Elmo no longer tickles N.Y. cab riders

Taxis to drop recordings of celebrities' safety tips

February 08, 2003|By Joshua Robin and Dan Janison | Joshua Robin and Dan Janison,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK - Goodbye, Elmo. Goodbye, Jackie Mason. Goodbye, "Let's Get Ready to Rumble for Safety!"

The recorded announcements in New York's taxicabs reminding passengers to buckle up and get a receipt are going the way of the subway token, after the Taxi and Limousine Commission concluded that they were more annoying than helpful.

"They will be going away in the very near future," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said yesterday on his weekly radio show. "We haven't found anybody that likes it."

The news angered entertainer Eartha Kitt, the Catwoman on the Batman TV series, who warned millions of passengers: "Cats have nine lives - gggrooowwwlll! - but unfortunately you have only one." She believes that her advisory helped prevent accidents and soothed stressed cabbies.

"What does Bloomberg know?" Kitt hissed in an interview from her Honolulu hotel room. "Does he ever get into a taxi?"

But officials say riders found the advisories unhelpful at best and wrote hate letters about some characters, particularly Elmo, the high-pitched dweller of Sesame Street. Twelve percent of people surveyed said they purposely didn't wear a safety belt just to spite the advisories.

"We like the way she purrs," TLC Chairman Matthew Daus said of Kitt, his favorite voice. But "this program has had more than nine lives."

The first advisories in 1996 were different from today's star-studded reminders.

The first voice was a Queens secretary who worked at a taxi meter firm. Then in April 1997, Placido Domingo lost a case of sheet music in the back of a cab.

Gratified that the cabbie returned the music so quickly, Domingo accepted the request of then-TLC Chairwoman Diane McGrath McKechnie to record an advisory.

Seven other celebrities, including Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Mason, joined him on the first rotation. Mason had the distinction of being the only voice on two rotations, kvetching for millions of fares.

Other luminaries followed, including Chris Rock, Joe Torre and Mr. Moviefone, reading scripts written by Deputy TLC Commissioner Allan Fromberg. The advisories were belted out from crackly speakers.

The announcements are ending, but future riders might still be reminded to take all their belongings. The city is toying with the idea of installing television sets in taxicabs - a notion already infuriating riders yearning for a quiet ride.

Not to fear, says Daus, the TLC chair. The sets might come with a mute button.

Joshua Robin and Dan Janison write for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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