12 (Non-Sexual) Uses for 900 Numbers in Decades Past

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The term "900 number" probably conjures up images of phone sex operators or, even worse, teen heartthrobs tricking young girls into running up their parents' phone bills. But during the 1980s and 1990s, the heyday of 900 numbers, callers could do all sorts of things simply by dialing 1-900 and having a charge added to their phone bills. Let's take a look at some of the more interesting examples.

1. ASK PRESIDENT CARTER A QUESTION

The very earliest 900 numbers weren't built around exorbitant per-minute charges; they only set callers back for their normal long-distance rates. In March 1977, callers could dial a special 900 number and ask President Jimmy Carter a question for a national radio broadcast moderated by Walter Cronkite.

2. DIAL-A-SHUTTLE


By NASA, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Ever wonder what's going on during a space shuttle mission? During the 1980s, NASA ran a 900 number that filled you in. For $2 for the first minute and $.45 per additional minute, callers could listen in on mission status reports and any press conferences NASA held mid-flight. The number was originally created so journalists could listen to conversation between the shuttle and mission control. The hotline later became public, which made for a horrifying situation when thousands of callers heard the Challenger explosion in real time.

3. KILL OFF ROBIN

DC Comics found itself in an awkward spot in 1988 when Batman fans had become truly sick of Jason Todd, the second character to fill the role of Robin. DC didn't know what to do with the character, though, so the writers let the fans decide. At the end of Batman #427, the Joker brutally beat Robin and left him to die in an explosion. DC printed a 900 number in that issue and gave voters a 36-hour window to call and vote on whether the Boy Wonder should live or die. Fans killed off Robin by a 5343 to 5271 margin, which led to outcry among old-guard comic fans and writers. (Jason Todd later miraculously came back to life.)

4. SAVE LARRY THE LOBSTER

In 1983, Saturday Night Live ran a sketch in which Eddie Murphy held up "Larry the Lobster" and let viewers call a 900 number to decide whether or not he would boil the tasty crustacean. The voters apparently had a soft sport for Larry and narrowly voted to save him from the pot. (Murphy boiled the lobster anyway.)

5. FOLLOW D.J. JAZZY JEFF AND THE FRESH PRINCE

ctor Will Smith (R) and DJ Jazzy Jeff perform at 102.7 KIIS-FM's 8th Annual Wango Tango 2005 at Angel Stadium on May 14, 2005 in Anaheim, California
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

D.J. Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, a.k.a. Will Smith, spent much of the late 1980s touring and recording albums, but they were also keeping busy with a 900 number. In 1989 the duo was pulling in over 100,000 calls a week to hear a series of daily two-minute messages about their wacky adventures. According to a 1989 report in The New York Times, the duo's annual income from their hotline alone was "well into six figures."

6. PICK YOUR PRESIDENT

During the 1980 presidential debate, NBC allowed viewers to call a 900 number to log their preference for Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan. The results were the same as in the actual election: The audience preferred Reagan. Actual pollsters were distressed about these widely reported results since the poll's sample wasn't randomly selected. In 1983, NBC's Nightline quit using the unscientific 900-number-driven polls.

7. LEARN THE FUTURE

If you were watching TV in the 1990s, it was tough to avoid Dionne Warwick's Psychic Friends Network and its ubiquitous cheesy commercials. Although the Psychic Friends Network was a target for all sorts of parody and mockery, it also took in loads of cash; at its peak, the 900 number's annual gross was over $140 million [PDF]. However, bad luck, management blunders, and competition from the Miss Cleos of the world eventually drove the company into bankruptcy.

8. SCRIPT THE A-TEAM

How could NBC possibly improve on the perfection of The A-Team? By letting the viewers vote for an episode's ending. In November 1986 the show featured an episode in which Hannibal and the team brought a political-adviser-turned-felon played by Jeff Corey back to the States.

Throughout the episode, there were hints that the team's target may have been "Faceman" Peck's long-lost father. NBC then charged viewers 50 cents to call a 900 number that allowed them to vote on whether or not the show should include a revelation about Face's paternity. Viewers voted to have the political adviser be Face's father.

9. LISTEN TO JOSE CANSECO

Jose Canseco #33 of the Oakland Athletics runs between the bases during a 1988 MLB season game at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, California.
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

After Jose Canseco became baseball's first player to ever hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in a season en route to winning the 1988 AL MVP, he became an icon to sports fans and teenage girls alike. In 1989 Canseco debuted "DIAL JOSE," a 900 number on which he opined about everything from baseball to the trappings of fame. In its first two months of operation, the hotline raked in over $500,000, with Canseco reportedly pocketing a 75 percent cut of that revenue. The 900 number's administrators later told the press, "Jose was a great success with our usual target audience—14- to 18-year-old girls. They wanted to hear what he had to say."

10. LISTEN IN ON THE PIT CREW

In the early 1990s, open-wheel racing fans could listen in on the banter between Indy 500 drivers and their pit crews for $1.50 a minute. Since most of the discussion was full of highly technical jargon, the line also had a commentator that translated the lingo for the average fan. The Wall Street Journal commented, "The line delivers, but much of the chat is fuzzy."

11. TALK TO KITTY, THE FIRST LADY OF BASKETBALL

Phone sex and gambling tips obviously had big places in the 900 number landscape. Kitty, the First Lady of Basketball, managed to combine both worlds. For $3 a minute callers got sports betting advice from a sultry-voiced woman. As the Philadelphia Inquirer noted in 1991, though, Kitty's real brilliance was that she stretched out her recordings so well; callers didn't actually receive any sexy betting advice until the 11-minute mark, at which point they were already $33 in the bag.

12. CHAT WITH ALL SORTS OF WRESTLERS

During the '80s and '90s, grappling skills were only part of what made a successful professional wrestler. The majority of the skill set apparently revolved around having your own 900 number. Hulk Hogan's 1-900-454-HULK was the top-grossing 900 number during the early '90s, and everyone from Mean Gene Okerlund to Captain Lou Albano had their own hotline for behind-the-scenes scoops and interviews. Here's Captain Lou shilling for his:

10 Things You Might Not Know About Robert De Niro

RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images
RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images

Robert De Niro is part of the pantheon of independent-minded filmmakers who cut through Hollywood noise in the 1970s with edgier fare to create what became known as “The New Hollywood.” Following stints with Brian De Palma and Roger Corman, De Niro teamed up with Martin Scorsese for the first time with 1973's Mean Streets, which launched a fruitful artistic collaboration that has produced some of the best movies of the past half-century.

Even after his shift into commercial comedies like Meet the Parents, “dedication” has remained De Niro’s watchword. The two-time Oscar winner has earned Hollywood legend status with panache and bone-deep portrayals. Here are 10 facts about the filmmaker on his 75th birthday. (Yes, we’re talkin’ to you.)

1. HIS FIRST ROLE WAS IN A STAGING OF THE WIZARD OF OZ—AT AGE 10.

Robert De Niro got bit by the acting bug early. He threatened to thrash a hippopotamus from top to bottom-us as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz at the tender age of 10. (This is the remake and casting the world needs right now.)

2. HE DROPPED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL TO PURSUE ACTING.

Robert De Niro arrives at the UK premiere of epic war drama film 'The Deer Hunter', UK, 28th February 1979
John Minihan, Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

De Niro’s mother, Virginia Admiral, was a painter whose work was part of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and his father, Robert De Niro, Sr., was a celebrated abstract expressionist painter. So the apple falling into drama school instead of the art studio still isn’t that far from the tree. Having already gotten a youthful dose of stage life, De Niro quit his private high school to try to become an actor. He first went to the nonprofit HB Studio before studying under Stella Adler and, later, The Actors Studio.

3. HE’S A DUAL CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES AND ITALY.

De Niro is American, Italian-American, and, as of 2004, Italian. The country bestowed honorary citizenship upon De Niro as an honor in recognition of his career, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing to the passport office. A group called the Order of the Sons of Italy in America strongly protested the Italian government’s plan due to De Niro’s frequent portrayal of negative Italian-American stereotypes.

4. HE GAINED 60 POUNDS FOR RAGING BULL.

Preparing to play the misfortune-laden boxing champ Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull required two major things from De Niro: training and gaining. For the latter, De Niro ate his way through Europe during a four-month binge of ice cream and pasta. His 60-pound-gain was dramatic enough that it concerned Martin Scorsese. It was one way to show dedication to a role, but the training element was even more impressive. De Niro got so good at boxing that when LaMotta set up several professional-level sparring bouts for the actor, De Niro won two of them.

5. HE AND MARLON BRANDO ARE THE ONLY ACTORS TO WIN OSCARS FOR PLAYING THE SAME CHARACTER.

De Niro won his first Oscar in 1975 for The Godfather: Part II, for portraying the younger version of Vito Corleone—the wizened capo played by Marlon Brando, who also won an Oscar for the role (Brando’s came in 1973, for The Godfather). No other pair of actors has managed the feat, although Jeff Bridges came close in 2010 when he was nominated for playing Rooster Cogburn in Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit (a role originated by John Wayne in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 movie of the same name). Oddly enough, Bridges was in contention for the role of Travis Bickle, the role that earned De Niro his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

6. HE DROVE A CAB TO PREPARE FOR TAXI DRIVER.

If you’re looking for commitment to a role, ask Hack #265216. De Niro got a taxicab driver’s license to study up to play Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and spent several weekends cruising around New York City picking up fares. It’s possible that having his teeth filed down for Cape Fear is the most intense transformation he’s undergone for a role, but picking up a part-time job to live the lonely life of Bickle is more humane.

7. ONE OF HIS FILMS POSTPONED ONE OF HIS OSCAR WINS.

The 53rd Academy Awards—where De Niro won for playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull—were originally scheduled for March 30, 1981 but were postponed until the following day because of an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., claimed the attack was intended to impress Jodie Foster, who, Hinckley, Jr. grew obsessed with after watching Taxi Driver.

8. HE LAUNCHED THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal speak onstage at the 'Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives' Premiere during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall on April 19, 2017 in New York City
Theo Wargo, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Producer Jane Rosenthal, philanthropist Craig M. Hatkoff, and De Niro founded the Tribeca Film Festival in 2001 as a showcase for independent films that would hopefully “spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan” after the devastation of the 9/11 terror attacks. With its empire state of mind, the inaugural festival in 2002 featured a “Best of New York Series” handpicked by Martin Scorsese and drew an astonishing 150,000 attendees.

9. HE WAS ONCE INTERROGATED BY FRENCH POLICE CONCERNING A PROSTITUTION RING.

One of the most bizarre chapters in De Niro’s life came when he was publicly named in the investigation of a prostitution ring in Paris. The 1998 incident included a lengthy interrogation session (De Niro filed an official complaint) and a pile of paparazzi waiting for him when he left the prosecutor’s office. De Niro railed against the entire country, vowing to return his Legion of Honour and telling Le Monde newspaper that, "I will never return to France. I will advise my friends against going to France.” (He had cooled off enough by 2011 to act as the Cannes Film Festival’s jury president.)

10. HE LOVED THE CAT(S) IN MEET THE PARENTS.

Meet the Parents’s Mr. Jinx (Jinxy!) was played by two Himalayans named Bailey and Misha, and De Niro fell in love with them. He played with them between scenes, kept kibble in his pocket for them, and asked director Jay Roach to have Mr. Jinx in as many scenes as possible.

10 Fascinating Facts About Davy Crockett

By William Henry Huddle, American, 1847 - 1892 - State of Texas/Larry D. Moore, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By William Henry Huddle, American, 1847 - 1892 - State of Texas/Larry D. Moore, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Born on August 17, 1786, backwoods statesman Davy Crockett's life has often been obscured by myth. Even during his lifetime, fanciful stories about his adventures were transforming him into a buck-skinned superhero. And after his death, the tales kept growing taller. So let’s separate fact from fiction.

1. HE RAN AWAY FROM HOME AT AGE 13.

When Davy was 13, his father paid for him to go to a school. But just four days in, Davy was bullied by a bigger and older boy. Never one to back down from a fight, one day Crockett waited in a bush along the road home until evening. When the boy and his gang walked up the road, Crockett leaped from the bush and, as he later wrote in his autobiography, set on him like a wild cat.” Terrified that the schoolmaster would whip him for beating one of the boys so severely, he decided to start playing hooky.

His father, John, was furious when a letter inquiring about his son's poor attendance showed up. Grabbing a stick, he chased after Davy, who fled. The teen spent the next few years traveling from his native Tennessee to Maryland, performing odd jobs. When he returned, Crockett’s parents didn’t recognize him at first. Following an emotional reunion, it was agreed that Davy would stick around long enough to help work off some family debts. About a year later, all these were satisfied, and Crockett left for good not long after.

2. HE NEARLY DIED IN A BOATING ACCIDENT.

After serving under General Andrew Jackson in the Tennessee militia, Crockett got into politics. Elected as a state legislator, he served two terms between 1821 and 1823. After losing his seat in 1825, Crockett chose an unlikely new profession for himself: barrel manufacturing. The entrepreneur hired a team to cut staves (the boards with which barrels are constructed) that he planned on selling in New Orleans. Once 30,000 were prepared, Crockett and his team loaded the shipment onto a pair of flatboats and traveled down the Mississippi River. There was just one problem: The shoddy vessels proved impossible to steer.

With no means of redirecting them, the one carrying Crockett ran into a mass of driftwood and began to capsize, with Crockett trapped below deck. Springing to action, his mates on the other boat pulled him out through a small opening. The next day, a traveling merchant rescued them all.

3. HE CLAIMED TO HAVE KILLED 105 BEARS IN ONE YEAR.

If his autobiography can be believed, the expert marksman and his dogs managed to kill 105 bears during a seven-month stretch from 1825 to 1826. Back then, bear flesh and pelts were highly profitable items, as were the oils yielded by their fat—and Crockett’s family often relied on ursid meat to last through the winter.

4. A SUCCESSFUL PLAY HELPED MAKE HIM A CELEBRITY.


By Painted by A.L. De Rose; engraved by Asher B Durand - Museum of Fine Art, Boston, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Crockett ran for Congress in 1827, winning the right to represent western Tennessee. Four years later, a new show titled The Lion of the West wowed New York theatergoers. The hit production revolved around a fictitious Kentucky congressman named Colonel Nimrod Wildfire, whose folksy persona was clearly based on Crockett. Before long, the public grew curious about the flesh-and-blood man behind this character. So, in 1833, an unauthorized Crockett biography was published.

Sketches and Eccentricities of Colonel David Crockett of West Tennessee became a bestseller—much to its subject’s chagrin. Feeling that Sketches distorted his life’s story (although, to be fair, it began, “No one, at this early age, could have foretold that he was ever to ride upon a streak of lightning, receive a commission to quiet the fears of the world, by wringing off the tail of a comet,” so it's unlikely anyone thought it was a straight biography), the politician retaliated with an even more successful autobiography the very next year.

When The Lion of the West came to Washington, Crockett finally watched the play that started it all. That night, actor David Hackett was playing Col. Wildfire. As the curtain rose, he locked eyes with Crockett. They ceremoniously bowed to each other and the crowd went wild.

5. HE RECEIVED A FEW RIFLES AS POLITICAL THANK YOU GIFTS.

Over the course of his life, Crockett wielded plenty of firearms; two of the most significant were named “Betsy.” Midway through his state assembly career, he received “Old Betsy,” a .40-caliber flintlock presented to him by his Lawrence county constituents in 1822 (today, it can be found at the Alamo Museum in San Antonio). At some point during the 1830s, Crockett’s congressional tenure was rewarded with a gorgeous gold-and-silver-coated gun by the Whig Society of Philadelphia. Her name? “Fancy Betsy.”

If you’re curious, the mysterious woman after whom these weapons were christened was either his oldest sister or his second wife, Elizabeth Patton.

6. HE PUT A LOT OF EFFORT INTO MAINTAINING HIS WILD IMAGE.


By John Gadsby Chapman - Art Collection, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

For somebody who once called fashion “a thing I care mighty little about,” Crockett gave really detailed instructions to portraitists. Most likenesses, the politician complained, made him look like “a sort of cross between a clean-shirted Member of Congress and a Methodist preacher.” For the portrait above—arguably the world’s most dynamic painting of Crockett, as rendered by the esteemed John Gadsby Chapman—Crockett asked the artist to portray him rallying dogs during a bear hunt. Crockett purchased all manner of outdoorsy props and insisted that he be shown holding up his cap, ready to give “a shout that raised the whole neighborhood.”

7. HE COMMITTED POLITICAL SUICIDE BY SPEAKING OUT AGAINST ANDREW JACKSON'S NATIVE AMERICAN POLICY.

Andrew Jackson was a beloved figure in Tennessee, and Crockett’s vocal condemnation of the President’s 1830 Indian Removal Act didn’t win him many friends back home. “I believed it was a wicked, unjust measure,” the congressman later asserted, “and that I should go against it, let the cost against me be what it might.” He then narrowly lost his 1831 reelection bid to William Fitzgerald, who was supported by Jackson. In 1833, Crockett secured a one-term congressional stint as an anti-Jacksonian, after which he bid Tennessee farewell, famously saying, “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.”

8. HE REALLY DID WEAR A COONSKIN HAT (SOMETIMES).


Harry Kerr/BIPs/Getty Images

Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett TV serial triggered a national coonskin hat craze in the 1950s. Suiting up for the title role was square-jawed Fess Parker, who was seldom seen on-camera without his trusty coonskin cap. Children adored Davy’s rustic hat and, at the peak of the show's popularity, an average of 5000 replicas were sold every day.

But did the historical Crockett own one? Yes, although we don’t know how often he actually wore it. Some historians argue that, later in life, he started donning the accessory more often so as to capitalize on The Lion of the West (Col. Wildfire rocked this kind of headgear). One autumn morning in 1835, the frontiersman embarked upon his journey to Texas, confident that the whole Crockett clan would reunite there soon. As his daughter Matilda later recalled, he rode off while “wearing a coonskin cap.” She’d never see him again.

9. THERE'S SOME DEBATE ABOUT HIS FALL AT THE ALAMO.

It's clear that Crockett was killed during or just after the Battle of the Alamo in 1836—but the details surrounding his death are both murky and hotly-contested. A slave named Joe claimed to have spotted Crockett’s body lying among a pile of deceased Mexican soldiers. Mrs. Suzannah Dickinson (whose husband had also been slain in the melee) told a similar story, as did San Antonio mayor Francisco Ruiz.

On the flip side, The New Orleans True American and a few other newspapers reported that Crockett was actually captured and—once the fighting stopped—executed by General Santa Anna’s men. In 1955, more evidence apparently surfaced when a long-lost diary written by Lieutenant Colonel José Enrique de la Peña saw publication. The author writes of witnessing “the naturalist David Crockett” and six other Americans being presented to Santa Anna, who promptly had them killed.

Some historians dismiss the document as a forgery, but others claim that it’s authentic. Since 2000, two separate forensics teams have taken the latter position. However, even if de la Peña really did write this account, the famous Tennessean still might have died in combat beforehand—perhaps the Mexican officer mistook a random prisoner for Crockett on the day in question.

10. DURING SPORTING EVENTS, A STUDENT DRESSED LIKE CROCKETT RALLIES UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE FANS.


Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Smokey the hound dog might get all the attention, but the school has another mascot up its sleeve. On game days, a student known simply as “the Volunteer” charges out in Crockett-esque regalia, complete with buck leather clothes, a coonskin cap, and—occasionally—a prop musket.

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