A Hotel, a Number, and a Song - the History of Pennsylvania 6-5000
Authored by Dan Berkman, RingBoost Director of LNP and Keeper of Quirky Facts.
There are many great phone number songs out there but when compiling the list many forget one of the first the ode to the Hotel Pennsylvania: “Pennsylvania 6-5000.” Now wait a minute – Pennsylvania 6-500 isn’t a phone number! Well, believe it or not it, used to be one.
This hotel was the inspiration for the song Pennsylvania 6-5000 It is hard to believe but there was no uniformity in telephone numbers as we know it today – 10 digits, area codes, and the like until 1947! In the meantime, there was a whole lot of trial and error which inspired a whole host of interesting sounding numbers that you might encounter watching old movies or TV shows. As you would expect this could get a bit interesting. For example – calling Pennsylvania 6-5000 gets you a hotel in New York and not Pennsylvania…let me explain how that worked. Back in the 20s and 30s numbers were more instructions for switch operators than anything else. Operators literally had to connect calls by switching the lines \ by hand – it was nuts! Thankfully it no longer works like that anymore. So, what did Pennsylvania 6-5000 tell operators to do exactly? There were a lot of different exchange boxes especially in major metropolises like New York City. To make things easy (well, nothing seemed to be back then) each of these areas was coded as to not drive operators insane. Often landmarks were picked to make things easy to remember and assigned numbers to correspond. For example The Hotel Pennsylvania was located in the same telephone exchange area as Penn Station. Therefore, they elected to call this code PEN or 736. Remember: there were no area codes then so you could do any ol’ wacky thing you wanted! The 5000 part was the specific number of the location in that area – which is the hotel. So the original, almost vanity number of the hotel was “PEN(736)-5000”. Okay…but where does the 6 come from then.
Why isn’t it PENNSYLVANIA 5000 then? You know how I mentioned that nothing was static in the phone world for decades? Well…a decade later in the 1930s the system changed again. This time it placed greater importance on numbers rather than letters. The code was changed to PE (73) and then proceeding digits – 6500. So when speaking to an operator you could say “give me Pennsylvania 6-5000” and they would know exactly what you meant – Penn Station exchange, number 6-5000. The reason for the song title is that many bands played in The Hotel Pennsylvania’s Café Rouge. Night after night the Café and its hotel was visited by the rich and famous. Many of these luminaires hanging out at the café were artists that would be playing. Among these bands was the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Songwriters Jerry Gray and Carl Sigman were looking to cash in on the hip night spot and wrote a song about it. Key to the whole track was the extremely memorable number. There are other lyrics to the song than just the phone number but Glenn Miller elected to omit them on his version.
The Glenn Miller recording of the song was a top 5 chart hit in 1940 and stayed on Billboard for 12 weeks. Almost immediately the song was recorded by a wide variety of different artists over the decades which has launched the hotel and its number into the popular consciousness. When sanity began to reign in the telephone business starting in the 1940s – the Hotel Pennsylvania was issued the number 212-736-5000. Believe it or not the 212 number is still in active service today. When you give 212-736-5000 you can hear a snippet of Glenn Miller’s famous recording and some information about the hotel. So whenever you want to take a trip back to the 20s or 30s just pick up your phone and dial 212-PEN-5000 or 212-PE-6500!
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