Dressed in a white tuxedo, Kerry Prep neared the hospital room. Inside rested a man awaiting triple-bypass surgery. As Prep knocked on the door and softly called out his name, he realized he had made a big mistake. A quick glance into the hallway was enough to startle the unsuspecting patient. Prep may as well have had a halo of light circling his body as the man thought he had died and that Prep was sent from.....well anywhere other than a singing telegram company. "He thought I was Mr. Jordan coming to get him for his journey to the pearly gates," Prep recalled.
Prep quickly informed the man that he was not a messenger from heaven, but the more earthly kind. One sent by loving friends and family to wish him well before the surgery. And then, as he had done so many times in the past, Prep broke into song.
The hospital wasn't the strangest place Prep has been to sing. Nineteen years in the singing telegram business have brought him to bowling alleys and bakeries, to burned-down tenements, mansions, restaurants, revival meetings, and auto body shops from Montauk to Connecticut, Staten Island to the South Bronx, and Chinatown to Borough Park. "Very often, all in the same day", Prep adds.
It was supposed to be a part-time venture, a way to help make ends meet while hoping to make a dent in the acting world. What else are singing telegrams for, right? One couldn't possibly make a career out of serenading strangers, could they?
"I truly never thought I'd be doing this past 35 and that was eight years ago," said Prep. He started the business in April of 1982, the result of a conversation with fellow Adelphi University theatre major and college sweetheart, Helen Murdock. Though the two aspiring actors had found occasional work on major soap operas, they were tired of the traditional bartending and waiting tables bit that filled in the gaps between acting jobs.
So there, at the Stop 20 Diner in Elmont, Prep unleashed the idea. "What will you call it?" asked
Murdock. "Preppygrams!" replied Kerry. "That's a terrible name," she said.
Twenty thousand singing telegrams later, and Preppygrams has grossed nearly $2 million. "One little man singing songs," said Murdock from the Huntington home she now shares with Prep and their 6 year old daughter, Molly. Kerry and Helen were married just six months after Preppygrams' inception. At first they ran the business out of a room in their Queens apartment. The couple met with immediate fame, and found themselves featured on television and in magazines. The market for singing telegrams was big then, and Preppygrams made a lasting impression.
Helen spent five years as a singing messenger before giving it up to pursue her passions of calligraphy, writing and illustrating children's books, and a comic strip she calls "Shrinking Violet." Despite her experience as an actress, Murdock was terrified of singing to strangers and was more than relieved to finally "retire".
Prep, on the other hand, used singing telegrams as a means to hone his auditioning skills, which led to professional acting work. "I treat every telegram I do as an acting job," he said.
As the business' reputation grew, so did Prep's repertoire. Upon customer requests, a wardrobe that consisted of a lone white tuxedo, became a closet full of costumes ranging from firemen to priests, bikers, clowns, gorillas, and chickens. "I'm constantly adding," Prep said. Prep now employs half a dozen other singing messengers to keep up with the demand -- an average of 25 telegrams a week, of which Prep typically does anywhere from seven to 10.
His better known clients include the likes of Susan Lucci, Jason Alexander, Steve Guttenberg, Barry Manilow, and Judy Collins.
Each telegram -- and this is what makes Preppygrams so unique -- is personalized and custom-written by Prep. After asking clients to detail the hobbies, likes and dislikes, nicknames, eccentricities, pet peeves, occupations, and other relevant information about the telegram recipient, Prep crafts a song of about eight to 12 verses that, unlike conventional telegrams, cannot be recycled. "Each song is singularly unique to the individual to whom we're singing, " Prep explains. Believe it or not, some Preppygram recipients have even been buried with the lyrics to their telegram.
To a great extent, Prep is a middleman, the bearer of some very good news at life's most personal moments. He's announced engagements and pregnancies, been there for birthdays, anniversaries, get-wells, and apologies, and occasionally assists a nervous man in his proposal of marriage.
Prep has also been swung at and held at gunpoint by some very protective husbands who didn't understand why a stranger in a tuxedo and a gorilla head mask would be ringing their doorbell. Each time, Prep unmasked himself, explained who he was, and went on with the song. Both of those men were so touched by the gesture, and so repentant of their actions, that they broke down sobbing. "I really feel like I've done my job if I can reduce a grown man to tears," said Prep.
Prep is currently preparing for the onslaught of calls he'll get for Valentine's Day, the busiest time of the year for singing telegrams, It's a lifestyle Prep knows all too well. "Self-employment consumes your entire life," he said. "I'm not just the CEO, I'm the janitor, too!"
Kerry frequently comes in to work with the music kids and give feedback on performances.
Music and Songwriting
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