How Nic Hammerberg Mastered the Strange Art of the Singing Telegram

The house calls are always the hardest. You don’t know what’s going to be in there. It could be a conservative dinner party, a room full of wasted bachelorettes or (worst-case scenario) a single unsuspecting person, home alone. The house Nic Hammerberg has just pulled up to doesn’t have any cars in the driveway, but it does have a “Happy Birthday” banner on the door — mixed signals. “Maybe they’re having a party,” he says hopefully. Delivering singing telegrams is easier with a larger audience. Smiling, he completes his gorilla costume by pulling the mask over his head. He straightens the tutu around his furry waist and rings the doorbell.

Better known as a member of pop-rock band Petals of Spain, Hammerberg started delivering singing telegrams about two years ago. With a background in opera and musical theater and a mean Frank Sinatra impression, he’s perfect for the job. He loves making music, he loves making people happy, and, he says, delivering singing telegrams lets him do both.

Today, gorilla Hammerberg is delivering a singing telegram to George for his sixtieth birthday. George’s wife lets him in, but the man of the hour is still upstairs, showering, putting on his socks to go see a matinee, and as he heads downstairs, he has no idea that there’s a musician in a full gorilla costume waiting for him.

“Hey!” Hammerberg jumps out as George comes down. George, startled, instinctively puts his hands out in front of him, ready to fight the furry intruder, but then Hammerberg starts rolling his hips in a slow dance. Then comes the egg shaker. Then the giggles of George’s wife and four watching friends. Then the song: “Touch of Grey,” by the Grateful Dead. Hammerberg sings in a loud, clear voice, as if he were performing for a packed house instead of a room with six occupants. He grabs George’s hands in an attempt to make him dance and ignores the birthday boy’s embarrassed “Thank you”s throughout the song. He then follows “Touch of Grey” with an Elvis Presley rendition of “Happy Birthday,” and within ten minutes, Hammerberg is back on the front porch, tip in hand.

“He was obviously embarrassed,” Hammerberg says, “but he laughed.” The last part is less spoken than sung, which is a habit of Hammerberg’s. He can barely make it through a ten-minute conversation without singing part of it. When the gorilla mask comes off, his hair is plastered to his forehead with sweat from his dancing. Singing telegrams take a lot of energy, especially when the recipients dance or sing along and he ends up staying for thirty minutes or more. But Hammerberg loves every minute of them. Besides, this job is his destiny.
Hammerberg is very spiritual—the kind of man who believes in chakras, the connectivity of all living things and past lives. He wears a certain color for each day of the week (red for Monday, orange for Tuesday, yellow for Wednesday, etc.) to align his chakras with the universe, and he now knows that he was once a hunter-gatherer named Azra who lost his entire village to a fire, became best friends with an elephant and died a peaceful death in an open field. So it makes total sense to him that a job that brings him so much joy came to him completely by chance.

Two years ago, Hammerberg was at the DMV when an old woman approached him. She was sure she knew him, she said. She knew he was a Gemini, she knew he was a performer. She was sure they knew each other in a past life. Since they were apparently very old friends, the woman immediately introduced Hammerberg to her friend, a fellow performer, Randi Sunshine of Sunshine Singing Telegrams. Since then, Hammerberg has been delivering telegrams for both Sunshine Singing Telegrams and George Peele’s Custom Singing Telegrams. The two telegram CEOs (Sunshine and Peele) live side by side in a duplex; one stores his costumes in a tiny room, while the other has them scattered through the house. They have pretty much the same business model.

Anyone can send a singing telegram to family, friends, romantic interests or enemies. You can request a song you know or a song with customized lyrics to say anything from “I love you” to “I hate you.” Some telegrams are intended to embarrass, others to serve as an apology. Some are at pre-planned events like weddings or funerals (yep), others are given at restaurants or homes. No matter the location, costumes are always part of the performance. Custom Singing Telegrams gives a multitude of costume options for its messengers, including a naughty nurse, Harry Potter, Jesus, a unicorn, “Cock Rocker,” “Crosstitute,” a vampire and more. The gorilla in a tutu is the most popular costume request, but Hammerberg says David Bowie is his favorite costume. Or, rather, it used to be.

Last year, Hammerberg had just finished a David Bowie telegram when, inspired, he decided to surprise his girlfriend at work with a song. They hadn’t been together very long, but things were going well, and there’s nothing like tights, a wig, and a scarf borrowed from Grandma to take romance to the next level. Hammerberg says that, for the record, he asked three different people, including one complete stranger, if the romantic gesture was a good idea. They all said it absolutely, unequivocally was. It wasn’t. Singing a song he wrote (in tights, at her job) was apparently too much too soon. The relationship didn’t work out.
Since then, Hammerberg has had many more telegram experiences, and none of them (that he knows of) have led to heartbreak, but they do make for pretty great stories. There was the time that he delivered a stripping telegram in a hair salon — he got his shirt all the way off his shoulders before the hairdresser managed to squeak a “stop” between giggles. He once walked through Wash Park in nothing but a diaper and wings to deliver a telegram as Cupid as a bachelorette party. The women, emboldened by mimosas, kept putting money in his diaper. And there was the time that he walked into a high-school volleyball practice as a cop, pretended to arrest a girl for a hit-and-run, then burst into song before she could burst into tears. He wonders if that last one was maybe illegal.

Hammerberg has plenty of other things filling his time. He’s working on a children’s book based on a vivid dream, he’s started modeling, he’s starting a group to establish connections with aliens, and he’s writing a musical about a yoga retreat. He’s running Sunday-night jam sessions at the Squire Lounge, and Petals of Spain will soon release a new album, recorded with Grammy Award-winning producer Frank Filipetti. And yet singing telegrams are about to become an even bigger part of Hammerberg’s life. An investor has offered him money to start his own singing-telegram company — a business Hammerberg would take on the road with him when he travels or tours, delivering singing telegrams across the country. Hammerberg has worked many other day jobs: entering data for cable companies, waiting tables, selling vacuums. But this one is different. In every experience, no matter the situation or audience, it’s a kind of personalized performance that really impacts people.

On one of Hammerberg’s most recent telegrams, he went to a local middle school with just a name and a song from “a secret admirer.” When he arrived in the classroom, he discovered that the recipient was not a teacher, as he expected, but a girl in sixth grade. Armed with chocolate and balloons, dressed as Napoleon Dynamite, Hammerberg sang Bruno Mars’s “Just the Way You Are” for a class buzzing with the excitement of an unexpected amusement eating away the final minutes of the school day. While Hammerberg was singing, he noticed that the girl was tearing up — no doubt overtaken by the very particular combination of excitement and discomfort that only a singing telegram can deliver.

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Courtney Harrell writes for Westword and University of Colorado Denver, telling stories of people and the things they do.
Contact: Courtney Harrell