When I met Kelly Williams in the lobby at the Doyon Universal Services office building in South Anchorage last week, he was wearing a fedora and his expression was all business. A woman from an office ushered us in. There was a flurry of whispers. Employees asked their boss (whose birthday it was) to sit in a chair. Williams launched into a customized birthday song to the tune of "Do-Re-Mi" from "The Sound of Music." The boss blushed. The employees laughed. Williams snapped a picture and then he was gone. Singing telegram, delivered.
Williams, 45, been delivering musical greetings in Anchorage since 2011. First he sang for friends. Then he posted his services on Craigslist and then began advertising on Facebook. Toward the end of last year, he offered a Groupon. Now he's busy every week. Especially this week. In honor of Valentine's Day, telegrams are half price. He has half a dozen lined up on Friday.
Williams, a tall, bald, African American man with a silky voice, is an Army veteran and a father of seven. He moved to Alaska from Chicago in 2008 after he heard Sarah Palin talking about the Permanent Fund dividend during her vice presidential run, he said. If his face looks familiar, it's because you've seen him on a stage or screen.
Williams has hosted karaoke. He was in the cast of "Whale Fat Follies" and "Christmas in Spenard." He had a small part (playing "Producer 2" beside former KTUU news anchor Megan Baldino) in "Big Miracle" and he was 50 Cent's stunt double in "The Frozen Ground" (the stunt was just driving, but still.) He's emceed events, done stand-up comedy, been a DJ, and worked at a number of Alaska Club locations. Right now telegrams are his main gig.
"I've actually made more headway doing singing telegrams, than with anything else I've done," he said.
A full-price singing telegram costs $80. This buys a custom-written song delivered to whomever you'd like. He'll go anywhere he can drive, as far north as Wasilla and as far south as Girdwood.
The tune can be anything you want. He'll do Sinatra. He'll do country. He'll do show tunes. Macklemore's "Thriftshop?" You got it.
He has surprised people in their driveways and in the stands at an Aces game. Most smile, laugh or blush. Women tend to like it more. Men are less effusive. Occasionally someone cries. Frequently, people think he is a process server. Or a customer with a complaint. Once Williams was dispatched to the House of Harley-Davidson shop dressed as a pirate. He found his subject and started a birthday song. The guy tried to run, but Williams pursued, singing the whole time.
"I was like, 'This is going to happen whether you like it or not,'" Williams said. "They are paying for me and my song."
I asked him if he'd ever delivered bad news, like a song of sympathy, or a break up, or a resignation (now that would be gratifying, right?). He said no. Mainly it's birthdays and anniversaries. He once sang a telegram to a woman who worked at a car dealership, telling her that her daughter was pregnant. He sang "Endless Love" to a receptionist at an elementary school. He was called to one of the floors at Providence Alaska Medical Center, where the staff had been complaining about the removal of a desk they all used. He sang "There's No Desk" to the tune of "Be Our Guest" from "Beauty and the Beast," incorporating actual quotes from their email complaints.
"I think it eased the tension," he said.
Fernando and Angela Cardoso got engaged in the Michael Kors store in the 5th Avenue Mall a few months ago. (The video of their engagement is on YouTube and is adorable.) Fernando pretended he wanted to take Angela shopping for shoes. Then Williams arrived and began to sing about their relationship to an improvised tune.
"At first I was just like, 'Is this really happening to me? There was this guy in front of me just singing," Andrea said. "I didn't hear anything he said. Then I was like, 'Oh my gosh, something is going to happen. I think (Fernando) is going to propose."
And he did.
To come up with the telegram, Williams collects the names of the people involved and some private jokes. Before he delivers it, he sings it to the buyer over the phone. He says he can write a song about any subject to just about any tune in a matter of minutes.
"I swear to God it's like 'A Beautiful Mind,'" he said.
Here are the lyrics to the telegram he delivered at the Doyon building to Rick Harwell, human resources director for Doyon Universal Services.
"Yo, Hey Rick, how are you sir?/ No, you don't know who I am/I was sent by your whole staff/To sing you a Kelly-Gram/You are the break room police/Did you kill a kangaroo/Now, I need to finish big/ Happy birthday sir to you!"
I called Harwell afterward and we discussed the fine line between making someone feel awkward and honoring them on a birthday. A stripper is over the line. A singing telegram might also be over the line for some people. Harwell didn't mind it too much, he said. It was thoughtful, though also a little embarrassing. The sting of that embarrassment eased, though, he said, when he realized that he could send a return telegram. I asked if he was planning that.
"Oh, you bet."
Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.
More columns by Julia O'Malley
By JULIA O'MALLEY