The Fascinating History of New York City’s “Celebrity Talking Taxi” Program

Filmmaker David Friedman embarked on a fascinating exploration of a unique program in New York City known as the “Celebrity Talking Taxi.”

This program, which ran from 1997 to 2003, left an indelible mark on anyone who hailed a taxi during that period. As passengers settled into the backseat, they were greeted by the recorded voice of a beloved celebrity, reminding them to buckle up for safety.

It was a comforting and familiar voice that echoed through the taxi, creating a sense of reassurance. The genesis of this revolutionary program was an epiphany experienced by Chris Lynn, the former Chair of the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) from May 1995 to July 1996.

Lynn drew inspiration from a talking Christmas card and realized the potential for incorporating a similar concept into the taxi system. With remarkable ingenuity, he conceptualized the idea of using a chip in the taxi meter to deliver important messages to passengers before exiting the vehicle.

The initial recordings were not celebrity voices but carried a practical message, urging passengers to take their receipts and belongings. However, as fate would have it, the program underwent a transformation when one company decided to use the distinctive voice of Victoria Drakoulis.

Her heavy Queens-born New York accent, reminiscent of Fran Drescher from “The Nanny,” proved to be divisive. The public’s reaction was swift, and complaints flooded in. The media seized upon the controversy, with The New York Times dedicating several stories to the uproar.

In response, Drakoulis’ voice was replaced with a more neutral tone, ensuring a broader appeal. Diane McGrath-McKechnie, who succeeded Lynn, recognized the opportunity to expand the program’s scope beyond mere receipts.

She believed that the recordings should also address safety concerns, prompting the idea of incorporating celebrity voices. McGrath-McKechnie and her team embarked on a search for notable personalities willing to lend their voices to the cause.

The roster of celebrities who participated in the program was impressive, featuring renowned individuals such as Joan Rivers, Adam West, Judd Hirsch, Chris Rock, and Isaac Hayes, among others. Their contributions added a touch of glamour and prestige to the taxi experience, making the journey more memorable for passengers.

Yet, it all began with a captivating encounter involving opera singer Plácido Domingo. The renowned tenor inadvertently left his briefcase in a taxi, which contained handwritten music, personal items shrouded in secrecy, and other invaluable possessions crucial for his upcoming performance.

Overwhelmed with gratitude when the briefcase was returned, Domingo invited the officials involved to his restaurant, where the idea of incorporating celebrity voices was born. Domingo became the program’s inaugural voice, setting the stage for future celebrity collaborations.

The program continued for a considerable period, not without some resistance from certain taxi drivers who found the recordings somewhat intrusive. However, tragedy struck on September 11, 2001, when the devastating terrorist attacks unfolded.

In the aftermath of this national catastrophe, Matt Daus, who had recently assumed the role of TLC Chair, made the difficult decision to suspend the program. It was a time of mourning and reflection, and introducing new celebrity voices seemed inappropriate amidst the collective grief.

The program remained on hold until the inauguration of Michael Bloomberg as the new mayor of New York City in January 2002. Bloomberg, in his first meeting with Daus, expressed his dissatisfaction with the talking voices in taxis, prompting a thorough evaluation of its popularity among passengers.

A comprehensive survey was conducted to gauge public opinion, and the results revealed a significant decline in favorability for the program. This outcome led to the eventual discontinuation of the “Celebrity Talking Taxi” initiative.

In his exploration of the program, Friedman had the pleasure of speaking with former Senator Al Franken, who shared a humorous anecdote about leaving his wallet in a taxi and subsequently falling victim to identity theft by a drug smuggler. Although this story didn’t make it into the final video, it has been included as a bonus clip exclusively available on Nebula.

The “Celebrity Talking Taxi” program remains a fascinating chapter in the history of New York City’s taxi industry. It introduced a unique blend of practicality and star power, enhancing the overall experience for passengers. While it may no longer grace the city’s streets, its legacy lives on, reminding us of the creative and innovative ideas that can emerge from unexpected sources.

Friedman provided audio recordings of the interviews along with a written essay.

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