Many people are surprised to hear that Reno even has a singing telegram company.
“It’s like when you’re talking about some couple, and somebody says, ‘Oh, they’re still together?’” says Mark Taxer, the owner and primary performer of Reno’s Eastern Onion Singing Telegram. “You only ever say that about couples that you don’t expect to stay together.”
Taxer moved to Reno from Oregon in the early 1980s to take a summer temp job at a downtown casino. After that job, he started working at Eastern Onion, a singing telegram company with franchises all over the West Coast. (The name is a play on the telegram-turned-financial services company Western Union.) He had no previous experience with music or theater or musical theater, but he developed a lasting love for the cheeky performance style of the singing telegram, and by 1985, he was running the Reno franchise. Part of the reason that the local franchise has been able to remain successful is that Taxer doesn’t rely on it as his sole means of subsistence; he also owns and manages a number of properties around town.
Eastern Onion offers songs for all the usual suspect occasions: anniversaries, retirement parties and, more often than not, birthday parties. There are songs for specific birthdays—40th or 50th birthday songs—set to old show tunes or John Philip Sousa marches. Taxer performs in a variety of costumes, including the classic red tux telegram uniform, a grim reaper costume, a gorilla (the most popular), a devil, Dr. Quack and a police officer uniform.
“It’s better that the cop uniform isn’t very accurate,” says Taxer.
Taxer says that singing the actual songs is only about a third of the singing telegram experience. He does a lot of comic improvising, riffing on the recipient of the telegram or whoever else happens to be around. A lot of the riffing is subtle but bawdy humor.
“It’s like Mae West—she was considered obscene,” says Taxer. “But she never said a dirty word, she never showed her legs. It was all innuendo, a wink and a nudge.”
Taxer litters his conversation with quotes from icons like Mae West, Judy Garland, Tallulah Bankhead, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler and Rufus Wainwright.
“I seem so creative when I don’t tell people where I get it,” he says.
Even in casual conversation Taxer will fly off in sudden flights of comic fancy.
“I don’t have a lot of control over it,” he says. “It’s like Judy and her vibrato.”
What’s the typical reaction of the recipient of a singing telegram?
“‘Oh hell,’” he says, miming the eye roll of somebody slightly annoyed and embarrassed. “But then, most people are pretty game to roll with it—though I did have a guy pull a gun on me once. … It’s usually better if they’ve already had a drink or two—just as long as it’s not a drink or nine.”
If the telegram recipient has had too many drinks, they might get a little frisky.
“And my stripping days are passed—well, mostly passed,” says Taxer. “When you’re home alone on a Saturday night, who knows? For an audience of four! Anything worth doing is worth doing with four people. Tallulah Bankhead once said her favorite number was 72 because it was 69 with three people watching.”