Back in the '80s, people called 1-900 numbers to meet celebs, eavesdrop on NASA and cry
Ronald Reagan was likely the first major fan of the 1-900 number. AT&T set up the Dial-It 900 service in 1980. Unlike, toll-free 1-800 numbers, these calls would charge 50¢ to dailers. The technology was first used in October 1980, after the Reagan-Carter presidential debate. ABC's Nightline asked viewers to call in and vote for a winner. Three years later, the same news program put up a 1-900 phone poll asking its audience to weigh in on the American invasion of Grenada. 502,358 supported the military action, while just 63,812 opposed it. But all 566,170 of them had to pay for the call. In both cases, AT&T and Reagan won.
Five years later, AT&T allowed content providers the opportunity to earn money from their 1-900 numbers. The first minute would cost the user $2.00; each additional minute would tack on more fees. An industry was born.
Companies like Advanced Telecom Services made a fortune creating and running 1-900 numbers for celebrities, entrepreneurs, athletes and more. Want the latest trade rumors of the New York Giants? There was a number for that. Need a hint on today's crossword? There was a number for that. Want to hear the voice of Michael J. Fox? There was a number for that.
Celebrities got a cut of the cash, which made them even more popular with pop stars. In the years between 1987 and the rise of the internet in the mid-1990s, the 1-900 flourished. These were the precursors to YouTube, Reddit subthreads and social media.
Thirty years after the craze began, let's take a look at some fascinating 1-900 numbers. Don't try to call them now.
1-900-720-1808 / 1-900-720-1909: The Fate of Larry the Lobster
One of the first pop culture moments for the 1-900 number came on Saturday Night Live, in a spoof of Nightline's 1-900 political polls. The episode aired on April 10, 1982. Eddie Murphy threatened to kill a lobster. His name was Larry. Viewers could call the 1808 number to save Larry, or the 1909 number to kill him. Fans saved Larry by a margin of 293,096 to 227,452. The following week, Murphy ate Larry anyway, after a viewer sent in an offensive letter claiming black people don't eat seafood.
That same year, NASA got in on this cutting-edge technology. The Space Administration set up its "Dial-A-Shuttle" service, allowing astronaut lovers the chance to listen in on communications aboard the Space Shuttle. For $2 the first minute, 45¢ each additional minute. The service ran through the decade, as seen in this 1989 Popular Science story.
Image: Popular Mechanics
1-900-909-3700: The Corey & Corey Hotline
Corey Haim and Corey Feldmen were the crown princes of Tiger Beat during the Reagan Era. Fawning fans could call this number to hear a message from the Lost Boys and "get their private number." Hey, would these two guys lie to you?
There was a time when Will Smith took second billing to DJ Jazzy Jeff. The rap duo's hotline only mentioned "Jeff." Sure, his name was 4-characters and fit the format, but it still probably stung the Fresh Prince. According to Priceonomics, the 1-900 earned the hip-hop act six figures in 1989 alone. That's enough to get you into Bel Air.
The He-Man and She-Ra cartoon were awesome (if you were 9 years old) but let's be honest — they were strictly about selling toys. Doubt that? Take a look at this 1-900 number, which charged kids for learning how to spend more of mom's money on new action figures.
Hulk Hogan gave his Hulkamaniacs a little interactivity with his hotline. The WWF superstar had a game built into his 1-900 number that allowed you to "wrestle" opponents like the Mountie by pressing buttons on your phone to perform moves.
1-900-909-4300: Grampa's Junior Vampires of America Club
Two decades after The Munsters ended, Al Lewis was still getting into his Grampa makeup to lure children into his Junior Vampires of America Club. Callers received a vampire patch and a list of "vampire tricks and secrets."
On the scarier end of the horror scale, there were late-night ads like this, which allowed you to "talk to demons." By "demons," we're assuming they meant "guys sitting at home somewhere in Pennsylvania."
You gotta spend money to win money. This lottery hotline allowed players the chance for cash by punching in the answers to simple math questions. If you can add (or operate a calculator), you can win!
The Fresh Prince wasn't the only rap sensation with a 1-900 number. The Hammer got in on the action in 1989. The only enticement? You could call to hear a "joke or a couple of rhymes."
Psychologists say crying is therapeutic. We could all use a good cry. Thus, we end with this oddity, a hotline that promised to make any caller sob. Just watch as these actors bawl their eyes out. What were they hearing on the other end? We'd love to know.
Embedding is disabled, so you'll have to click over to YouTube to watch this unbelievable commercial.