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What's With Those 555 Exchanges?

Remember Tommy Tutone’s 1981 hit single “Jenny (867-5309)”?  The song was about a guy who found a girl’s phone number on a bathroom stall, and was very excited to call it.  Perhaps this was tasteless, but not too tasteless to climb up the pop charts.  “Jenny” was an unusual song, in that it provided a phone number that was plausibly real (at least in the United States, Canada, most of the Caribbean, and Mexico (until 1991)).  When the song was released, telephone conventions didn’t require you to dial the area code, as long as you weren’t dialing from another area code.  If you lived in a town with an 867 exchange, the temptation to dial that number could get overwhelming, if you were the right kind of troublemaker.  I was that kind of troublemaker, myself.  While at Penn State, nearly ten years after that song’s debut, I realized that 867 was a local number there.  I resisted for as long as I could, but finally gave in to temptation, feeling embarrassed as I dropped a quarter into a pay phone, just because I had to… I had to know: is this number even in use?  Who would be on the other end of the line?  Am I a total jerk for doing this?  What I got was an answering machine that belonged to what sounded like some students, perfunctorily asking callers to leave a message, making no reference to that pop song that well over 90% of the people on campus—faculty included—remembered well.  Relieved that no one picked up, and feeling embarrassed regardless, I hung up.  I still wonder how many calls those guys got for Jenny.

Traditionally, movies and TV will favor noticeably fake numbers, which are recognized by the famous 555 exchange.  This is an old convention, dating back to the 1930s, when telephone numbers worked slightly differently.  In the early days of American and Canadian telephone systems, a local call was made by dialing just four or five digits.  (Cities tended to use five-digit numbers, while small towns and rural areas went with four.)  Your number might be 2-1234, which someone local could dial.  Anyone who lived too far away, or who at least lived in another exchange, would get someone else assigned to that number if they didn’t use a two-digit prefix.  The prefix, initially, was represented by two letters, taken from the names of the local telephone offices.  If you were in, say, the Lakewood office, your full phone number would be represented as LAkewood 2-1234.  On telephones from the 1910s on, letters would be assigned to digits in a fashion similar to today.  If direct dialing from exchange to exchange were possible, all you’d need would be the numbers that LA represents: 52.  When the demand for telephone numbers started to take off after World War II, this old system was abandoned, and direct, seven-digit dialing was possible.

This could have been your telephone dial in the 1940s.

However, in old movies you can sometimes see an early version of the celebrated fake telephone number.  Often a phone number might be given in the format KLondike 5-9876.  “Klondike 5” was never assigned as a standard number, so as a courtesy, it was commonly used for telephone numbers.  KLondike (sometimes KLamath) was used as a prefix in real life sometimes, but never KLondike 5.

In the 1950s, when the Bell System reorganized and started telling everyone to simply use seven-digit phone numbers, the entertainment industry more or less followed suit.  There were some cases of movies using real phone numbers instead of 555 numbers (which were still always fake), but complaints from the owners of those numbers, suffering from clods (like me) who just couldn’t muster the willpower to resist calling, brought them back on the straight and narrow.

Bell System ads used the fake number 555-2368, along with the fake area code 311.

555-2368 was also the number used in the 1984 film Ghostbusters (left), as well as the number for the Rockford Detective Agency on the 1970s TV show The Rockford Files (right).  The Ghostbusters didn’t provide an area code in their TV ad, which was common at the time, but it would have been 212, the area code for all of New York City at the time.  Jim Rockford’s area code is given as 311.

There’s no law requiring that a movie or a song use a demonstrably fake number.  Using them just keeps entertainment companies from the headaches that the use of real phone numbers can bring.  Besides the aforementioned Tommy Tutone example, there have been plenty of others.  Squeeze’s 1988 song “853-5937” used a number that’s valid in both the UK and in North America.  (Perhaps tellingly, this minor hit for the US charts doesn’t show up on any of Squeeze’s music anthologies today.)  A few years earlier, Morris Day and the Time released “777-9311”.  Much earlier than that was “BEachwood 4-5789” by the Marvelettes, and “PEnnsylvania 6-5000” by Glenn Miller.  (The B-52s, maybe looking to stay out of trouble, chose “6060-842” as their telephone number song, flouting dialing conventions to make a number that was not in any way valid when the song was released in 1979.)

The old 555 rule is so well known today that modern TV and movies are trying to get around it.  Having heard 555 numbers for years, maybe those fake phone numbers are starting to ring too fake with some viewers.  Instead of hoping that audiences focus on their suspension of disbelief, a lot of studios are trying to have a little fun with it, and get some free advertising out of the deal.  When you hear a number on the screen lately, you’ll often hear what sounds like a real, plausible phone number.  These numbers are often Easter eggs that the producers want you to find.  On a well-publicized image of a billboard from the TV show “Better Call Saul”, you can dial a real number that resolves to New Mexico, and get what sounds like the answering machine from one of the show’s characters.  You get a pitch for the character’s law firm, and if you stay on long enough, you get put on hold, being told “Your call is important to us…”

I actually called this number and managed not to feel embarrassed about it.

Universal Studios took the step of reserving the phone number (212) 664-7665 for use in their films as a way to avoid using 555 exchanges.  (If you call it today, you’ll just get a busy signal, but it’s hard to imagine that Universal won’t someday try to turn this number into some kind of publicity stunt.)  On “Gilmore Girls”, the character Luke Danes leaves his cell phone number for someone to call.  The valid Connecticut number is (860) 294-1986.  This episode aired in 2004, and if you called that number then, you’d have gotten a message from Scott Paterson, the actor who plays Luke.  However, “Gilmore Girls” was canceled in 2007, and the number no longer works.

Over the past couple decades, 555 numbers changed.  Not all of them are fake anymore.  The only guaranteed fake 555 numbers are in the range 555-0100 to 555-0199.  555 numbers are never given out randomly, but individuals and businesses, as of 1994, have allowed to reserve 555 numbers within area codes.  The catch is that if anyone is to use one of these numbers, the local telephone authorities have to agree to it, and most of them don’t.  However, sometimes you’ll see a 555 number on an advertisement, and if you do, you can trust that it’s probably legitimate.  Or maybe someone’s just trying to take faking out telephone customers to another level?  You can never be sure.  Use your wits.

Chief Wiggum knows.

"Butterfield 8" trailer (1962).

Every teenager in the 1980s knew Jenny's number.


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