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The Day of the Digits: Postscript to the Prefix War

Wyma writes regularly for Valley View

Way back in the Dark Ages of the telephone, before call waiting or automated-voice operators, before the 818 area code even, there was a time when prefixes began with names, not numbers.

The San Fernando Valley had its POpular, THornwall and DIamond. Downtown Los Angeles answered to MAdison. The CRestview crowd lived in Beverly Hills.

The second letter in a prefix was capitalized because it and the first letter were dialed, as in the Marvelettes’ hit from 1962, “BEachwood 4-5789.”

People became attached to their prefixes--so attached, in fact, that customers rebelled when California phone companies began a conversion in 1962 to “all numeral calling,” or ANC for short. The hotbeds of opposition were the San Fernando Valley and San Francisco, with traditionalists in both places taking legal steps to stop the change.

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Twenty-five years ago, in the fall of 1963, it looked as if they might succeed. Acting on a lawsuit by the Anti-Digit Dialing League of San Francisco, represented by attorney Melvin Belli, the state Public Utilities Commission ordered the telephone companies to temporarily stop the conversion. A second suit by two Valley attorneys was pending.

“This is the first time Pacific Telephone has been restrained from doing anything,” rejoiced one of them, James J. Oppen of Van Nuys, who was to die 16 years later of a gunshot wound under mysterious circumstances.

Meanwhile, a PUC hearing officer struggled to summarize 3,200 pages of testimony from hearings in Los Angeles and San Francisco on the ANC system, by then introduced in about two-thirds of the state.

A steady stream of telephone customers--"mainly from the Valley,” said a Times account of the local hearings--complained that ANC was dehumanizing, violated tradition, eliminated a sense of community, increased dialing errors, made phone numbers more difficult to remember and ran up phone bills, because people no longer knew where they were calling.

Shined at Hearings

Oppen shined at the hearings during his questioning of a Pacific Telephone executive.

“Don’t you have any trouble remembering seven digits?” Oppen asked.

“None at all,” said the man.

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“All right, please tell me the number on your automobile license plate.”

The executive could remember only the letters, not the numbers.

In the end, however, progress won out. In March, 1964, the PUC rescinded its order and allowed phone companies to continue eliminating prefix names.

“It is no easy task to cast this vote upon the twilight years of such faithful servants as UNderhill, MIssion, LOmbard, MAdison and others,” said Commissioner William M. Bennett in his concurring opinion. “These and other letter prefixes have served us long and well, but it is inevitable that we must recognize the cold hand of technology and the obsolescence it creates.”

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Bennett, today a member of the state Board of Equalization, said phone companies had told the truth when they claimed ANC was needed because they were running out of numbers. Company officials explained that all-numeral calling increased the possible phone number prefixes in an area code from 640 to 800 by making the dial’s 0 and 1, which have no letter equivalents, available as a second digit.

From the filing of the first suit to the ultimate PUC decision, the fight over prefixes lasted a year and a half. People involved in the issue remember it as a watershed struggle.

“One of the lessons we learned is that you don’t make hasty changes without talking to the public,” said Bob Rezak, media relations director at Pacific Bell’s San Francisco headquarters. Rezak said the company was surprised by loud opposition to ANC because a research survey in Wichita Falls, Tex., predicted easy public acceptance. The company learned to do more extensive surveys, he added.

“The hell of it is, no one seems to have any problem with all-digit numbers,” Rezak said.

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H. Ralph Snyder, a longtime attorney with General Telephone, agrees.

“There was a lot of testimony by the public that they didn’t want to be computerized,” said Snyder, of General’s headquarters in Thousand Oaks. “It turned out to be a tempest in a teapot.” Not everyone shares that opinion.

“I loved the old prefixes,” Belli said by phone from his San Francisco office. “They were more illuminating, they had more character, and they were more accurate.”

“You can’t buy anything anymore without being asked for numbers,” added Scott Newhall, who crusaded against ANC when he was editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Newhall left the Chronicle in 1963 and ran the Newhall Signal until recently, when he started a new newspaper in the Santa Clarita Valley.

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“It was partly a posture on the part of the Chronicle,” Newhall remembered of the fight, “but it was also a stand against the numerization of America. The personality, the human being, is getting lost.”

Richard D. Thompson, Oppen’s former law partner, is retired and lives in Oxnard. He recalled the mood in the Valley at the time of ANC conversion.

“Everyone we talked to felt the same way we did, that it was unnecessary and unwanted. It was an onerous chore to ask people to remember those numbers when they were used to remembering a name and a number.”

Thompson said Oppen was shot to death on his boat in 1979 while sailing off Santa Barbara.

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“He had a bad leg that had gotten gangrene and was very painful, so some people think it was suicide,” Thompson said. “What happened was he radioed and said someone was boarding the boat and threatening to shoot him. They found him dead, shot with his own gun.”

An official with the Santa Barbara County coroner’s office said the death remains unsolved and is listed as an apparent homicide.

Dean J. Evans, a PUC employee since 1965, said a colorful figure in the controversy was Edward L. Blincoe of Chatsworth.

“It all started when Pacific Telephone unilaterally decided to do this, and a formal complaint was filed by a man who was the original Sylvia Siegel. That was Blincoe.”

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(Siegel, of San Francisco, founded and heads the consumer advocacy group Toward Utility Rate Normalization. She said she was not involved in the anti-ANC fight but contends: “If you still had the descriptive prefixes you might temper your calling, and the phone companies don’t want that. Everything has to be as obscure as they can make it.”)

Several people said they believe Blincoe has died, although the vital statistics section of the state registrar’s office had no record of his death. William W. Dunlop, a retired PUC official who conducted the ANC hearings, remembered Blincoe as “what you might call a professional complainer. He liked to come to hearings and question things.”

Pacific Telephone’s Rezak, however, credits Blincoe as helping in a successful fight to outlaw “hate recordings,” which were telephone numbers that disseminated racist messages.

Dunlop, who lives in San Francisco, said he conducted 12 days of often-stormy hearings.

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“There seemed to be some community spirit on a prefix,” he remembered. “They took personal pride in being an ADams or a MAdison. Some of it had to do with living in an area, a high-priced area. In Southern California, there were people who really identified themselves with a prefix.”

One of those testifying against all-numeral calling was S. I. Hayakawa, later to become a U.S. senator.

“He thought people would remember MAdison better than just numbers, but there were actual tests made that seemed to indicate there was less confusion if you have all numbers,” Dunlop said.

Prefix names usually were taken from the telephone company office in a service area, said Lissa Zanville, director of media relations for Pacific Bell in Los Angeles.

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“Our central office downtown is still called the Madison office,” she said.

And though the prefixes themselves have gone the way of the dial telephone, they do have a successor--vanity numbers. For a one-time charge of $10, plus $1.50 a month, Pacific Bell’s residential customers can order a number that spells out a word.

Not as sparkling an idea as DIamond, perhaps, but for letter-loving phone customers, it will have to do.


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