The Lonesomes #14 – Telephone Operators

Snapshot 15 (06-02-2012 2-04 PM)

Click the pic to watch The Lonesomes #14 – 4:06

Telephone Operators

Two retired telephone operators have a chance encounter with life-changing results.

Reid Dickie



Lil? Can that be you?


I guess it pretty much has to be, don’t it? How are you, Dort?


Great Geezers, nobody’s called me Dort in years.


Probably ’bout as long since I heard anybody say Great Geezers.



I’m doing fine, old gal. George and I are in town to visit his sis Ethel who’s not doing so well.


So I hear. How is George?


The same. Still loves to haunt musty old places. He dragged me into the museum downtown which I had never been in before. Lo and behold, there was our old switchboard from the telephone office! You coulda knocked me over with a noodle!


That old clutterbucket’s been in there for a few years since somebody discovered it in the loft of old Smoocher’s barn. You should drive down Larch. The old telephone building is still there.


We will. Old Smoocher! Great Geezers! His number was on the central party line, 23 ring 3.


Very good Dort! Your memory’s held up well considering we haven’t worked the board for over 30 years.


When I saw that old switchboard it all just came flooding back to me, Lil – the names, the numbers, the rings, the long distance codes, even the smell of the marigolds Juicy Jim the janitor usta plant around the building. Funny what you remember…


And what you forget.


(SLIGHTLY UNDER HER BREATH) Remember Lil? We usta have the best gossip in town, didn’t we?



Always the best. If you wanted to know who was pregnant and shouldn’ta been, ask Lil or Dort. If you wanted to know whose business was about to go tits up, ask the phone gals. If you wanted to find out who gambled or drank too much, which men liked boys better than girls, and vice versa, who really stole the church statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, ask the busiest bodies in town.


It was quite a burden, bearing all that knowledge, wasn’t it Lil?



That’s how I found out my Dutch was cheating on me (PAUSE) and with who.



You look surprised, Dort!




Of course.


(STILL HORRIFIED) You knew…all along?


All along. It wasn’t long before half the town knew.




(CHUCKLES A LITTLE) You two weren’t very good at having an affair, not very good at all. You lacked…umm…basic discretion. You thought people were stupider than they are which always backfires in a small town.


Did Dutch know that you knew?


Nope and that’s just how I wanted it. See what I mean about being lousy at cheating. George and I were much better at having our affair than you two.


What!? You and my George had an affair! (GASPING) I don’t believe you.


You don’t have to believe me, honey. It happened and we had a hoot because nobody, and I mean NO BODY, knew about us. Making sure of that was the most fun, well, some of the fun.


I don’t believe you!


You believe what you need to believe, Dort. Ask George.




God, I’ve waited a long time for that. I…feel…great! (CHUCKLES LOUDLY GENUINELY) And (CHUCKLE) she had Old Smoocher’s number wrong. Ha!


Character Backstory

This story is about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that presents itself suddenly and perfectly. It has a lot of detail in it, starting with a historical set-up for the characters followed by a plot with a twist and another twist that are revealed quickly and simply, ending with a curlicue. This is a snappy story; it moves along. The pace needs to be bright but not speedy because we want the women’s situations to be fully understood.

Two old friends meet accidentally in a cafe in a small town. Back about 30 years, they both worked as telephone operators in the local telephone office, which is the building you see in the image. They seem friendly enough at the beginning of our story.

Lil is not short for Lillian or Lily, it is short for Lilac but still pronounced as if it was short for Lillian. Dort is short for Dorothy. Dort’s husband is George who is with her on this visit to their former home town. Lil’s husband is Dutch who isn’t referred to but in the past tense because Dutch is dead. Both women are in their 60s but young-sounding and distinctive, like telephone operators in small towns were.

At the outset, the two women are a little surprised to see each other but cordial, genuine. Dort has a favourite expression “Great geezers” she uses like a row of exclamation points. By the seventh line, we know their relationship – they were once switchboard operators in town.

By the time we hear about Old Smoocher, Dort is sounding less positive of what she’s saying, more disingenuous, challenged. This is followed with Lil’s false praise which becomes increasingly evident in her voice.

Sensing Lil’s change, Dort tries to endear herself with the memory of the gossip they heard as operators. Lil spouts some suggestive and lurid situations they both knew about, setting us and Dort up nicely for Lil’s next line about Dutch. Their chuckle after Dort talks of bearing the burden is the last cordial moment.

Then Lil goes in for the kill, not maliciously but pointedly, directly confronting Dort. Lil knows this is a shocker for Dort and relishes every moment. After the pregnant pause, Lil lures Dort in.

Dort is totally surprised and shocked; she almost whispers her next two lines, like a stage aside. Once she knows that half the town knew about her affair with Dutch, Dort is louder, flustered. This makes Lil happy.

Lil gets right to the point – Dort and Dutch thought people are stupid and that doesn’t work in a small town. Lil gets to drop another one on Dort, her affair with George. Dort is flabbergasted with disbelief. Lil encourages her to check with George and we hear Dort turn away calling George twice – the first time Dort sounds rather forlorn but the second time she says his name, she is irate, demanding, impatient.

Sounding enormously satisfied with herself, Lil states her present feelings and chuckles to herself. Then the kicker – Dort got Smoocher’s number wrong. The cherry on the sundae for Lil – a jolly Ha!

Even though Lil is the obvious “winner” let’s leave the listener feeling empathetic toward both women as well as for hapless George, whose life is probably about to change forever when Dort springs this on him. Maybe George has a heart attack, maybe not. Lil’s satisfaction is total, bliss.

Small town telephone operators always had very distinctive voices which were easily recognizable both on and off the phone. I wanted two such voices and thought of Liz Olson and Tannis Zimmer, neither of whom have done voice work but who both possess the vocal and dramatic qualities I wanted.  Both women came completely prepared for their roles and The Muse followed us into the studio. In two takes I had my story.

Because I only had one shot of the building and the story is rather long, Kevin Uddenberg, in post production, suggested the slow reveal of the image strip by strip. I like the effect. It complements the story’s revelations nicely.


Location Information

This piece has the most precious and unusual genesis of all the stories in The Lonesomes.

In the late 1930s/early 1940s, the Manitoba Telephone System (MTS) built dozens of these little Spanish Colonial style buildings with fake adobe awnings all over the province to house their offices, switchboards and operators. With the advent of dial phones in the 1960s these little buildings either were demolished or put to other uses. Very few of them remain.

I found this building in Hartney, MB and shot a few minutes of it on a warm day. I packed up my camera and by the time I was back on Highway #21 just outside of Hartney the entire story came to me in a flash. Writers love it when highly detailed stories are provided from a sudden, unknown source. I pulled over and made a few notes on the story which had come full blown with names, numbers, catch phrases and denouement – a rather mysterious event. When I sat down to write the story a few days later, it flooded effortlessly out of me, seemingly without conscious thought or the need for my presence other than to type it out.

In addition to the twists in the story, there was a twist in gathering the images. I always make notes along the road on what and where I take pictures or shoot video. I lost my notes for this trip which was in the summer of 2011 and couldn’t exactly recall in which town this building was located.

On the day of the cast and crew screening of The Lonesomes at IMAX I decided to track down the location of the building, in case someone asked where it was. I knew it was south of Brandon so I called a few little towns including Hartney. I spoke to the Hartney town administrator who recognized the place by my description. It had been used as the municipal office for a number of years after MTS left but had fallen into disrepair on the interior in recent years. He told me it had been torn down in early 2012, about 6 months after I recorded it!

I was flattered that the little place gave me a final story just before it disappeared. I’m happy to be the conduit for its past. In 2014 you can still find the building in situ on Google Street View.

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Filed under Prairie People, The Lonesomes, video art

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