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Geek Trivia: Strength in (phone) numbers

What potentially real 555 telephone number does Hollywood continue to use in movies and television shows -- even though it's no longer on the list of reserved fake phone numbers?

Good news, tragically single geeksters: The next time you manage to get a phone number from a romantic prospect that begins with the dialing prefix 555, it's possible that the target of your affections isn't giving you a pop-culture-inspired brush-off. Possible, but not likely. That's because, contrary to what conventional wisdom and years of movie- and television-consumption may have taught you, not every U.S. telephone number beginning with 555 is fake. Just lots of them.

The North American Numbering Plan -- which has been the governing document for assigning and maintaining telephone numbers in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and various nearby countries since 1947 -- was amended in 1994 to formally reserve exactly 100 telephone numbers for fictional use. That is to say, any telephone number falling between 555-0100 and 555-0199 would never be placed in service, and instead be reserved for use in movies, television, and other mass media works of fiction. Thus, if someone you chat up hands you a 555 phone number outside that range, they may not be scamming you. That said, most active 555 numbers are used by businesses or service lines, so odds are you are still being duped, but it's not a dead certainty.

The need for "fiction-safe" phone numbers is fairly straightforward; if a phone number becomes an element of pop culture, a certain percentage of fans will be unable to resist dialing it to see who answers, creating a nuisance for whichever poor sap happens to share a number with a fictional character or organization. Tommy Tutone's famous "867-5309/Jenny" pop song has been the classic example of this phenomenon.

In fact, fiction-safe phone numbers predate the 555 rule. Until the early 1970s, AT&T kept a list of inactive but potentially "real" phone numbers that it shared with Hollywood, but by 1973, every possible seven-digit phone number was in use somewhere in the United States. Thus, from 1973 on, the 555 exchange became Ma Bell's recommended fake phone prefix. In 1994, further demand for additional phone numbers forced the reserved list down to just 100 phone numbers under the 555 exchange.

Still, one quasi-fictional 555 telephone number from outside the 0100 to 0199 range remains a prominent fixture in Hollywood productions, as it has some traditional significance that predates the existence of not only fake 555 numbers, but 10-digit phone numbers altogether.

WHAT POTENTIALLY REAL 555 TELEPHONE NUMBER DOES HOLLYWOOD CONTINUE TO USE IN MOVIES AND TV SHOWS, AND WHY?

Get the answer.

About

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

34 comments
sandraondp
sandraondp

i had no idea about this 555 phenomenon. I have asked a few internet phone provicers and asked if it was possible and reply was no. That just proves ur point.

pdf6161
pdf6161

Jay, I'm surprised that no one corrected this. (I missed your post before today.) CHerry 2-0592, my aunt's number, had 5 digits after the two letters, as did all phone numbers from the time I can remember--as well as all those you listed in the article. I wonder whether the 4 digits were from an earlier era.

step1ventures
step1ventures

There is a plumbing company in Providence RI that has the Jenny Jenny phone number, and they have had their commercial voiceover person "sing" it in ads. I often wondered why shows even bother trying to have someone say a fake number. Too easy to write around it. BTW, AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds" 6-digit number used to ring through to a real guy in the UK, who was not happy. As for me, I've still got Prince Albert in a can.

boomchuck1
boomchuck1

What I'm amused by, understandably as a self-professed geek, is shows like CSI where they trace a IM message back to the IP address of the sender. The IP address is always intentionally impossible. IP addresses are made of 4 sets of octoplets (sorry octo-mom but you don't qualify!). Eash is the digital representation of an 8 digit binary number. Max value then is 255 since we start counting at zero. When they display these numbers there will always be one octoplet that is out of range, such as 289, or I've even seen a 4 digit number like 123.4567.234.14. Your typical viewer will never catch on to it, but it is a sort of joke to the tech savvy.

deepsand
deepsand

"[i]Before 10-digit dialing codes, the U.S. phone numbers employed letter-number combinations formatted as two letters, followed by as many as four numbers[/i]. The 2 letters were not randomly selected, but where actually the alpha equivalents of the 1st 2 digits of a 3-digit exchange. Thus, the 349 exchange became DI9, or [i]Dickens[/i] 9. These came into use with the advent of direct dialing. These old exchanges still exist, even though few recall the use of letters, let alone the exchange name. DI9-5325 will live forever in my memory.

TBone2k
TBone2k

Speaking of 867-5309 (Jenny), I'll start off with two from opposite ends of the musical spectrum... Dirty Deeds, 36-24-36 (which isn't valid in NA, but is in Australia and was apparently a valid number until after the song came out) Pensyvania 6-5000

deepsand
deepsand

And, while you're at it, check to see if your refrigerator is running.

deepsand
deepsand

For example, how many viewers of the original [i]Mission Impossible[/i] series ever tried to figure out, let alone determine, that every one of the technical gimmicks presented there were actually possible, even if not practical or probable of success?

boomchuck1
boomchuck1

Back home the Fairfax and Wabash just got replaced by the actual numbers on the keypad. No phone numbers changed but people just stopped referring to them that way.

RealGem
RealGem

Man, I've heard Dirty Deeds so many times and never realized the significance of those numbers. 36-24-36. Those classic female measurements...

elhudman
elhudman

We can't forget Beachwood 4-5789 by the Marvelettes, from 1962, plus 634-5789 by lots of artists, from Wilson Pickett to Trace Adkins.

mgarvey
mgarvey

Jenny's number is actually part of my company's DID block. Unfortunately, it rings to no one as people still call and ask to speak to Jenny (even after 25+ years!) You'd think they'd get tired of it after, say, 1986 or so.

GSG
GSG

BR-549 was the phone number that Junior Samples always held up in the Hee Haw skits he did. For those of you not in the US, that was a country music show from the 70s that had a lot of comedy skits.

deepsand
deepsand

My mother did, until she recently sold her home, still have our original rotary phone, with the circular ID tag bearing the DI exchange. There are still others in that town with the same.

deepsand
deepsand

than any number can hope to be.

PhilippeV
PhilippeV

I wonder if this topic is not specifically Armerican (I mean North American where the numbering plan is applied). In my country, there's no such reserved number for films and TV shows, and aparently no one seems to remember the fake numbers used in those films: in fact most of these numbers are incorrectly formatted or are just missing some digits to be routable, so these numbers go nowhere. But in my country, when children want to play with phones, they will typically call emercency numbers that have short numbers with two digits only. Those numbers are prepared to receive such calls and can support pikes of trafic. For this reason, films do not hesitate to give the real 2- or 3-digits phone numbers to call either the police, or the firefighters, or an emergency medical service (these short numbers or emergency always start by the same digit 1, which is also used for some special dialing prefixes not reserved to specific people). In fact, displaying these actual emergency numbers in films is considered educative and helpful to get people remember these numbers. For other usages, films do not seem to need to display any number, or they don't show enough digits to perform an actual call (we have a tradition of long phone number formats for calling people), shorter numbers are exceptional and all allocated in their own prefix. And nobody has ever used letters, or known how to compose them reliably in the past, because letters were quite often absent on old telephones (or they were initially displayed incoherently between various phone models, so that phone numbers would have been ambiguous if displayed with letter. Letters have then disppeared for some time on many phones, and have just come back only since their reintroduction on mobile phones to compose SMS messages). Instead, the oldest phone numbers used the name of a city or quarter area in large cities, followed by some ordinal local number, before the introduction of automatic dialing (the operator made the connection with the next central without depending on the conversion of named prefix to numbered prefixes). As soon as automatic dialing came into function in the mid-1960's, numbers with fixed-length were used consistently throughout the country (there existed also area codes, up to the late 1980's, but they were not allocated according to letters, but more or less randomly between areas; these area codes were integrated later as part of the full 8-digits number, with just a 1-digit alternate area code remaining for selecting the capital region; and this area selection code was even replaced by integrating the area code in the full number; we no longer have any area code, all national numbers have 10 digits, including a common prefix "0" for all of them; short numbers have their own prefixes, and the leading "0" can be replaced by short routing prefixes for selecting the carrier). For this reason, there's no "popular culture" about phone numbers used in films. If children are playing with phones, they will compose random numbers anyway, and no number can be predicted and no film or TV show will tell them which working number to call (except the national short numbers for emergency services, or children assistance). The main problem is not there but to the fact that there were too many ads on TV proposing to call costly value-added phone numbers; to protect children, additional autorization codes are now displayed after the number, or indicated separately, and are required to join these advertized services. In addition, you still need to process an initial toll-free procedure when calling these special numbers (wait for the message, press "*", listen the menu, press the number of your choice... then only the service starts being billed).

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Every few years a new generation discovers "Jenny" and just has to call.

dturner
dturner

And how can we oldsters forget Pennsylvania Six Five Thousand from the Glenn Miller band song. This is a phone number which does exist, probably in several area codes but is most famously the phone number for the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York City.

deepsand
deepsand

Did anyone try to get Mother to give you a new one?

n-a
n-a

Years ago I had a phone number like 972-987-0099 -- almost entirely at the end of the rotary dial. When calling from a rotary phone you had to dial quickly. Pause too long between digits and it took over 30 seconds to dial. At that point Ma Bell gave up on you and you had to hang up and start over.

deepsand
deepsand

... the relays at the CO; exceed their minimum response time and you lost a digit or so.

seanferd
seanferd

Even after we finally got away from renting from Bell, and eventually got a pushbutton phone, we still had a rotary line. Listening to the thing dial was intensely annoying. It was shocking to go to touch-tone in my home, even though I'd experienced touch-tone elsewhere. Not all rotary phones were created equal either, as I recall. Some dials seemed to return quickly, while others... well, I'd been known to try and hurry them along. edited for missing n

deepsand
deepsand

It meant no longer having to carefully lift the receiver to check if the line was in use, no waiting for another party to get off the line so that you could make or receive a call, and no more having to wait for operator's to work their magic with the plugs boards, etal.. Of course now, when I've an occasion to use one of those rotary phones, the wait for the dial to return when dialing high digits seems interminable; push button pulse/tone phones have changed ones expectations to the extent that that which once seemed so fast now becomes so terribly slow.

seanferd
seanferd

People next door to me still had a party line well through the 70s. I'm not sure when it finally changed, but they were the only people I knew who had such. No one else I knew, whether in the country, city, or suburbs. I never found out who they shared the line with, but it wasn't the home on the other side of theirs, and both of those families were close friends.

deepsand
deepsand

And, not just about exchange names, but also of the crank box on the wall, a 3-party line, etal..

seanferd
seanferd

A company has kept this as part of it's advertising for many years, as a jingle, and now a domain name. I love finding service tags in old homes. It's the only way I know to find out what some of the old exchange names were, aside from what my folks and others can remember. I think it would be cool if the practice of using exchange names returned. Somehow, they actually sound futuristic, as well as nostalgic,to me. http://www.garfield12323.com/ http://www.garfield12323.com/NewFiles/history.html

boomchuck1
boomchuck1

I think children here still dial randomly, or call the emergency number 911 or operator. The people that are going to call a number from a song or movie are more likely teenagers or adults. Those old 7 digit (we're stuck with all 10 digit here) numbers just stick in your head, especially, if you're old enough, the ones with a name at the front. I'll never forget the phone number I grew up with - Fairfax 7, 24##. It just has a ring to it!