Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Ernestine Had All the Answers

Ernestine, the Telephone Operator - Celebrity pseudonym of comedienne Lily Tomlin when she portrayed "Ernestine, the telephone operator" on the comedy variety program ROWAN AND MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN/NBC/1968-73. Seated behind an antique switchboard, looking like a fourth Andrew Sister, Ernestine played havoc with the Phone Company customer. Unofficially, her motto might be "Reach out and BUG someone." As she waited for her phone call to go through to her customers, she listened to the phone ringing at the other end of the line and counted "one ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy...." When someone answered, she nasally continued with "A gracious good morning to you...Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?" From then on, all "Bell" broke loose as Ernestine abused her phone customers, intermittently laughing like a pig (snort! snort!).

"Here at the Phone Company we handle eighty-four billion calls a year. Serving everyone from presidents and kings to scum of the earth. (snort) We realize that every so often you can't get an operator, for no apparent reason your phone goes out of order [snatches plug out of switchboard], or perhaps you get charged for a call you didn't make. We don't care. Watch this [bangs on a switch panel like a cheap piano] just lost Peoria. (snort) You see, this phone system consists of a multibillion-dollar matrix of space-age technology that is so sophisticated, even we can't handle it. But that's your problem, isn't it ? Next time you complain about your phone service, why don't you try using two Dixie cups with a string. We don't care. We don't have to. (snort) We're the Phone Company!" -- Lily Tomlin from "Saturday Night Live: The First 20 Years" (1994 Cader Company).

Lily Tomlin's sharp-tongued satires of such a "sacred cow" as the Phone Company, especially in the rebellious years of the late 1960s endeared her to millions of viewers. In January 1970, California telephone operators made Miss Tomlin an honorary member of their union, and presented her with a special Cracked Bell award. Subsequently, the Bell System offered Tomlin $500,000 to do a series of Ernestine commercials. She turned down their substantial offer, reportedly because she feared losing artistic control of her character.

Lily's first comedy album "This Is A Recording" (Polydor, 1971) was recorded live at the Icehouse in Pasadena. The album features bits with Ernestine dealing with problems from an "Obscene Phone Call"; mistaking a phone call from mafia boss for the Pope; calling actress Joan Crawford (then head of the Pepsi Company) to demand her dime back because the Pepsi machine didn't dispense her pop; butting head with J. Edgar Hoover of the "F.B.I."; and a conversation with writer Gore Vidal as Ernestine says "Mr. Veedle, you owe us a balance of $23.64. When may we expect payment? É Pardon? When what freezes over? É I don't see why you're kicking up such a ruckus when according to our files your present bank balance, plus stocks, securities, and other holdings, amounts to exactly ... Pardon? Privileged information? Oh! (snort, snort) Mr. Veedle, that's so cute! No, no, no, youÕre dealing with the telephone company. We are not subject to city, state, or federal legislation. We are omnipotent."

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