Dial ’n’ Smile

J.C. Levy found his true calling with the answering machine.

photo courtesy Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries

J.C. Levy was one of those unusual fellows who actually 
got pleasure from making other people happy. Born in Amory, Mississippi, in 1906, his parents made a living selling eyeglasses by horse and buggy to planters in the region. At a young age, Levy moved to Memphis, where he first started working for the Illinois Central Railroad, and then changed professions entirely — setting up a professional photography studio just off the lobby of The Peabody.

But in the 1950s, he opened a cluster of kiddie-sized rides at the Mid-South Fairgrounds — a miniature Ferris Wheel, a merry-go-round with little cars and motorcycles, and a ride with boats puttering around in a circular basin. After a few years, he moved the rides to the Memphis Zoo, where they were an incredibly popular attraction there for decades. I don’t think I’ve ever met a Memphian who hadn’t ridden them.

One day, sitting in his office on South Cox, he left a funny message on his answering machine while he went to lunch — a little ditty about Santa Claus since it was close to Christmas. When he got back, he discovered dozens of people had called, just to hear the message, and Levy realized he had found his true calling — if you’ll pardon the pun.

In 1971 he began Dial ’n’ Smile. Anyone calling 278-2370 heard a cute poem, animal sounds, whatever struck Levy’s fancy. “Little things pop into my head,” he told the Press-Scimitar back in the 1980s. “I like the odd sort of things. Some people call them poems, some call them rhymes, some call them just terrible.”

Here’s one example:

Once I met a bullfrog down by the pond.
The bullfrog said, I wonder what’s in the beyond?
And then he jumped, and he jumped, and he jumped away.
And now he must know what’s in the beyond.
Because I heard he croaked today!

Levy ended this message the way he did all of them, with his customary signoff: “Keep dialing and smiling. Bye-bye now!”

He never made a dime off Dial ’n’ Smile, and at one point estimated his phone bills were $5,000 a year. The demand was so great that he set up a bank of 25 answering machines in his own home.

His callers appreciated all that effort. One time, a 10-year-old girl sent him a letter, saying she had been calling him every day since she was 3. She wrote, “I think you’re great. I like listening to you better than going with my boyfriend.” No comment from the boyfriend.

At one point, Levy estimated he had recorded more than 2,000 different messages, many of them accompanied by the roars, bellows, shrieks, and other sounds made by animals at the zoo (such as the baby elephant shown here). “I write a lot of my poems or verses late at night,” he told a reporter. “Often I wake up with an idea and write it down. Then I try them out on my wife at the breakfast table. If she runs for the bucket, I know I have a good one.”

Levy died in 1997 at the age of 91. Just before his death, he calculated that he had received more than 20 million calls. “He wanted it to go on forever,” said his widow, “and he wanted to go on forever.” But all things come to an end, and she had Dial ’n’ Smile disconnected. Don’t bother calling 278-2370 today. All you get is a message saying, “You have reached a number that is no longer in service.” Not even a perky, “Bye-bye now!”

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