My fat finger slipped the other day and hit a “9” instead of “8”, and I got the familiar voice telling me the number I stupidly dialed is not in service, hear me stupid?
When I looked down at my phone pad I saw that I had dialed “1-900”, which immediately froze me in thought and cranked the wheels of the Wayback Machine. What, I thought, happened to all the 900 numbers? Out of curiosity I dialed another number immediately: 1-900-555-SPORT. Of course I didn’t dial “555”, but three real numbers, but I’m writing it this way because that’s how they do it on TV and in the movies, which totally ruins the effect. Stay with me anyway.
The same voice as before told me I was dialing a number that didn’t exist, stupid, and hang up and try again.
Before I did that I did some research. I found out that there are no 900 numbers anymore, at least in the US. They disappeared and the only ones who probably noticed were perverts and sports fans, and devotees of Hulk Hogan, who for a long time running had the most popular 900 number.
But 900 numbers weren’t just for the sex and sport addicted. The first one believed to be used was to ask former President Jimmy Carter a question, in 1977. Then Nightline used the 900 to take opinions.
Probably the most famous use of a 900 number had to do with a lobster. In one set of Saturday Night Live, comedian Eddie Murphy asked the audience to either save or boil “Larry the Lobster”, as reported in “Priceonomics“:
On the 16th episode of the 7th season of Saturday Night Live, Eddie Murphy threatened to kill a lobster.
“You want to save Larry the Lobster,” Murphy told the viewers, “dial 1-900-720-1808. If you want to kill him, dial 1-900-720-1909. Now, unless you call in to save him, we’re going to boil Larry’s little butt right here on national television…The phone company is going to charge you 50 cents, but isn’t it worth 50 cents to save Larry’s life? Or look at it this way: Isn’t it worth half a buck to see us boil Larry on TV?”
Soon celebrities had to have their own 900 lines, and they could starting in 1989. Some of the more famous celibs, besides our lobster buddy, were Hulk Hogan and Paula Abdul, Prince, the Backstreet Boys. Because the phone companies did the billing and administration for 900 numbers, at least initially, all the rich and famous and infamous had to do was record some drivel and bucks poured in. Talk about phoning it in.
Then newspaper lonely hearts personal classifieds married the 900 number, and for a brief moment in time a caller who read an ad had to believe that the other person was “beautiful, muscular, tall, handsome, dark or was 36-24-36.”
Alas, every technology usually comes to an end. The buggy whip, gone, except for maybe the Amish. The outhouse — at least in the US, mostly. The divining rod, killed by sonic testing. Some technology that we thought long buried is clawing its way out of the dank soil, such as record players. Those born before 1997 have to Google “record players”. So maybe there is hope for the 900 number? The last one featured in the US had the plug pulled on it in 2012. It was run by the Catholic News Service and was advertised in church bulletins. Leave it to the Church of Rome to try to make something eternal.
Buzzfeed recalled some of the more unique 900 numbers in an article. Among them are the He-Man Hotline, the Jessica Hahn (Who again?) Secrets Revealed Hotline and Al “Grandpa” Lewis’ Munster’s Fan Line.
As for Larry the Lobster, for those who don’t remember or who were in diapers, I can’t disclose the answer, but you can dial 1-900-For-Larry to find out. If you hear squealing on the end of the line then you know Larry was chow. If you hear nothing, Larry is chilling near the beach somewhere.