In the early 1980s, a popular gift in New York City for the person who had everything was a singing telegram. That successful business model was followed by other -grams, including gorilla-grams, belly-dance-grams, clown-o-grams and my job. I delivered Yenta-grams, a joyous greeting for special occasions, wrapped in guilt.
Being a yenta was part stand-up comedian, seasoned with improv and crowd control. As odd jobs go, it was one of the most enjoyable roles I've ever had.
A fellow stand-up had the gig, but after a while, she became a road comic so she needed to replace herself. I was the lucky candidate. Dressing up like a little old lady with orthopedic shoes, leopard pillbox, a schleppy coat and red lipstick (think Andrea Martin's "SCTV" character, Edith Prickly), I quickly rose through the ranks to become a popular Yenta.
When I was hired for birthday parties, I'd barge into restaurants as a long-lost relative of the birthday recipient. Or I was the mock interview candidate for an office party's boss. One time, I was a gift to the costume designer for a show on Broadway "Agnes of God," and part of what I needed to do was be fitted for a nun's habit, all the while spouting jokes about the play's lead actress and the person who was fitting me, under the premise that I was an understudy.
Yenta-grams were advertised in New York Magazine along with about 15 other odd -grams, including balloon-o-grams and stripper-grams. Once, somebody offered to pay triple my rate if I'd visit in my usual costume, tell jokes and then strip down to a bra and girdle with orthopedic stockings, like an old-style grandma. Thinking this was way too creepy, I declined the assignment.
The creator of Yenta-gram was a schoolteacher named Vicki. People would call her from the ad and she'd learn all about the person having the birthday. Then she'd call me and I'd create roast-style jokes about them. I put my talking points on the back of a business card I held in my hand as a cheat sheet to make sure that I'd hit all the highlights. Plus, I'd engage the people who were in the room with sort of an interactive man-on-the-street stand-up. I was usually in the middle of someone's living room or private party room in a restaurant.
Once, I was hired at the last minute for a Saturday night party in a fancy restaurant and as soon as I got there, the little dick of a host proceeded to heckle me and talk over my act, making it very difficult to deliver my material. When I tried to confront him, his answer was, "I really wanted a gorilla-gram, but you were the only one available on short notice, so, I got you instead." Nice guy. For this, I took two buses and a train.
Around that time there was a -gram that was considered an accessory to murder. A young woman, rumored to be a gold digger, had married a much older man. She gave him a belly-dance-gram for his birthday. When the belly dancer arrived, undulating close to him continuously, the man got so excited, he had a heart attack and died.
For me, my highlights included one party where I brought my father to the restaurant and incorporated him as part of a routine. Seeing Dad's face light up as I commandeered the room full of strangers, hearing them laugh and applaud as I floated through the room with Chico Marx-style antics and snappy patter was one of the zaniest father-daughter experiences we ever had.
I was riding high as a yenta, but my biggest most exciting Yenta-gram was the night I became a gift from Cary Grant to one of his friends. My close friend Karen worked in publicity for the famous actor, and when he asked her for birthday present ideas for a man who had everything, she thought of me. The party was in a fancy restaurant in New York City attended by 75 rich and famous types. The entertainment preceding me were five different -grams. I had to follow a singing Yankee Gram, a gift from party guest George Steinbrenner. Shortly after I got into my costume, a guest who was an infamous nasty person—Roy Cohn—walked up to me and said, "If you are not funny, kid, your friend loses her job." No pressure there.
By now, I was a seasoned Yenta complete with props, including a rubber chicken, which turned out to be literally a big hit when I hit several luminaries with it. Next, I sat on the lap of a famous millionairess who was wearing gorgeous emerald earrings. I pointed to my own cheap clip-ons and said, "These are my baubles from my many husbands. I see you're not doing too badly yourself." The room went wild. Who knew Don Rickles-style material delivered by someone who looked like a bag lady could wow the room. I did so well that evening I was given the biggest tip of my Yenta-gram career, which enabled me to buy groceries for two weeks.
The following morning, Karen called. Cary Grant said I was the highlight of the party. Karen got a raise and took me out to lunch, where we split a decadent dessert and toasted the Hollywood legend.