A Celebrity in Every Taxi
An oral history of NYC’s talking taxi program
For the first time, I am debuting a video and a newsletter on the same topic on the same day. You can watch the video, or read the oral history, or both! The written version is an expanded transcript that contains more details and even a couple sections that aren’t in the video. However, the video lets you actually hear the celebrity announcements. In both versions, interviews have been edited for time and clarity.
If you got in a taxi in New York City between 1997 and 2003, you were greeted with the recorded voice of a celebrity reminding you to buckle up. When you left, the same celebrity reminded you to make sure you don’t forget anything, and get a receipt.
I wanted to hear these again recently, just out of nostalgia. But I couldn’t find them archived anywhere online. So I did a little digging in old articles to find someone who worked on the project back then at Taxi and Limousine Commission and might still have them. I found a name and managed to contact him, but he didn’t have the recordings. He was thrilled to be remembered for this old project, though, and said, “You know who you should really talk to?”
So I reached out to the person he suggested. And that guy was even more excited to talk about the old program. Plus, he named two other people I should talk to if I wanted to hear more about it. And I began to wonder if maybe there’s a story here waiting to be told.
Eventually, I did get the recordings — most of them, anyway, plus a ton of outtakes. But I also got the untold oral history of how the Celebrity Talking Taxi program started, never-before-heard stories from its heyday, and how its ultimate demise can partly be blamed on Elmo.
In the process, I spoke with all three heads of the Taxi and Limousine Commission who oversaw the program, several people who actually worked on it with the celebrities, plus a couple former taxi drivers.
Oh, and I talked to Al Franken. We’ll get to him later.
But first, let’s learn how the program began.
Before The Celebrities, There Was Victoria
Chris Lynn was the Chair of the Taxi and Limousine Commission under mayor Rudy Giuliani from May 1995 to July 1996.
Chris Lynn: I devised a set of measurements that that I wanted to receive every day on my desk. There are certain things the agency did that I wanted to know. How many licenses did we issue? How many hearings did we hold? All the basic things.
So I began to keep the statistics on lost property. Where does it go? Who catalogs it? What’s the procedure if a cab driver finds something in his cab? There was nothing really in place. And as I began to keep these statistics, I noticed we were getting 500 people a month who would leave stuff in cabs. So we need to educate them to take their receipt, because with the receipt you can find the cab number. But how do you do that? Tell the cab driver to remind them? You can’t do that, can you? It’s tedious.
And then, it was around Christmas time, I was going up to a meeting at Gracie Mansion and somebody had sent me one of those Christmas cards, you open it up, and there’s a microchip that plays 50 Christmas songs. And I was sitting there at the 8 o’clock meeting and I just said, “I have an epiphany. If they can put a chip in a greeting card, we can put a chip in a taxi meter that says, ‘Before you get out of this cab, take your receipt and look around and make sure you take your property.’” So I said that’s what I’m going to do, and I did it.
Chris gave the taxi meter companies a script and told them to record the message. But he didn’t give them any instructions on who should record it. One taxi meter company in Queens called Pulsar Technologies just had their secretary do it. Her name was Victoria Drakoulis. She had a thick New Yawk accent.
Pulsar had more meters in taxis than any other company, so Victoria’s recording was the most widely heard.
And people hated it.
“Please remember to take all of your belongings when leaving this taxi and please get a receipt from the dri-vuh.” - Victoria Drakoulis
Chris Lynn: She sounded like Fran Drescher from The Nanny. So when it came out, there was all sorts of complaints. The media caught on to it. The New York Times wrote several stories about it.
The New York Times published a letter saying:
It almost seems to be making fun of New Yorkers because it sounds so Brooklynese.
SPY Magazine quoted a passenger complaint:
It’s not a pleasant voice. It’s rough and rather abrasive, not pleasing to the ear at all.
And the publisher of the industry magazine Taxi Talk told The Washington Post that Victoria was:
The yenta from hell.
This all prompted a defensive TLC spokesperson to tell the New York Times:
Believe it or not, we didn’t put in the audio reminder to annoy people.
Pulsar, the company that Victoria worked for, fired her. But she couldn’t prove it had anything to do with any of this. And some people found her authentic voice endearing. She became a minor celebrity, appearing on Good Morning America and The Rosie O’Donnell Show.
Chris Lynn: You know what? She did a wonderful job, in my opinion. And she was clear and it was to the point. I never understood the criticism of that. Ever.
Victoria’s voice was quickly replaced with a professional voice artist from Pittsburgh who had a boring, neutral voice.
New Leader, New Problem
Diane McGrath-McKechnie took over the Taxi and Limousine Commission in July 1996. When she took over the department, she had a new problem to deal with. A few years earlier, bulletproof partitions became mandatory in taxis, and now that every taxi had them, they were starting to see partition-related injuries.
Diane McGrath-McKechnie: In an accident, when your face goes up against a framed plexiglass or bulletproof glass, you’re in trouble. You’ve broken your nose. You’re gonna have broken some vertebrae. You’ve got scars.
And some people just don’t want to buckle up and they won’t buckle up. And when they get cab face, they’re sorry they didn’t.
Yep. Cab Face. I heard that term from almost everyone I spoke with. It was the industry lingo for what happens when a passenger’s face slams into a taxi partition. And it was no joke. The New York Times described people being rushed to hospitals with “terribly debilitating facial injuries, broken cheekbones and jaws, lacerated lips, and discolored eyes.”
(Years later, former Double Dare host Marc Summers would be severely injured in a taxi partition accident, telling People magazine “My left eye isn’t where it’s supposed to be.” Ouch.)
One woman who gashed her face in a taxi partition shared this thought with the New York Times:
What really irritates me is the tape. If people want their receipt, they’ll get it. Meanwhile, people are bouncing off the partitions and losing their faces. Why not play a tape with safety advice at the beginning of the ride?
Diane was thinking the same thing.
Diane McGrath-McKechnie: We thought, you know, they’re not going to do it just if it’s a recording or whatever. Let’s put a celebrity on there. And we started seeking out celebrities to do it.
Whose Idea Was It, Anyway?
I’m going to pause here to share something I don’t go into in the video: It seemed like every person I spoke with told me that using celebrities was their idea.
More than one person went as far as telling me that other people I spoke with had nothing to do with the celebrities, even though I had evidence of their involvement. I don’t think there was anything malicious going on, but it’s been 25 years, so I don’t expect anyone to have perfect recall.
The fact is, even before the TLC began using celebrities, there were articles in which everyday New Yorkers who hated Victoria Drakoulis’s voice suggested she be replaced by celebrities. Sometimes those articles even suggested specific people who later were part of the program. So I think it’s safe to say this was an obvious “next step” idea that was in the air and came from many places.
Or as one of my interviewees said when I asked why an article gave them the sole credit for the idea:
I was definitely instrumental. Whether it was my idea or not, I don’t know. I kind of remember that it was, but it’s hard to know. It was so long ago. But I think it was definitely a group effort.
Since I heard slightly different versions of events from people, when determining whose quotes to use for this piece, I’ve gone with the stories that most closely line up with the record as I was able to assemble it from contemporary accounts.
The First Celebrities
Diane gave the project to her Deputy Commissioner of Public Affairs, Allan J. Fromberg.
Allan J. Fromberg: Well, the first challenge of course was, where are we getting these celebrities?
Diane McGrath-McKechnie: It wasn’t the type of job that big celebrities are necessarily looking for.
And then fate stepped in.
Allan J. Fromberg: Plácido Domingo left his briefcase in a taxi. And in the briefcase was handwritten music, some personal items which I’ve sworn never to divulge, and some other things that were absolutely precious to him and they were absolutely necessary for him to go on stage the next night.
And so we mobilized heaven and earth and within four hours or so, we actually were able to track it down. And mind you, this was long before the days of GPS. And son of a gun we actually put it in the hands of Mayor Giuliani, who at the time, of course, was the city’s number one opera fan.
And so Plácido Domingo being very, very grateful [invited us to his restaurant]. I don’t know if he still maintains it. But [over dinner] the commissioner said, “Hey, we’ve got this new project. How would you like to be the first voice?” And we were off and running.
“Hello, this is Plácido Domingo reminding you to buckle your seatbelt for safety, because you are important.” - Plácido Domingo
With one celebrity down, they set out to find more, eventually landing on seven celebrities to be the first voices of the taxis. They were Plácido Domingo, Joan Rivers, Jackie Mason, Eartha Kitt, Joe Torre, Dr. Ruth, and Judd Hirsch from the TV show Taxi.
It was up to Allan to write their scripts. And he had some writing experience. In the ‘80s, he wrote comic books for a company called Solson Publications. Among their memorable hits were Daffy Qaddafi and Reagan’s Raiders.
So he drew on his writing background to come up with scripts for the celebrities.
Allan J. Fromberg: This was the best part. I sat down and I tried to come up with the worst puns I possibly could that somehow were specific to them and characters that people would know them for. And that was just the most fun. And out of the 38 celebrities, I only did not write two of the scripts, and one being Joan Rivers and one being Jackie Mason.
And who the heck was I to presume that I could write for them? Jackie Mason, we met in his apartment. And we sat at his dinette table. And he basically just let loose for almost an hour. Never went over the same ground twice. It was just nonstop like a machine gun. The man just rattled off funny. And an hour later, we had a heck of a lot of raw stuff to choose from and wade through.
“This is Jackie Mason reminding you to take your belongings. You don’t have to take ‘em. It's up to you.” - Jackie Mason
Allan went with a small team to record the celebrities. The team included sound engineer Rich Gibbons on loan from a company called Clever Devices who was donating work and equipment, and the TLC’s Chief Financial Officer, Ken Podziba, now doing double duty as a celebrity wrangler.
Ken Podziba: My role in this was I would get the celebrities. And that was a long, arduous process and a lot of faxing and contacting agents.
Joan Rivers’ manager, Dorothy Melvin, and I were dealing with each other back and forth. And when we got [to her home], I brought the team. And I remember Dorothy Melvin was angry at me and said, “Ken, that’s not part of the deal. They’re not supposed to come in the room, only you.”
So they stayed in the waiting area. And Joan Rivers is reading the script, and she’s going on and on, and she’s trying different ones. And finally she goes, “Who wrote this shit?” I said, ”Well, he’s sitting out there.” “Bring him in, get him in now!”
Allan J. Fromberg: She called me in and she said, “You wrote this?” I said, “Yes, ma’am, I wrote this.” She said, “It’s funny.” She said, “And you know what? I always use my own material, but if I didn’t, you could write for me anytime.” So it was sweet. I don’t know if she let me down easy or what, but it was definitely a highlight for me.
“Hi, this is Joan again, reminding you to take your belongings with you and don’t forget your receipt. Could you let me know when we get to Grant’s Tomb? I have a date with him!” - Joan Rivers
The Program Grows
Over the next six years, 38 celebrities could be heard in taxis as part of the program, including athletes, fashion designers, comedians, and stars of theater, opera, TV, and movies. Here’s the full list:
Dr. Ruth Westheimer
Mr Moviefone (Russ Leatherman)
Sally Jessy Raphael
Judges Judy & Jerry Sheindlin
Walt “Clyde” Frazier
Elmo (Kevin Clash)
And the program made its way into national popular culture:
Law & Order producer Dick Wolf had a short-lived show on NBC called Deadline that not only featured the messages in an episode but also had a scene with Kevin Clash playing himself recording Elmo’s lines.
On Saturday Night Live, Rudy Giuliani made an appearance playing a taxi driver who is annoyed by the celebrity messages and keeps shouting, “Friggin’ Giuliani!”
On a Sesame Street special called The Street We Live On, Elmo gets in a taxi driven by Grover, and they hear Elmo’s message reminding them to buckle up. Grover asks, “Did you say something?” to which Elmo replies, “Elmo’s not sure.”
So of all the celebrities, which recording session was the most memorable?
Allan J. Fromberg: That’s gotta be the Adam West story.
Ken Podziba: I know Allan Fromberg has his version, but this is what happened with Adam West. It was the Parker Meridien Hotel and it was very noisy. So Adam West, I think, said — someone said — let’s go in the men’s room.
Allan J. Fromberg: I said, why don’t we go into the bathroom? There won’t be many people.
Ken Podziba: And so we went into the men’s room off the lobby and we recorded a few more versions. And then Adam West freaked out and said, “No, this is too weird. If it ever gets out that we did in the men’s room, this could be really weird and creepy and I don’t want people to know that we did it there.” Whatever. So we go up to his hotel room, which was this big suite. We did it there.
And then like a week later, it’s on Page Six that Adam West said we did it in the men’s room.
“Adam West here, back again to remind you to take your belongings and to get a receipt from your driver. I’ll see you again, same bat-taxi, same bat-time!” - Adam West
Every so often the celebrity voices would rotate and the letter in the taxi number would indicate which voice went in which cab. One celebrity used this fact to have a little fun.
Ken Podziba: Dr. Ruth Westheimer, she knew which were the Dr. Ruth taxis. Every celebrity had, I think, two different letters, so she knew the ones that were hers. So she liked to go in her taxis and the taxi drivers would freak out when they would see her. But she thought that was the funniest thing in the world that she actually was in this taxi with her voice in it.
“Hello, I’m Dr. Ruth Westheimer with an important message…please, buckle your seat belt, because safety is very important to me, and so are you!” - Dr. Ruth Westheimer
If You Could Talk To Al Franken
Right after I stopped recording my interview with Allan Fromberg, but before we hung up, he started to tell me about his recording session with Al Franken that still bothers him to this day. I told him, “Wait a minute. If you’re going to tell me a good story, I’ve got to start recording again.” So I resumed recording, and here’s what he said:
Allan J. Fromberg: If you could talk to Al Franken, you should ask him if he recalls that his first few draft messages that he pitched were a little, a bit off color and a bit inappropriate and my government insights couldn’t deal with it. And so we did revert to the more innocuous script that I wrote for him.
A few weeks later, I did speak with Al Franken and I asked him about this.
Al Franken: I think I remember. I think I wanted to do: Your driver probably doesn’t understand what I’m saying, but he thinks you should buckle up.
Something on that order.
And I thought that if the driver did understand English, they’d find it funny — which may be wrong — and that if they didn’t, there was no harm. But that was me then. It was not only politically incorrect, it was just wrong. It was wrong.
I will say that a certain percentage of them would have thought it was funny and a certain percentage of them would have been saying, like, “You drive a cab. You know, you’re lucky. You were born here. You had all the advantages of being born here. And I came here and now I’m driving a cab and I’m doing this for me and for my family and, you know, screw you.”
And that would be completely legitimate.
So I’m glad he was there to stop me. So tell him that he made the right call not to — he was completely right to reject that joke.
I shared Al’s message with Allan and this was his reaction:
Allan J. Fromberg: Wow, I can’t believe he remembered that moment. I’m overcome that he was nice enough to be as frank as he was. Or Franken, in this case. It’s really terrific that he made time to think about this and talk about it. I appreciate the kind words he said about me.
Al’s joke was politically incorrect, but it was far from the only example I found of comedians making fun of taxi driver stereotypes in the 90s. Joan Rivers pitched a joke where she said, “If your driver’s wearing deodorant, give him a bigger tip.” And I found a stand-up bit by Jerry Seinfeld where he complains that taxi drivers have hard-to-spell names and bad body odor. For whatever reason, this was part of the comedy zeitgeist back then, like making fun of Indian convenience store owners. I’m glad we’ve moved on from that.
A Note About That Interview
Here’s something else I don’t talk about in the video: I reached out to a lot of the celebrities who participated in the program, but Al Franken was the only one who came through.
Of the 38 celebrities who participated, 14 of them have since passed away. Of the 24 remaining, I was able to track down contact information for about half of them through publicists or agents.
I knew this would be pretty low on anyone’s priority list, and I didn’t want to bother people just to say, “Hey, remember when you did that thing with the taxis? That was awesome.” So I tried to only reach people who I had specific questions for. Maybe they’d say no, but I figured I had nothing to lose by asking.
I would have loved to hear Dr. Ruth talk about messing with taxi drivers herself. Her rep said she was willing to talk to me but she doesn’t really use computers, so we had to wait for her neighbor to get back from vacation so he could help get her set up. After that, I didn’t hear back.
I hoped I could get Plácido Domingo to tell the story of his briefcase. His rep said he was finishing up a busy season and then taking time off, but maybe afterwards. My follow-up emails went unanswered.
But Al Franken’s team was awesome. I sent an email to his rep explaining my project. She got me in touch with his assistant, and a few weeks later we were talking. So a big thank you to Team Franken!
Also, just as a brief aside: Mr. Moviefone (Russ Leatherman) is surprisingly hard to get ahold of. He was active online for years, but then a year ago his online presence seems to have disappeared. His website is down. Any email address I could find bounced back as undeliverable. I hope you’re okay, Mr. Moviefone, wherever you are.
Celebrities Who Said No
Not every celebrity agreed to participate. Some weren’t big fans of the administration. Others just weren’t interested.
Ken Podziba: I met Bette Midler and I was talking to her for a while. She was very cordial but, you know, then you follow up and nothing happens.
I wanted Tony Danza for the whole Taxi connection. We did get Judd Hirsch. Those two I really wanted. At least we got Judd Hirsch but I remember wanting Tony Danza.
Allan J. Fromberg: Actually, Tony Danza, I think, wanted to be paid. And we just didn’t have a budget, so that didn’t work out.
Dave Letterman was a no. And we were really looking forward to having him. I mean, so New York.
There were some great cartoon characters I would have loved to get in there. Ren and Stimpy at the time would have been awesome. So many possibilities.
If you want my dream, though, I really wanted Neil Armstrong. [My idea] was, “That’s one small step for a person and one giant leap for safety. So buckle up.” Or something like that.
Celebrities Who Said Yes But Weren’t Used
Allan J. Fromberg: Your viewers will have probably heard of Soupy Sales, maybe. Soupy Sales came to the office and we had a very long recording session and it just — his voice did not lend itself well to the program.
There was also a night when we were backstage at the revival of The Sunshine Boys with Tony Randall and of course, Jack Klugman.
Jack Klugman and Tony Randall were reuniting on Broadway in a play by Odd Couple playwright Neil Simon, even though Klugman had long struggles with throat cancer that left him with a very raspy voice.
Allan J. Fromberg: There we were backstage and we only had a few minutes before they had to go on and we did some recordings. And we had a sound engineer with us at the time, and he said, “Unfortunately, Mr. Klugman’s voice is not going to do it.” And Tony Randall said, “Well, if Jack can’t do it, I’m not going to do it.” But we had a fun night backstage in the theater anyway. But it saddens me that people didn’t get to hear their message.
The Untold RuPaul Story
At the time, RuPaul was the host of a morning radio show on WKTU with co-host Michelle Visage.
Ken Podziba: I was at a party and I met RuPaul. He found that I was from the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Somebody introduced us, and he wanted to do the recording. And I thought it would be great. So I’m like, sure, I think I can make it happen. Let’s stay in touch.
The next morning, I heard — I didn’t even know he had a radio show, but the next morning all the listeners were calling. He told everybody that he met me and that he was gonna be on the talking taxi. So the whole show was devoted to what he would record and people coming up with phrases for him to say.
Unfortunately, the administration didn’t want him, because they thought that RuPaul was too controversial. And I couldn’t believe it. Even at the time back then, I didn’t think it was controversial. But this administration, I guess, was very conservative and didn’t think it was appropriate.
I didn’t tell RuPaul or anybody else until now. But it’s been so many years later, I feel like I could tell somebody. But I’m still not over it because RuPaul was so happy about it and I think New Yorkers would have loved it. Lighten up, guys. Come on.
The Cab Driver Response
I wanted to talk to former cab drivers to get their recollections. But it was really hard finding people who drove taxis in New York City 25 years ago. I did find a couple, like David Bradford, who was a cab driving photographer. He published a couple books of photos taken from his taxi. You should check them out!
David Bradford: Well, I hated it. It’s something else to bombard the cab driver that’s not necessary. I was fortunate I got Plácido Domingo. He had a respectful voice, but you would hear it each time you press the meter. And I’m just fortunate I got Domingo and not Elmo or Dr. Ruth. I don’t know what the others were, but I would have — I don’t know what I would have done.
It’s forced on you, you couldn’t shut it off. And as a cab driver, you’re a slave to whatever came down, be it new rules or officers who have to get their ticket quota. I experienced that. It’s something that the cab driver would have to put up with, and it was unnerving.
Ken Podziba: The taxi drivers were not happy, and I think one of the reasons they weren’t happy is because it wasn’t a revolving tape of different celebrities. It was the same voice over and over and over again And I remember, I don’t know if I read this in the newspaper or it was just common knowledge, but the one they disliked the most was Joan Rivers. They found her voice very grating. Like, “I’m gonna like smash this taxi in a wall. I can’t stand this voice. It’s driving me crazy!”
Ken remembered correctly. There was a New York Times article where a cab driver said Joan Rivers’ voice made him want to die:
One cabbie recently complained that he’d like to die if he gets the cab with Joan Rivers in it. “I hate her, I can’t stand her, it would be like being nagged by your wife all day,” he said. “Jackie Mason is annoying too, but there’s something about her.”
The Daily News quoted a cab driver who hated Dr. Ruth’s voice:
“The one with the Brooklyn accent, people could get used to it,” said cabby Nick Mokanos… “This one, I don’t even understand what she’s saying.”
Another driver told CNN:
“I have Joe Torre and I’m a big Yankee fan, but I’m sick and tired of hearing him 60 times a day.”
I did speak with one cab driver who didn’t mind the messages, a retired taxi driver named Abe Mittleman who still runs a Taxi News website.
Abe Mittleman: It didn’t bother me at all. I accepted it. It became routine, you know, the voice in the back of the car. I like Chris Rock. It introduced me to him, actually. I didn’t know who he was.
“Hey, this is Chris Rock again to remind you to take all your belongings. Except that dollar. I need it. Just kidding. You’re in New York City, the millennial capital of the world!” - Chris Rock
The Public Response
So what about the public? Did people love hearing celebrities in their taxis? And did it work? Did it get people to buckle up and ask for a receipt?
Ken Podziba: New Yorkers all said they didn’t really like it very much. I think it was one of those things they loved to hate, though.
I submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Taxi and Limousine Commission asking for “letters, emails, transcripts, recordings or other records sent from the general public about the old Celebrity Talking Taxi program, sent between 1997 - 2003.”
They got back to me about six weeks later and said, “A diligent search for records responsive to your request did not locate any such records. Accordingly, your request is denied.” Oh, well.
Ken suggested I try the Mayor’s office, so I sent them a similar request. A month later they got back to me extending their deadline to respond until “on or about Thursday, December 21, 2023.” I’ll let you know if I hear anything.
So I relied on quotes made public at the time.
Early on, the TLC invited feedback on their website. One representative person left a comment complaining:
How many times can a person listen to a cat-like Eartha Kitt roaring in their ear?
Someone sent a letter to the editor of the New York Times addressing the TLC:
Please, we beg of you: bring back Victoria Drakoulis as the Voice of the Taxi Meter; her accent may not please you, but she’s a real New Yorker, and she knows better than to tell the same joke over and over.
But of course New Yorkers don’t all agree on anything, so I also found evidence that some people actually liked the messages, like this person who wrote to the New York Times:
I especially love Joan Rivers’ message and her tidbit about her date with Ulysses S. Grant… I loved the messages. The warnings have the same psychological effect on me as the warnings my mother gave me when I was a kid to always wear clean underwear just in case I had an accident.
In various news stories, I found TLC representatives defending the program by talking about how effective it was.
But was it?
Allan J. Fromberg: Having been in government and press relations for as long as I was, I knew at some point somebody would say, “Well, is this working?” And so we actually spoke to the heads of emergency rooms around the city, various hospitals, Bellevue and Coney Island Hospital, and we basically wanted to see whether or not there was any dip. And unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of quantifiable data there.
But you know what? I’m gonna stand on the fact that if it got somebody to think about doing something they wouldn’t have ordinarily thought about doing, then it was a success.
The Beginning of The End
In August 2001, Mayor Giuliani appointed Matt Daus to be the new chair of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, replacing Diane McGrath-McKechnie.
Matt Daus: One of the few things I was looking forward to when I got appointed Chair was doing the program and collaborating with Allan on different cool things for [celebrities] to say.
A new set of celebrities had been selected, and some had even been recorded. Matt even got to attend one session, a recording with Tim and Nina Zagat, the couple behind Zagat Surveys, which was like a printed version of Yelp before Yelp.
He was preparing to announce the names to the press when just a few weeks into his new position came the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Matt Daus: I didn’t feel it was appropriate to start announcing new celebrities a couple of months after all these folks died, some of whom I know. And it was a very sad time. So what ended up happening is the usual rotation cycle exceeded the record that we had. And the voices were in there for a long time.
That last set of voices included the Rockettes, Mary Wilson from the Supremes, sports announcer Michael Buffer (shouting, “Let’s get ready to buckle!”), and Elmo.
“Elmo’s here again! Reminding you to take your stuff with you and get a receipt. What’s a receipt?” - Elmo
Matt Daus: Elmo was one of the last voices, I hate to say, and it was fun when it first came out, but after a while it got annoying. So you have all these voices clicking in the back of your head and the city’s in a tragedy. I kind of felt we needed to do something about it.
In January 2002, Michael Bloomberg became the new mayor of New York City, and he felt the same way.
Matt Daus: The first time I sat down and had lunch with him, the one thing he pointed out to me over all else is, like, “What’s that stuff in the cabs with the talking voices? Yeah, I’m not crazy about that.”
So they conducted a new survey to see what passengers thought, and the results weren’t pretty. Here they are as reported by the New York Times with emphasis added:
Mr. Daus’s agency conducted a study in recent weeks and found that 67 percent of the 4,000 or so respondents said they did not pay a lick of attention when Eartha Kitt or Plácido Domingo or Michael Buffer asked them, by recorded proxy, to wear their seat belts in a taxicab.
Moreover, nearly 12 percent of those questioned said they purposefully refused to buckle up because the announcements were annoying.
’’It was almost like a protest vote,’’ a sheepish Mr. Daus said.
So on February 7th, 2003, in his weekly radio address, Michael Bloomberg announced the end of the program, saying “everybody hates the announcements” and “they will be going away in the very near future.”
Matt Daus: I gotta tell you, as TLC commissioner, you rarely get good press. Everybody’s calling for your resignation every day. But I probably got the best press of my career getting rid of Elmo and pulling him out of the cab. People were like, hallelujah! I was like, okay, let me enjoy this because this is not what happens every day in this job.
And a few months later, the voices were gone, replaced by in-taxi television sets that play commercials and give you the local weather report. Yay?
Allan’s Final Thought
Allan J. Fromberg: It was an over-the-top program, and sometimes it was even a little silly. But the truth is, at its heart, was making sure that people were safe in the back of taxis. And that was what was important, and we did not lose sight of that. So I’m hopeful that we were able to do some good with it. And I, for one, sure had a lot of fun along the way doing it.
In the end, I was able to get ahold of all but eight of the celebrity recordings. The only known copy of the fourth group of celebrities is on a corrupt CD that I wasn’t able to restore. So Dick Clark, Bernadette Peters, Montel Williams and a few others remain lost for now.
But the rest, including some outtakes and alternate versions I managed to obtain, can all be found now at the Internet Archive where I’ve uploaded them for posterity. You can listen to them all here.
Also, Al Franken told me an amusing story about the time he left his wallet in a taxi and had his identity stolen by a drug smuggler, but I wasn’t able to fit that in the video. So I’ve made that a bonus clip available only on Nebula.
If you don’t know nebula, it’s a streaming platform that has all the good stuff that you know must be on YouTube somewhere if only you could find it, without the ads, plus a ton of exclusive and original content. You can subscribe to Nebula at a discount at https://go.nebula.tv/ironicsans and your subscription is one way to support my work. You can also subscribe to this newsletter, buy me a coffee, or just spread the word!
Thanks for reading, and/or watching. I’ll see you next time! Until then, be sure to buckle up, check for your belongings, and get a receipt from your driver.
P.S. I should really thank everyone who spoke with me for this project, some of whom even gave me personal photos to use along with their recollections. So thank you to Matt Daus, Allan Fromberg, Diane McGrath-McKechnie, Chris Lynn, Ken Podziba, David Bradford, Abe Mittleman, Rich Gibbons, Bill Long, and Al Franken.