The Fascinating History of the ‘Celebrity Talking Taxi’ Program in New York City

Filmmaker David Friedman took a deep dive into the “Celebrity Talking Taxi” program that ran in New York City from 1997 through 2003.

If you got in a taxi in New York City between 1997 and 2003, you were greeted with the recorded voice of a celebrity reminding you to buckle up. When you left, the same celebrity reminded you to make sure you don’t forget anything, and get a receipt

Friedman spoke with different city officials who put the program into action under the Giuliani administration. Chris Lynn, who was Chair of the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) from May 1995 to July 1996, explained that the program didn’t initially start out with celebrity voices. Instead, Lynn was inspired by a talking Christmas card.

I just said, “I have an epiphany. If they can put a chip in a greeting card, we can put a chip in a taxi meter that says, ‘Before you get out of this cab, take your receipt and look around and make sure you take your property.’” So I said that’s what I’m going to do, and I did it.

One company who provided the recordings decided to use the voice of Victoria Drakoulis, a Queens-born New Yorker who had a very thick regional accent. It didn’t go over well.

She sounded like Fran Drescher from The Nanny. So when it came out, there was all sorts of complaints. The media caught on to it. The New York Times wrote several stories about it.

Drakoulis’ voice was replaced with a more “neutral voice”. Diane McGrath-McKechnie took over Lynn’s office and began looking at the poorly named “cab-face” issues with the bullet proof partition and believed that the recordings should be focused on safety in addition to receipts.

We thought, you know, they’re not going to do it just if it’s a recording or whatever. Let’s put a celebrity on there. And we started seeking out celebrities to do it.

Friedman spoke with other members of the administration who were involved in the program, including Allan J. Fromberg and Ken Podziba, both of whom talked about how they recruited such luminaries to record these messages. This includes Joan Rivers, Adam West, Judd Hirsch, Chris Rock, and Isaac Hayes, just to name a few. But it all started with opera singer Plácido Domingo.

Plácido Domingo left his briefcase in a taxi. And in the briefcase was handwritten music, some personal items which I’ve sworn never to divulge, and some other things that were absolutely precious to him and they were absolutely necessary for him to go on stage the next night. …And so Plácido Domingo being very, very grateful [invited us to his restaurant]. I don’t know if he still maintains it. But [over dinner] the commissioner said, “Hey, we’ve got this new project. How would you like to be the first voice?” And we were off and running.

The program ran for a while, much to the dismay of many taxi drivers, but after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the program was paused. Matt Daus, who became the new TLC Chair just a month earlier, said he didn’t feel comfortable continuing the program.

Matt was preparing to announce the names to the press when suddenly, just a few weeks into his new position, came the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I didn’t feel it was appropriate to start announcing new celebrities a couple of months after all these folks died, some of whom I know, and it was a very sad time. So what ended up happening is the usual rotation cycle exceeded the record that we had, and the voices were in there for a long time.

It finally came to an end when Michael Bloomberg took office. He looked at the declining popularity of the program and wanted to look into it.

In January, 2002, Michael Bloomberg replaced Rudy Giuliani as mayor of New York City, …The first time I sat down and had lunch with him, the one thing he pointed out to me over all else is, what’s that stuff in the cab with the talking voices? Yeah, I’m not crazy about that. So they conducted a new survey to see what passengers thought, and the results weren’t pretty.

Friedman also had a lovely discussion with former Senator and program participant Al Franken.

Al Franken told me an amusing story about the time he left his wallet in a taxi and had his identity stolen by a drug smuggler, but I wasn’t able to fit that in the video. So I’ve made that a bonus clip available only on Nebula.

Friedman provided audio from each interview as well as a written essay.