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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