- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Every Valentine’s Day, Arlington resident Carol Monroe gets reacquainted with the full range of shades of red. There are rose reds for the candy box, an assortment of pinks on the card, and varied shades of crimson that folks tend to turn when they see Mrs. Monroe and three other women heading in their direction.

Mrs. Monroe is a member of the quartet Serenade, whose members for several years have made it their pleasure to deliver singing valentines to surprised — and sometimes embarrassed — sweethearts.

“The poor guys are usually beet red,” Mrs. Monroe says of the valentines’ recipients.

Serenade is just one of many quartets from the Potomac Harmony Chorus — a chapter of Sweet Adelines International, a 30,000-member organization of women devoted to barbershop-style singing — that will crisscross the Greater Washington area this Valentine’s Day to warble sweet nothings to assorted true loves.

They won’t be the only ones serenading those special someones in the days leading up to Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14. You might find Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley bursting into your office or interrupting a romantic dinner. Male barbershop singers are available as well, and admirers of a special someone can even send singing valentines through Western Union.

Today, thanks to e-mail, the Internet and aggressive marketing, there are more ways than ever to send special messages of love. A singing valentine may cost a bit more than a box of candy or a dozen roses, but the memories will last far longer than either one.

After all, music is the real food of love, at least if you listen to Shakespeare, who seemed to know a thing or two about the subject. And you don’t have to worry about counting the carbs in the chocolate box.

“The singing is wonderful, and the harmony is beautiful,” says Mrs. Monroe, who has been singing the tenor line with Potomac Harmony for 20 years and is also the choir’s public relations coordinator.

More than 100 calls for singing valentines come in each year, she says. Potential senders choose from a standard repertoire.

“We give them a choice of five love songs: “I Don’t Know Why I Love You Like I Do,” “It Had to Be You,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” “Cuddle Up a Little Closer” and “Blueberry Hill,” she says.

“Most people go for the ballads.”

Once the choice is made, a red-clad foursome arrives with the two songs of choice plus a 1-pound box of candy and a card. The results? Smiles, lots of praise, and often more than a few tears.

“There are some beautiful verses in these songs,” Mrs. Monroe says.

“Often the tunes don’t matter as much. You’ll see women — and men — with tears running down their cheeks. And sometimes they’re not even the ones the valentine is intended for.”

So where did we get the candy and the roses and the singing? The answer is not nearly as simple as the sentiments expressed. Valentine’s Day originally was celebrated as St. Valentine’s Day, but Christian tradition gives us no fewer than three saints Valentine, all of them martyrs, so it’s a bit unclear which one the day is intended to honor.

One, a priest who served during the third century in Rome, refused to recognize the emperor’s decision to outlaw marriage for potential soldiers and was put to death for his refusal to stop performing the marriage rite. Another, the bishop of what is now Terni in Italy, is reputed to have died in 237 during a round of persecutions. Of a third Valentine, a martyr in Africa, little is known.

One story has a St. Valentine jailed for his Christian beliefs but still sending messages to his lady love, signed, “From Your Valentine.” In any case, St. Valentine became known as the patron saint of lovers.

Popular in both France and England from the Middle Ages, Valentine’s Day gained favor in America in the 19th century, when the holiday’s effusions seemed tailor-made for sentimental Victorians. Even then, some feared that the holiday was getting a bit too commercial.

“The world is growing too prosaic,” Harper’s Weekly complained on Feb. 21, 1880. “This has nearly done away with the occupation of good St. Valentine, and the missives he now presides over are too often only annoying communications…His fairy gifts, his turtle doves and tender verses have been nearly hustled off our soil by a struggle to adapt him to the customs of our commercial country and make him pay.”

Today, a singing valentine may be just the ticket to get you away from candy hearts or cliched cards, though the price does go up when you step up from a simple love note to a fully harmonized rendering of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”

Certainly, lovers have been serenading each other practically since we figured out how to do more than just grunt. By the Middle Ages, lovers could hire wandering bands of minstrels to voice their pleas.

But whom do we have to thank for these latter-day valentine serenades? Well, if you put aside the under-the-window ditty or the occasional midnight croon, the culprit is most likely…Western Union.

“We started doing singing telegrams in the 1930s,” says Amy Fischer, corporate archivist for First Data Corp., the company that owns Western Union. “George Oslin, head of the PR department, had the idea.”

And so the singing telegram was born. According to Miss Fischer, the first singing telegram was sent July 28, 1933, by operator Lucille Lipps out of Western Union’s New York office. Apparently, the lady had the pipes to handle a rendition of “Happy Birthday to You.”

The recipient? Crooner Rudy Vallee, no slouch in the pipes department himself.

“After that, [singing telegrams] became quite popular, even during the Depression,” Miss Fischer says.

For a while, Western Union even had celebrity singers. Gene Autry, the Andrews Sisters and Mary Martin all delivered singing telegrams.

Of course, Western Union was already busy with valentines of the more standard telegraphic variety.

“People started sending Valentine’s Day greetings during the mid-1920s,” Miss Fischer says. “They had more money for luxuries, which included casual telegrams like these.”

Western Union even provided special forms to help those sending greetings with the wording, Miss Fischer says.

From there, it was a just a small leap to combining the two genres. The result was singing valentines.

You can still send a Western Union singing valentine, though the selection is limited: your message sung to — once again — “Happy Birthday to You,” the same tune Rudy Vallee heard.

“Now we do it over the phone. They all come out of our Bridgeton office,” Miss Fischer says, alluding to the headquarters of Western Union Financial Services in Bridgeton, Mo. The greetings are sung live, however.

Closer to home, some local businesses will send their singers in person to your special valentine. The American Balloon Co. in Alexandria, in business for 28 years, is one. The company probably is best-known for the decorations for private parties and for “balloon-o-grams,” but it also does singing telegrams, in character. Its singing valentines are accompanied with candy and a card, says manager Olivia London.

“Whenever possible, we get information from whoever is booking the telegram so we can personalize things,” Mrs. London says.

The company offers a $125 Valentine’s Day special, which brings recipients one of three love songs, a bouquet of balloons and a Valentine’s Day mug filled with Hershey’s kisses, delivered by a pink or black gorilla, a puppy dog or a teddy bear. Several other options range up to $250 — a top price that gets your message delivered by an Elvis or Marilyn Monroe impersonator.

Yes, that was the American Balloon Co.’s Marilyn Monroe impersonator you may have seen peeking out from behind the late Sen. Strom Thurmond at his 100th birthday party in 2002.

Five entertainers from the American Balloon Co. will be heading out on Valentine’s Day to cover all the requests.

Then there are the solo entrepreneurs. In Harford County, Md., singer Tino Aquilano is pretty familiar with that gorilla costume and even has been known to take it off a time or two to deliver a singing valentine in bright red boxers. More often, however, he’s clad in a tux.

“That’s usually what people ask for,” he says. “Nowadays if they want something else, I try to get them someone younger.”

Originally from Baltimore, Mr. Aquilano, who has been doing business as Singing Telegrams Since 1980, says he has been singing all his life, so the songs come naturally.

“I find out what type of music a person likes, and I sing it,” he says.

“I’m not that big on country-Western, though. I do rock and roll standards and a lot of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.”

It’s true: Just about anything by Dino or the Chairman is practically standard fare on Valentine’s Day.

Still, there is something about Valentine’s Day songs that seems to call for more than one singer — four, in fact. Barbershop quartets are known for those old-fashioned love songs, and the quartet scene is alive and kicking in the Greater Washington area.

It’s not just the women from Potomac Harmony Chorus who do serenades on Valentine’s Day; the men get into the act as well.

Consider a singing valentine, for example, from one of the quartets of the prizewinning Singing Capital Chorus, the Washington chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society (until last year the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America).

Founded in 1946, this group calls itself Washington’s “premier a cappella chorus.” It’s filled with retired spooks and CIA types, along with the typical Washington mix of lawyers, ex-politicos, Foreign Service officers and military men.

The songs they will be singing, though, are thoroughly sentimental — and they sing in formal dress.

“People can choose between ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart’ and ‘Heart of My Heart,’ says Fred Coffey of McLean, who will serenade folk along with his tuxedo-clad fellows starting Feb. 11 and running through Valentine’s Day.

“‘Heart of My Heart’ is ‘The Story of the Rose,’ you know,” Mr. Coffey says, alluding to the song’s verse lines about a lovelorn rose in a garden, “so it’s very appropriate.”

Surprised recipients also will receive a posy, a card, and a photograph of the occasion. The price is $40 for deliveries within 20 miles of Chevy Chase.

Across the river, you can find the Alexandria Harmonizers. With 225 members, about 100 of whom are active, it’s one of the largest chapters of the Barbershop Harmony Society. It, too, sends out its own quartet singers.

“We’ve been doing singing valentines for about fifteen years,” says Terry Jordan, who has been singing with the Harmonizers for 40 years.

This year, “about six or seven” quartets from the Alexandria Harmonizers will be singing from Feb. 11 through 14 throughout the Greater Washington area, fulfilling about 150 requests.

“It’s a way to spread the word that we exist and do something very special for one particular person,” Mr. Jordan says.

That “something special” includes delivering roses, chocolates and a card along with one or two love songs. Favorites include “Heart of My Heart” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” delivered by a suitably attired quartet approved by the Harmonizers.

Prices range from $25 to $75, though fees may be higher depending on time and location.

But if you are sending a singing valentine, price should be the last thing on your mind. In the end, it’s all about those shades of red.

“This is public affection at its best,” Mr. Jordan says. “It’s a wonderful thing.”

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