Don’t be alarmed if Jen Forti appears on your doorstep out of the blue. She’ll probably be wearing this old-timey bellhop-looking outfit and just burst into song, strumming her beloved ukulele, before you have a chance to compose yourself. She’s there to deliver a message from a friend or family member. She might make you cry—but only happy tears.
Forti, a veteran Portland dancer, drummer, and performer, is the founder of Bellagram Telegrams, a singing telegram service she started as a side gig in 2018. The pandemic, it turns out, was a perfect time for her socially distant form of face-to-face messaging to blow up, Forti says. She now employs seven other “Bellas,” each of whom has their own style of delivery, from R&B to country to sultry accordion ballads.
Before singing telegrams, the telegram was a telegram. And that was always associated with bad news, like a death. And the quickest way to get that message to somebody was through telegram. Western Union was doing telegrams, and so at some point, they thought it would be fun to lighten that association with a singing telegram. So that became kind of a thing for a while. And then once everybody got a telephone, telegrams in general fell by the wayside. So it’s kind of a paradox now that I’m bringing that old thing back into today’s digital world. The idea is, because we are all in front of our devices, bringing back the singing telegram is a way to connect with people face to face.
Technically a singing telegram is a written message. So, as part of the package, people get two songs of their choice. And then their message, which is 20 words or less, is written on an actual telegram that I then give to the receiver as a keepsake. And I sing that a cappella.
Some of them are just simple: “Thanks for the thing, love so-and-so.” The best ones are when the sender gets creative with the message, and they make it rhyme, and may just add their own personal sort of twist to it. I love that. The most popular occasion obviously is the birthday. But then people can actually choose to have a custom song written.
This is a culmination of everything I’ve done my whole life. I was born in Rome, Italy. I’m Italian American: my dad’s Italian, my mom’s Oregonian. Hence, where I use the word Bella. Bella bella! And it binds with telegram, so it’s perfect.
I moved to the States when I was 6 years old with my mom. I’ve lost my accent, but I can still speak the language. In school, I joined the marching band. I started playing the snare drum. So that’s kind of where I got my start to performance art. And eventually I joined the dance team. [After college] I started delivering Genesis Juice.... I wasn’t passionate about delivering juice, but I really loved the idea of delivering things. Deep down, I was an artist, and I wanted to figure out how to make a living with my art. Eventually I joined MarchFourth Marching Band, and I danced with them for nine years. I realized that we can bring the music, the performance, to people. We can be mobile. So it just came to me one day—and it’s not that singing telegrams are new things, but they were a thing, and then they kind of fell by the wayside. There are other companies out there doing it, it’s not that many.
Sometimes [people I deliver messages to] are embarrassed. But mostly, they’re just really touched. And if they start crying, I feel like I’ve done a good job of the mission. Because I feel like, you know, tears are like gold in this business. I’ve done offices before, and people witnessing it, sometimes they start crying. And then I think, “Wow, that’s a double whammy right there.”
I’ve been in Portland for 23 years. I’ve met a lot of other performers and musicians and singers. It’s a hustle. It’s a constant hustle. Now I’ve sort of landed on this opportunity to not only give myself the opportunity to make a living as a performer, but to give my friends and peers the opportunity to get these gigs. And it’s happening, and it’s really exciting.