world can put on Sammy Davis or Harry Belafonte or Bill Cosby, but you put on the black people that nobody knows.” Mr. Franklin says, “That moment was one of the highlights of my entire life.”

Annoyances do occur in the audience during live performances, and sometimes the onstage performer gets nasty and sometimes the onstage performer handles the annoyance well. In The Iceman Cometh, actor Tim Piggott-Smith was annoyed—make that furious—because mobile telephones kept ringing in the audience. Finally, he lost it, and he said, “If that goes off again, I’ll f**king kill you.” Fellow actor Kevin Spacey was less angry when that problem occurred at the Old Vic. He simply said to the audience member with the ringing telephone, “Tell them we’re busy.” At Edinburgh, comedian Richard Herring once threw an audience member’s ringing telephone to the floor of the stage, shattering it—the telephone, not the floor. The audience members were stunned for a moment, then they gave Mr. Herring a standing ovation.

While writing his young adult novel I Am the Cheese, Robert Cormier needed to include a telephone number. He worried about making up a telephone number because he knew that people would call it, and the person whose number it was might not like the calls. Therefore, he used his own telephone number. As soon as the novel was published, his telephone started ringing. Over the years, thousands of children and teenagers have called that number and talked to him. Fortunately, Mr. Cormier has enjoyed talking to his readers. He acknowledges, “As a writer, I can’t afford to be a recluse or not involved with life.”

At the opening ceremonies of the 1992 Winter Olympic Games, figure skater Sasha Cohen was lucky enough to sit next to President George W. Bush. She called her mother to tell her, but her mother didn’t believe her, so Sasha handed her cell phone to President Bush, who spoke to her for a few minutes. (President Bush may not have enjoyed watching the Opening Ceremonies — lots of athletes kept passing their cell phones to him to talk to someone.)

Sports columnist Fred Russell of the Nashville Banner made lots of telephone calls in his business. Whenever he heard that a VIP was out and therefore unavailable to talk, he would say something like, “This is Mr. Haynes at the Cameo Pool Hall [pool halls were then regarded as disreputable places]. He left his cap over here last night. Just tell him I’ll take good care of it and he can get it tomorrow night.”

Dick Sears worked at the Walt Disney studios in the early days as head of the Story department. He once saw an unusual name in the telephone directory and decide to make a call: “Hello, is this Gisella Werberserk Piffl? … I’m an old friend of your brother’s. We were classmates at Cornell. … Oh, you’ve never had a brother who attended Cornell? I’m sorry—you must be some other Gisella Werberserk Piffl.”

Alexander Graham Bell displayed his new invention — the telephone — at the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Along with many other people, the Emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro, wanted to try it. He picked the telephone up and held the receiver to his ear. When he heard a voice, he was shocked and dropped the telephone, exclaiming, “My God, it talks!”

Charles Schultz’ comic strip Peanuts was enormously popular and enormously respected. In fact, Mr. Schultz was given a retrospective at the Louvre, the first living cartoonist to be so honored. A humble man, Mr. Schultz said in an interview with Time magazine, “I’m no Andrew Wyeth.” Not long after, Mr. Wyeth telephoned him and congratulated him.

In New York, artist Louise Bourgeois held a salon on Sundays. One day, an artist called on the telephone and asked for permission to come to the salon. Ms. Bourgeois replied, “Who are you? What kind of work do you do? A painter? What size? … All right. You could come at three o’clock. Don’t come if you have a cold.”

At the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan, Tara Lipinski was in second place following the short program. However, Tara telephoned her best friend, Erin Elbe, to say, “I’m in second. Tomorrow it’ll be different.” It was different — Tara came from behind to win the gold medal in women’s figure skating.

When Ted Sizemore was a Chicago Cubs second baseman, he left this message on his answering machine: “It’s the bottom of the ninth. The bases are loaded. There are are two outs and I’m up! Here’s the pitch! There’s a grounder to third! The throw is to first and … I’m out! That’s right, I’m out!”

Phyllis Diller’s mother was no nonsense on the telephone. Whenever it rang, she answered it by saying, “State your business.”


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