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The merry messenger of romance

One in a weekly series on the people around you.

Most people's reaction to a visit from Dee Smith is shock, quickly followed by embarrassment and a few moments of stunned silence.

Bob Fabricatore was no exception when Ms. Smith, an employee of Merry Minstrel Singing Telegrams, strode into his shoe repair store in Alderman Plaza in Palm Harbor on Friday, shouted his name and commanded, "Turn that thing off" as she pointed to a polishing machine he was using.

She then grabbed the startled Fabricatore by the hand and led him to the front of the shop, where several folks, including a smiling customer who had just walked in, watched as Ms. Smith sang and presented him with a balloon bouquet and a Valentine mug filled with candy.

"Don't you like me?" she asked as he looked away with an embarrassed expression, a candy kiss she had just given him clutched tightly in his hand. Fabricatore then looked at her, and she gazed into his eyes, a bright smile on her face as she finished singing her Valentine song. She told Fabricatore she was sent by his fiancee, Alma Haag, "who knew better but couldn't resist."

"I hate surprises," Fabricatore said when the show was over. "I don't usually like to be the center of attention."

Ms. Smith, 27, said that she does enjoy being the center of attention. She became interested in performing as a messenger after she received a singing telegram on her 20th birthday, she said. Soon after, she started her own business. She joined Merry Minstrel a year and a half ago.

For her deliveries Friday, Ms. Smith wore a large red felt two-sided heart decorated with lace and smaller cut-out hearts she attached herself. Under the heart she wore a leotard, and completed the outfit with black mesh stockings and black high-heeled shoes.

She carried a cannister of helium in her car to blow up balloons at each site Friday, with pre-cut ribbons, mugs and candy, and an appointment book she consulted frequently for directions.

"I don't like to have balloons blown up in the car," she said. "They can pop, especially in the summertime, and that scares me. They obstruct your vision and if I have time between shows, it isn't long before they don't look as good as they did."

Ms. Smith's day began at 7 a.m. with a telephone call from the Merry Minstrel office in Tampa. Shortly after 9 a.m., she left her Clearwater apartment and headed for her first appointment of the day, near the Florida Suncoast Dome in St. Petersburg.

Ms. Smith said that while driving to an assignment, she usually tries to think about the recipient of her message, and any special instructions, such as use of nicknames.

She parked in a field beside the "victim's" office, put on her felt heart and entered with a wide smile.

Before joining Merry Minstrel, Ms. Smith had her own telegram service and clown show in Hernando County for about six years. She still appears as Harmony the Clown and also works in the Merry Minstrel office on a regular basis, answering the telephone and scheduling shows.

She carries a beeper, and is "on call" 24 hours a day. She tries to arrive early at each appointment to allow for difficulty in finding an address. Her busiest times are evenings, she said, particularly Friday and Saturday evenings, which usually are booked solid.

She said she still gets nervous before every performance, but she likes a large audience. "The wilder the crowd, the better I like it," she said. "The more, the merrier at Merry Minstrel."

As she tells about performing as "Monique, the Magical French Maid," she breaks into a French accent. "I had to do that one for a real Frenchman once," she said. "It was a little intimidating, but he was a real good sport."

Merry Minstrel messengers are paid by the show, with extra pay for time and gasoline if the show is out of the normal delivery area. Ms. Smith said a full-time Merry Minstrel messenger can average $450 per week, including tips.

Valentine's Day is probably the busiest day of the year for a singing telegram messenger, she said.

"The most successful thing about being a minstreler is being able to improvise," Ms. Smith said. "You never know what the person will say."