Movie Blog History Lesson: 555

There is another show biz legend that makes its presence known in more films than any other. Even more so than the Whilhelm Scream is the use of the 555 prefix in movies when referring to a phone number.

I am sure you noticed a long time ago that whenever someone in film or tv gives out a phone number, more often than not that number starts with 555. So I thought I would poke around to find out which cataclysmic event herded the behaviour of many showbiz writers to use this generic transit.

Wikipedia says:

In fact, only 555-0100 through 555-0199 are now specifically reserved for fictional use, with the other numbers having been released for actual assignment. How exactly this will intersect with the many uses of 555-2368 (one of the more commonly used fake numbers)[1] by AT&T and other telephone companies, remains unknown.

I thought I might take a look into this to try and find out why 555? I figured as with every other rule in existance that some obscure law was created to regulate its use, but I didn’t see anything like it. It seems it is purely an act of etiquette to avoid inadvertently giving out someone’s phone number.

Some of the more famous numbers that are not 555 like Tommy Tutone’s hit 1982 song “867-5309/Jenny” which is a valid number in many area codes. Prank phone calls asking for Jenny are apparently rampant. Also, in Bruce Almighty God gives out his number in the film and many users got calls asking for God. The White House phone number is in the phone book, so they are often not shy about using that in movies where appropriate.

Here in Canada (and I believe also in the US) if you dial long distance and use (area code)555-1212 you will get connected to the directory assistance of that area code.

And the most commonly used 555 number? 555-2368. Back when phone numbers included letters, the Exchange Central (which was common for commercial phone numbers) was identified alphanumerically with CENT spelling out 2368. This carried over to a real phone number when the letters were dropped and is given fair tribute as a 555 number in many films.

So using 555 is just another Hollywood tradition with its own little story, and now you know.

If you are curious, or just want to add to this guy’s workload, there is a website that compiles the use of 555 in movies and tv. A directory assistance of sorts if you will. You can take a peek here.

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8 thoughts on “Movie Blog History Lesson: 555

  1. > The one I heard was when phone numbers were first developed,
    > the idea was the first 3 numbers were an extension of the last name.

    That’s clearly not so. When telephones first started having numbers, they were assigned within a specific switchboard or exchange. Most were just a few numbers long. If you wanted someone in another exchange, you’d ask the operator for “Fillmore 123” if your friend had number 123 in the Fillmore area.

    Then, thanks to an undertaker named Strowger, we got dial telephones, and the operator was phased out for most calls. The exchange names became the prefixes for the phone numbers, and the phone company settled on using the first two letters of the old exchange name plus a number (so that you could have more than one block of four-digit phone numbers within an exchange). Your friend at “Fillmore 123” became “FI8-0123”.

    Thus, the first three numbers never represented the last name of the individual user, but the first two numbers were the equivalent of the first two letters of the telephone exchange which covered the area in which they lived.

    There were some blocks of exchange numbers reserved – no exchange could start with one or zero (that would indicate long distance, or connect to the operator), none could have a one or zero as the second digit (originally, this was by default, as neither one nor zero had any letters associated so they couldn’t occur in an exchange name, later on x0x and x1x prefixes were used for area codes, when direct distance dialing was introduced), and the last two digits could not be 11 (x11 numbers are reserved for special functions like 411 information or 911 emergency). The 555 block was, as noted above, originally reserved for information or dummy numbers.

  2. (Lesson, haha).

    The “prefix” 555 was established as the Entertainment DID range sometime around the late 40’s by At&t or as they were called back then “Ma Bell”.

    DID stands for Direct Inbound Dial. That range was targeted for a busy signal.
    Therefore as time went on most curious idiots would get the clue that when they see 555 its a fake number.
    Overtime most people knew if they called a 555 number other than 555-1212 they would get a busy signal. Classic conditioning.

    Remember At&t is run by X-Military.

  3. The range (0100 – 0199) is interesting. Last week when I watched the Best of Mike Meyers SNL special the “Coffee Talk” 555-4444 number was crossed out on the screen, and they silenced the audio. It was obviously never like that before, and probably updated recently because it’s now outside of that newly-designated range.

  4. So many legends of these numbers exist…

    The one I heard was when phone numbers were first developed, the idea was the first 3 numbers were an extension of the last name. Therefore, someone “Campea, John” would have number beginning with 226 (CAM).

    The reason 555 was chosen was there was no last name that would start with the 3 letter combination of j,k,l. 777 wasn’t used because of names like “Spright”. But I don’t know my 999 wasn’t also considered, unless some guy is named Zywig.

    Again, it may or may not be true but when I researched this a few years ago that is what I found.

    Also, some 555 numbers are actually used now. Sadly, some kids cartoons from the 80’s and 90’s use 555 numbers that call porn hotlines now…

  5. Hey Rodney

    The reason movies/tv use the 555 prefix for their numbers has nothing more to do with the fact that it used to not be a legitimate exchange. All exchanges in the US and Canada are designated as a city code, and the 555 was never associated with in until (I believe) the 80’s, as mass population growth warranted the use. Anyways, it’s still fun to know the little things.

    BTW, if you dial 800-555-1212 you get a directory assistance for 800 numbers in both countries…

    Cheers

  6. You are correct about the 1-(area code)-555-1212 in the US as well, for long distance directory assistance. I’m a telephone operator and directory assistance operator. Pretty interesting little blog right there though, didnt know some of that stuff, thanks.

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