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Singing telegram 

Tutus, G-strings and sideburns make this performer the life of the party

You may have seen him around town dressed in a pink tutu or an Elvis jumpsuit, belting out "Happy Birthday" to an unsuspecting target. Rich Lanford has performed singing telegrams for Eastern Onion for the past 18 years, a job that's one party after another.

The Atlanta native took a part-time job at Eastern Onion while working his way through Columbia School of Broadcasting. After graduating, Lanford worked as a radio announcer for stations in East Point and Bremen, and later worked behind the scenes at several cable TV stations. All the while Lanford continued performing singing telegrams part time for the fun of it.

At Channel 69 in Atlanta he took a turn in front of the camera, portraying a wrestler during segments of "Superstars of Wrestling." Lanford loved being in the spotlight and after six years in broadcasting turned to the singing telegram business full-time. For the past three years he's worked in the company's office learning the business with hopes of running his own franchise some day.

How did you get started in this business?

I found out about the company when I was in high school. I'd been to a couple of different pep rallies where Eastern Onion had been hired to sing telegrams. I said, 'That is the kind of work I want to do,' thinking I would never make a career out of it, though. The fact that I have been there for 18 years and I was 18 when I started ... it's a little bit depressing, yes, but I love my job. There aren't a lot of people that can say their job is to bring happiness and joy to big occasions every day. I go to more parties than anyone else I know. I'm only there for 15 minutes, but I do go to a lot of parties.

Do you get paid per show or by the hour?

The entertainers are contract labor. I get paid a percentage of what the shows are charged out at. Acts vary, but a typical show is about $135-$145 in the Atlanta area. My percentage can vary depending on how far out I travel. My furthest show, without a doubt, was the time that I had to go down to Jekyll Island and do one of my characters.

How much money do you make?

When I was just doing it as a messenger I was doing about $600 a week. It could be more one week and less the next. It's very seasonal work. Right now it's almost dead for performers. At Valentine's Day it really kicks back in again.

What characters do you do?

I probably do at least 30. What I'm really well known for is my Elvis character. I have the sideburns and I keep them all the time for this purpose. There's also Leather Larry. That character has gone to more bachelorette parties than any other I've done. One that I've recently developed -- and some people don't get the humor -- is my Chris Van Rivers character. It works real well when you're doing it for a business. Chris Van Rivers is what I call it, but it's really based on Chris Farley's character on "Saturday Night Live" about the motivational speaker that lived in a van down by the river. Last year I did it for a CPA firm a week before the tax deadline and they loved it.

Do you play female characters, too?

One of them is my French maid character. I come out in a maid costume, call myself Fifi, saying that the guy is a dirty old man and I'm there to clean up his act. And I go: 'Ooo la la la la la, there ain't a man alive that would not be turned on by Fifi.'

So you embarrass them pretty badly?

As my wife would say, my job is to embarrass people, and I do a damn good job of it, too.

Do you strip in your acts?

I've stripped to my boxer shorts, bikini underwear, G-string and yes, twice, I have done the "full monty."

What was your toughest day on the job?

The one [act] that I probably have been doing the longest has been my fairy, where I'm in pink tights and a tutu, a crazy wig, wings that are all broken and my wand's got a bend in it. I'll never forget the Valentine's Day that I was in this outfit and had a flat tire. I pulled the spare out of the back and I went to put it on and the rim doesn't fit. People are going 'Hey, look at the funny fairy' and I'm going 'Yeah buddy.' I was just a fairy with an attitude at that time.

Is it ever embarrassing for you to drive around in a gorilla suit or a pink tutu?

Not as much as it used to be. I didn't feel real comfortable when I was first approached about doing female characters. I don't have any problem with it now because I've been doing it for so long. It's just an act.

What kind of reactions do you get from people?

For the most part it's 'Thanks, you did a wonderful job.' There are people that come up to me all the time and say they saw me give a singing telegram to their cousin, aunt, uncle. I do love the fact that I've done something really unique to make this event just a little bit better for them.

What was the worst gig you've ever done?

I went to do the gay cop character, Officer Bruce. [The telegram] was being sent from the sister-in-law to her brother-in-law. She worked there at the company, a family-owned mechanic shop. I'm supposed to arrest him. I went there and the guy comes up and says, 'You're not a real cop. You're not here to arrest me. I'm going to go call the real cops.' About the time I'm almost finished packing up my stuff, here come the police pulling in. It starts a big ruckus in her whole family because she did this. The police came up to me just as I was about to leave and said, 'You've been asked to leave the property and never come back.'

What kind of talent do you need to do this? It sounds like this job requires a combination of singing, stand-up comedy and acting.

It is a combination of all those things. If you have strong comedy it carries you for everything. You don't have to have a real good singing voice, and if your comedy is that strong you're going to be a good actor. I think comedy is really the key for this particular type of entertainment.

How many hours do you put in each week?

In the office I work in the neighborhood of 44-46 hours a week, and that's not including the time to do shows. Saturdays are usually my busy day. I'll do usually three, four or five shows. When I do shows I'm actually on the road six to seven hours on a Saturday.

What would you tell someone interested in doing this work?

I would tell them if they really wanted to do it then go for it because it has made a big difference in my life. I don't know that many people who can actually say they really enjoy what they're doing for a living and go to work every day knowing that it's going to be a lot of fun. Anybody who loves to cut up, who loves to sing or act or be the center of attention and really likes to have a lot of fun, this is for them.

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12/25/2014

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