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12 (Non-Sexual) Uses for 900 Numbers

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. In 900 numbers' heydays during the 1980s and 1990s, though, 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

Ever wonder what's going on during a space shuttle mission? During the 1980s, NASA ran a 900 number that filled you in. For 35 cents a 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 or not the Boy Wonder should die. Fans killed off Robin by a 5,343 to 5,271 margin, which led to outcry among old-guard comic fans and writers. Of course, since we're talking about comics, 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

D.J. Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith spent a lot of their time in the late '80s touring and recording albums, but what else were they doing? 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 contemporary New York Times report, the duo's annual income from their hotline alone was "well into six figures."

6. Pick Your President

NBC allowed voters to call a 900 number to show their preference for Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan during the 1980 presidential debate. 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, and 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. Check out this great example with The Price is Right announcer Rod Roddy:

Although the Psychic Friends Network was a target for all sots of parody and mockery, it also took in loads of cash; at its peak the 900 number's annual gross was over $100 million. However, eventually bad luck, management blunders, and competition from the Miss Cleos of the world 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 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. DIAL JOSE


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. Canseco reportedly pocketed 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:

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25 Wonderful Facts About It’s a Wonderful Life
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Mary Owen wasn’t welcomed into the world until more than a decade after Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life made its premiere in 1946. But she grew up cherishing the film and getting the inside scoop on its making from its star, Donna Reed—who just so happens to be her mom. Though Reed passed away in 1986, Owen has stood as one of the film’s most dedicated historians, regularly introducing screenings of the ultimate holiday classic, including during its annual run at New York City’s IFC Center. She shared some of her mom’s memories with us to help reveal 25 things you might not have known about It’s a Wonderful Life.

1. IT ALL BEGAN WITH A CHRISTMAS CARD.

After years of unsuccessfully trying to shop his short story, The Greatest Gift, to publishers, Philip Van Doren Stern decided to give the gift of words to his closest friends for the holidays when he printed up 200 copies of the story and sent them out as a 21-page Christmas card. David Hempstead, a producer at RKO Pictures, ended up getting a hold of it, and purchased the movie rights for $10,000.

2. CARY GRANT WAS SET TO STAR IN THE ADAPTATION.

When RKO purchased the rights, they did so with the plan of having Cary Grant in the lead. But, as happens so often in Hollywood, the project went through some ups and downs in the development process. In 1945, after a number of rewrites, RKO sold the movie rights to Frank Capra, who quickly recruited Jimmy Stewart to play George Bailey.

3. DOROTHY PARKER WORKED ON THE SCRIPT.


Getty Images

By the time It’s a Wonderful Life made it into theaters, the story was much different from Stern’s original tale. That’s because more than a half-dozen people contributed to the screenplay, including some of the most acclaimed writers of the time—Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly, and Clifford Odets among them.

4. SCREENWRITERS FRANCES GOODRICH AND ALBERT HACKETT WALKED OUT.

Though they’re credited as the film’s screenwriters with Capra, the husband and wife writing duo were not pleased with the treatment they received from Capra. “Frank Capra could be condescending,” Hackett said in an interview, “and you just didn't address Frances as ‘my dear woman.’ When we were pretty far along in the script but not done, our agent called and said, ‘Capra wants to know how soon you'll be finished.’ Frances said, ‘We're finished right now.’ We put our pens down and never went back to it.”

5. CAPRA DIDN’T DO THE BEST JOB OF SELLING THE FILM TO STEWART.

After laying out the plot line of the film for Stewart in a meeting, Capra realized that, “This really doesn’t sound so good, does it?” Stewart recalled in an interview. Stewart’s reply? “Frank: If you want me to be in a picture about a guy that wants to kill himself and an angel comes down named Clarence who can’t swim and I save him, when do we start?”

6. IT WAS DONNA REED’S FIRST STARRING ROLE.


Getty Images

Though Donna Reed was hardly a newcomer when It’s a Wonderful Life rolled around, having appeared in nearly 20 projects previously, the film did mark her first starring role. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role today, but Reed had some serious competition from Jean Arthur. “[Frank Capra] had seen mom in They Were Expendable and liked her,” Mary Owen told Mental Floss. “When Capra met my mother at MGM, he knew she'd be just right for Mary Bailey.”

7. MARY OWEN IS NOT NAMED AFTER MARY BAILEY.

Before you ask whether Owen was named after her mom’s much beloved It’s a Wonderful Life character, “The answer is no,” says Owen. “I was named after my great grandmother, Mary Mullenger.”

8. BEULAH BONDI WAS A PRO AT PLAYING STEWART’S MOM.

Beulah Bondi, who plays Mrs. Bailey, didn’t need a lot of rehearsal to play Jimmy Stewart’s mom. She had done it three times previously—in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Human Hearts, and Vivacious Lady—and once later on The Jimmy Stewart Show: The Identity Crisis.

9. CAPRA, REED, AND STEWART HAVE ALL CALLED IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE THEIR FAVORITE MOVIE.


Liberty Films

Though their collective filmographies consist of a couple hundred movies, Capra, Reed, and Stewart have all cited It’s a Wonderful Life as their favorite movie. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra took that praise even one step further, writing: “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”

10. THE MOVIE BOMBED AT THE BOX OFFICE.

Though it has become a quintessential American classic, It’s a Wonderful Life was not an immediate hit with audiences. In fact, it put Capra $525,000 in the hole, which left him scrambling to finance his production company’s next picture, State of the Union.

11. A COPYRIGHT LAPSE AIDED THE FILM’S POPULARITY.

Though it didn’t make much of a dent at the box office, It’s a Wonderful Life found a whole new life on television—particularly when its copyright lapsed in 1974, making it available royalty-free to anyone who wanted to show it for the next 20 years. (Which would explain why it was on television all the time during the holiday season.) The free-for-all ended in 1994.

12. THE ROCK THAT BROKE THE WINDOW OF THE GRANVILLE HOUSE WAS ALL REAL.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

Though Capra had a stuntman at the ready in order to shoot out the window of the Granville House in a scene that required Donna Reed to throw a rock through it, it was all a waste of money. “Mom threw the rock herself that broke the window in the Granville House,” Owen says. “On the first try.”

13. IT TOOK TWO MONTHS TO BUILD BEDFORD FALLS.

Shot on a budget of $3.7 million (which was a lot by mid-1940s standards), Bedford Falls—which covered a full four acres of RKO’s Encino Ranch—was one of the most elaborate movie sets ever built up to that time, with 75 stores and buildings, 20 fully-grown oak trees, factories, residential areas, and a 300-yard-long Main Street.

14. SENECA FALLS, NEW YORK IS “THE REAL BEDFORD FALLS.”

Though Bedford Falls is a fictitious place, the town of Seneca Falls, New York swears that it's the real-life inspiration for George Bailey’s charming hometown. And each year they program a full lineup of holiday-themed events to put locals (and yuletide visitors) into the holiday spirit.

15. THE GYM FLOOR-TURNED-SWIMMING POOL WAS REAL.

Though the bulk of the film was filmed on pre-built sets, the dance at the gym was filmed on location at Beverly Hills High School. And the retractable floor was no set piece. Better known as the Swim Gym, the school is currently in the process of restoring the landmark filming location.

16. ALFALFA IS THE TEENAGER BEHIND THAT SWIMMING POOL PRANK.

Though he’s uncredited in the part, if Freddie Othello—the little prankster who pushes the button that opens the pool that swallows George and Mary up—looks familiar, that’s because he is played by Carl Switzer, a.k.a. Alfalfa of The Little Rascals.

17. DONNA REED WON $50 FROM LIONEL BARRYMORE ... FOR MILKING A COW.

Though she was a Hollywood icon, Donna Reed—born Donnabelle Mullenger—was a farm girl at heart who came to Los Angeles by way of Denison, Iowa. Lionel Barrymore (a.k.a. Mr. Potter) didn’t believe it. “So he bet $50 that she couldn't milk a cow,” recalls Owen. “She said it was the easiest $50 she ever made.”

18. THE FILM WAS SHOT DURING A HEAT WAVE.

It may be an iconic Christmas movie, but It’s a Wonderful Life was actually shot in the summer of 1946—in the midst of a heat wave, no less. At one point, Capra had to shut filming down for a day because of the sky-high temperatures—which also explains why Stewart is clearly sweating in key moments of the film.

19. CAPRA ENGINEERED A NEW KIND OF MOVIE SNOW.

Capra—who trained as an engineer—and special effects supervisor Russell Shearman engineered a new type of artificial snow for the film. At the time, painted cornflakes were the most common form of fake snow, but they posed a bit of an audio problem for Capra. So he and Shearman opted to mix foamite (the stuff you find in fire extinguishers) with sugar and water to create a less noisy option.

20. THE MOVIE WASN’T REQUIRED VIEWING IN REED’S HOUSEHOLD.

Though It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple of many family holiday movie marathons, that wasn’t the case in Reed’s home. In fact, Owen herself didn’t see the film until three decades after its release. “I saw it in the late 1970s at the Nuart Theatre in L.A. and loved it,” she says.

21. ZUZU DIDN’T SEE THE FILM UNTIL 1980.

Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the film, didn’t see the film until 1980. “I never took the time to see the movie,” she told Detroit’s WWJ in 2013. “I never just sat down and watched the film.”

22. THE FBI SAW THE FILM. THEY DIDN’T LIKE IT.

In 1947, the FBI issued a memo noting the film as a potential “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” citing its “rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘Scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.”

23. THE MOVIE’S BERT AND ERNIE HAVE NO RELATION TO SESAME STREET.

Yes, the cop and cab driver in It’s a Wonderful Life are named Bert and Ernie, respectively. But Jim Henson’s longtime writing partner, Jerry Juhl, insists that it’s by coincidence only that they share their names with Sesame Street’s stripe-shirted buds. “I was the head writer for the Muppets for 36 years and one of the original writers on Sesame Street,” Juhl told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. “The rumor about It's a Wonderful Life has persisted over the years. I was not present at the naming, but I was always positive [the rumor] was incorrect. Despite his many talents, Jim had no memory for details like this. He knew the movie, of course, but would not have remembered the cop and the cab driver. I was not able to confirm this with Jim before he died, but shortly thereafter I spoke to Jon Stone, Sesame Street's first producer and head writer and a man largely responsible for the show's format … He assured me that Ernie and Bert were named one day when he and Jim were studying the prototype puppets. They decided that one of them looked like an Ernie, and the other one looked like a Bert. The movie character names are purely coincidental.”

24. SOME PEOPLE ARE ANXIOUS FOR A SEQUEL.

Well, two people: Producers Allen J. Schwalb and Bob Farnsworth, who announced in 2013 that they would be continuing the story with a sequel, It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story, which they planned for a 2015 release. It didn’t take long for Paramount, which owns the copyright, to step in and assure furious fans of the original film that “No project relating to It’s a Wonderful Life can proceed without a license from Paramount. To date, these individuals have not obtained any of the necessary rights, and we would take all appropriate steps to protect those rights.”

25. THE FILM’S ENDURING LEGACY WAS SURPRISING TO CAPRA.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen," Capra said of the film’s classic status. "The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

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Listen to What Darth Vader Sounded Like On the Star Wars Set
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The voice of Darth Vader, provided by James Earl Jones, is one of the most iconic aspects of the original Star Wars movies. But James Earl Jones wasn't the actor wearing that outfit—it was British actor David Prowse, who was cast in part because he was huge (reportedly 6'5" and a former body-building champion).

George Lucas always intended to replace Prowse's voice, but it's still a bit of a shock to hear a muffled British voice coming out of Darth Vader's helmet. Here's video showing what Darth Vader sounded like on the set before James Earl Jones re-recorded the dialogue.

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