by Len Lear
Like many people, my wife and I would normally celebrate a birthday, anniversary or other special event by splurging at a fine restaurant. Last month, however, that was impossible, so I had to think of another idea since our 55th wedding anniversary was coming up. As fate would have it, when my mind was drawing blanks, I saw a short human interest piece on a local TV station about Dottie’s Serenade Service performing in front of a Philly rowhouse with neighbors looking on.
Dot, I discovered, is Dot Levine, 34, a professional musician who until the pandemic was teaching at the Jewish Children’s Folkshul (“a very thoughtful organization committed to social justice”), whose classes with six to 20 children have been held on the Springside/Chestnut Hill Academy campus for nine years, as well as performing at local clubs, bars, restaurants, etc., and with a band at private events like weddings and bar mitzvahs. Obviously, that was all erased by the pandemic, although Dot still gives music lessons to children virtually.
“For the first two weeks (of the pandemic) I did nothing,” said Dot, “So many things were cancelled, so I realized I had to come up with something new. And the idea hit me about doing singing telegrams in front of people’s houses. It would be easy to keep social distancing, and who wouldn’t like to be surprised with a singing telegram?”
The idea was sheer genius. Requests started flooding in, not to mention media publicity that has kept the phone ringing. “I am now able to afford to buy things I need,” said Dot. “I have had calls from as far away as Nashville and Salt Lake City from people who wanted to surprise a friend or loved one in Philly with a singing telegram. How lucky am I to be able to do this? People say, ‘I really needed that’ or ‘This meant the world to me’ or ‘I will never forget this.’ I will do this forever, and I would not have had the leverage to do it if it wasn’t for the pandemic!”
In our case, Dot came by at 4 p.m. on the day of our anniversary and while standing on Mt. Airy Avenue (there is no sidewalk) began playing the guitar and singing. It was a total shock to my wife, but it was an exhilarating, hilarious experience for both of us as Dot played and sang two songs I has selected, “Softly as I Leave You,” by Matt Monroe (which has a personal meaning), and “The Anniversary Song” (for obvious reasons). We could not stop smiling and laughing as cars drove by and joggers came out of the park, also smiling. How could you not? From a young age, Dot and their family would perform at small outings during the holidays, which enhanced their versatility and love for music. Dot’s mom was a jazz vocalist and sculptor, and dad played the harmonica and guitar. Dot, who took music lessons as a child but is mostly self-taught, became a full-time performer in their early 20s, allowing them to tour across the country with bands, guitarists and other instrumentalists.
Dot, who teaches guitar, bass, banjo and voice and runs the Cedar Park Music School and Philadelphia Uke (Ukulele) Music Studio, said the most common reason for a singing telegram is a birthday. Some people let Dot pick the music, and others may pick a song from a category like friendship, leaving a job, missing someone, etc. One person picked “The Sabbath Prayer” from “Fiddler on the Roof.”
By far the most popular band whose songs are selected is The Beatles, such as “An Octopus’ Garden,” “Here Comes the Sun,” “With a Little Help From My Friends” and selections from “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album. Billy Joel songs are also popular.
Dot will travel up to an hour for a singing telegram, so they did turn down one request to go to Cape May. “I had two jobs this week from people who wanted to get married but couldn’t because of the pandemic.” When I jokingly asked if people ever want a large group of musicians to show up, Dot replied, “Actually I know of a case where a really rich man wanted an entire orchestra to come out when he would be proposing to his lady friend. So the orchestra showed up, and he asked the woman to marry him, but she said no! … Of course, the musicians still had to be paid.”
For more information, visit singinggram.net or call 215-353-7071. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org