The Time Lady

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From The Azalea City News & Review. July 23, 1981.

The voice heard by millions

Uncovering the Merchants Time Lady

by Frank Daugherty

It was like shaking hands with the real Santa Clause, petting the Infant Mystics cat, or taking a boat tot he Isle of Joy. On the other end of the telephone line was the Time Lady and she was talking back to me.  She was not saying "Merchants National Time" or "You can save time at our drive-up windows." The voice we know so well was laughing, answering questions, talking about herself.

It all began last week when the ACN&R decided to find out just who the Time Lady is, this person that nearly everyone in the city calls up from time to time. She's like the Middle Bay Lighthouse. Numbers come and numbers go in the computer age, but the Time Lady is always waiting in some mysterious part of the city called Hemlock, the last holdout of the old telephone exchanges (whatever happened to Garden and Greenwood?).

According to Phil Forrest of the Merchants National Bank, the Time Lady was brought to Mobile in 1934, only one year after the first such telephone service was started by the Audichron Company in Atlanta, Ga. Her popularity grows constantly. Last April the time service in Mobile got an average of 47,502 calls a day. There were more than 1,400,000 calls in the whole month.

Audichron people in Atlanta, they lifted the veil of anonymity from the mysterious voice: Mobile's Time Lady is named Jane Barbe, she's a native of Georgia, and she lives in Atlanta. Barbe has sung the praises of the Merchants National Bank for almost 18 years. She succeeded another Altantan named Mary Moore, who had held the post since 1945 and also had a television talk show in Atlanta. No one knows who our Time Lady was before that, surely one of the great quests for Mobiliana buffs.

23 million listeners

The Audichron people were not at all surprised to hear from us. "Oh, we get two or three calls a week from reporters and radio and television people who want to talk to Jane Barbe," said Audichron's Sam Medlin. That was the first surprise: Jane Barbe is quite a celebrity. She gives interviews, she appears on talk shows. Several months ago she was featured on television's Real People show, and for several months afterwards she was so besieged with calls that she had to charge by the hour for telephone interviews.

The second big surprise was that the Voice of Merchants National Bank -- a woman whom one imagines to have been an Azalea Trail maid and Junior Miss in her salad days (as a child she would have belonged to the Sunshine Club) -- is heard in more than 1500 other American cities, not to mention Hong Kong, Zambia, the Bahamas, San Juan... Jane Barbe's voice is heard by more than 23 million people every day.

Somewhat deflated, we asked to speak to Barbe herself, and Medlin very readily put us through. Barbe had just come in from shopping and was putting up the groceries. "Yes, they told me you were about to call," she said. "How are things in Mobile?" The voice had an infectious ripple of laughter, an indefinable, well-trained modulation that suggested 1950s TV shows: Jane Wyman or Lois Lane.

Barbe said that she is indeed a Georgia girl. She was born in Augustus, lived in Florida, but grew up mainly in Atlanta. The Time Lady was a Tri Delt!!! President of her sorority at the University of Georgia. So what happened to her accent? "I took acting classes at college, and one day we were doing Antigone and we taped ourselves so that we could criticize each other. I listened to my voice on the tape, and, honey, you could cut it with a knife. That's when I started working on it."

After college Barbe acted in Little Theatre groups. She was also a pop singer, and toured the country with the Buddy Morrow Band -- Morrow now fronts the Tommy Dorsey Band. On one of her tours she sang in Mobile. "It was 20 years ago," she said. "I remember I thought Mobile was very charming. The only thing I can recall is an old church downtown with columns, I'm sure it must be some sort of historic building."

Southern voice wins

After marrying and living for a while in Bronxville, N.Y., Barbe and her husband settled permanently in Atlanta. Her husband composes music for commercial spots, and has also composed for the Atlanta Symphony and done arrangements for B.J. Thomas.

Barbe found her job at Audichron through a friend. "She told me they were looking for a female voice; they wanted a nice, friendly, pleasant voice," Barbe said. "I tried out and they put me to work recording the same day." Barbe does all sorts of messages: weather, temperature, service announcements for the telephone company. Once a lady wrote Audichron to find out who was telling her, "I'm sorry, you've dialed the wrong number." The lady wrote, "She sounds as though she really means it." Barbe said she has no favorite messages or ones she doesn't like, but admitted, "Once I had to do one for a funeral parlor that caught me a little off guard."

One important quality of Barbe's voice is the even modulation, because all of the brief messages are pre-recorded in segments onto a drum. "I do a maximum of twelve messages on a drum. We send samples to our clients every month," she said.

Though Barbe does not exactly sound like Tallulah Bankhead on the phone, she says that what we hear is actually her Southern voice. At one time she had a "crisp voice with a slight edge" for the North, but she dropped it altogether. "Every time I'd do the two versions for people, they'd always say, 'Gee, the Southern one sounds so much nicer'," Barbe said.

With all the many messages she records, Barbe only works at Audichron on Tuesdays. The rest of her time she collaborates with her husband to write commercial jingles, and she sings for commercials, both in Atlanta and nationally. There's not much time left for hobbies, but Time Lady fans will be interested to know that she still sings swing music, and she's about to go on a boat cruise for her summer vacation.

"You sound so friendly"

Barbe says people never recognize her when she's not working, but she does get an occasional fan letter from her recordings. "Most of it tugs at your heartstrings," Barbe said. "There was one lady from Chicago with bone cancer who wrote that she was alone all the time and often called the time service. 'You always sound so friendly,' she wrote.

"I was very touched," Barbe said, "so I sat down and wrote her about my children. I have a son named David that's a freshman at the University of Georgia now, and a daughter, Susan, at the University of Florida." Barbe sent her a photograph, and the lady wrote back, "I have your picture propped up next to the telephone and I look at it every time I call the time." Several years later Barbe got another card from the lady. "The picture's still there and I'm still calling," she wrote.

How does a person manage to sound sincere on a several-second, pre-recorded spot heard by thousands, if not millions, of people? "I think about the people I'm talking to," Barbe said. "Every time I step into the recording room, I conjure up an image of a particular person. I might think of a little old lady in a gray shawl and wire-rimmed glasses. I might think of a boy in a baseball cap, or I might imagine I'm talking to a  businessman in a pin-stripped suit. I never want to sound like a machine."

In the age of mass communications, "the global village," it sounds like a hopeful sign that people will always insist on finding a human and person tough. Still, there was one final note of disillusionment. The Time Lady has never seen the Merchants National Bank! "Isn't it terrible?" Barbe laughed.

The ACN&R asked Barbe if she had a final message to Mobile before she vanished beyond the one-way boundaries of Hemlock. "Tell Mobile," Barbe said, "that they'll have to get me down here some time so that we can get to know each other a little better."

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