World’s Wackiest Wits (Jan, 1954)

Being “syruped and feathered” looks absolutely horrible.

The Russian uniform hoax happened in October 1948.

World’s Wackiest Wits

Gagsters have been kicking us around for centuries. Some of their pranks are funny—some not so funny.

By I. B. Neer

THE hour was a few minutes past eleven on a fine Spring evening on the Cornell University campus. Most of the students were lounging in dormitories and fraternity houses when suddenly an urgent voice broke into a broadcast of radio music: “Stand by for a news bulletin.” A pause, then: “Russian planes have bombed London and Marseille. A flight has been sighted over Newfoundland.”

Listeners all over the campus were shocked into silence. Music continued to play and, in a moment, the crisp voice interrupted again: “Enemy planes are now flying over the U.S. Prepare for bombing attack!”

Word spread and panic gripped the entire campus. Every switchboard in Ithaca flashed lights as students called families, friends, and newspapers. In everyone’s mind was the awesome thought: World War III had finally exploded.

It was some hours before the students learned the truth. A group of 25 practical jokers, wearing hallowe’en masks, had invaded the studios of the university broadcasting station, tied up the student engineers and announcers and taken over. Then, for eight minutes, they interspersed news flashes with classical music. Luckily, the “invasion news” was not heard in the town of Ithaca itself since the university-run station broadcasts via a private line only to the Cornell campus. The 25 jokesters were promptly suspended from school but the ban was lifted a few months later when all had simmered down.

It was a king-size practical joke, but it wasn’t the first nor will it be the last. Perpetrators of hoaxes have been making folks miserable for centuries. They’ve fooled eminent scientists, noted doctors, and the general public with some of the weirdest most fiendish creations whipped up in fertile imaginations. They’ve caused riots, apoplectic rages, and no end of woe.

Hoaxes seem to run in cycles. It was just before the Cornell incident that one Stanley Gordon ricade in the street, hung up warning signs and proceeded to excavate. A traffic tieup ensued but a couple of policeman approached and obligingly stationed themselves in the middle of the road to detour cars around the hole, which was getting bigger and wider.

At the end of the day, the workman carefully fenced off their excavation and left. The hole stayed. It was there next morning and next afternoon. And the day after that. Citizens began yelling to the cops. The cops asked the department in charge of digging up the streets if it knew anything about it. The department’s chief looked blank and said no one on his staff had authorized it.

There was hell to pay when the blunt fact finally dawned that someone had simply hired a truck, sent a crew to dig up a city thoroughfare without authorization and then gone off, leaving the hole squarely in the laps of the city fathers. The culprit was not identified until much later when all had been forgotten, and presumably forgiven.

Another boredom-born stunt had all London aghast not long ago. Onto a lecture platform at the University of London strode a swarthy, bearded, myopic scholar, Dr. Mahesh Helai, who had been introduced as a famed Turkish authority on narcotics. Newspapers had been apprised of his talk and professors, students and science writers awaited the lecture.

They got it. “I will talk,” the doctor announced,. “on the pleasures of opium eating.” Eyes opened wide as he discoursed on the benefits to be derived therefrom. “I like it,” declared Dr. Helai. “One can consume it reasonably with no ill effects.” Then he waggled a finger at his audience and warned: “But it shouldn’t be given to children under five.”

The lecture lasted a full hour and next day the newspapers carried the entire story, with indignant comments. One staid journal assailed the professor’s outrageous recommendations and solemnly warned its leaders that, according to sound medical opinion, opium eating can lead to dire consequences.

Two days later the truth seeped out and faces were crimson from London to Oxford. Because it was in that latter citadel of learning that two Oxford undergraduates, finding life dull after exams, had recruited a member of the university’s dramatic society, did a masterful job of makeup and costuming, and palmed him off as “Dr. Helai, opium-eating Turk.” And only later did it dawn on anyone that “Helai” was pronounced—he he!

Sometimes practical jokers go to fantastic lengths and considerable expense to pull off a perfect rib. Like the time the late Hollywood producer, Mark Hellinger,. played host to restaurateur Toots Shor on the latter’s first visit to the film capital. Hellinger sent a representative, who had never met Shor, to greet him at the station and drive him to a prearranged destination. En route, Shor was astounded to see several huge billboards, flaringly advertising “the one and only Toots Shor restaurant.”

“Hey,” Shor sputtered, “I got the only Toots Shor eatery and it’s back in New York. Where does this guy get off?” The man at his side looked blank. Finally they stopped at a restaurant and as they approached the entrance a large, rotund character walked out to meet them—the exact likeness, down to every detail of dress and expression, of Mr. Shor.

Shor’s eyes bugged out and his smile froze. And when the fellow extended his hand and called out Toots’ exclusive and virtually copyrighted greeting, “Hiya, crum bum,” the New York visitor saw purple. He began to rant— until he heard guffaws and spotted Hellinger and a number of other movieland celebrities in a corner, doubled up with helpless laughter.

Everything had been carefully planted—-the billboards, and the phony Toots Shor, who had been hired from Central Casting!

But Shor himself can dish out a practical joke as well as scrambled eggs. He pulled a classic on Jackie Gleason, the rotund TV comic, not long ago. Gleason had been flaunting his ability as a pool player and one day Shor approached and asked if he’d care to take on a fellow named Joe.

Gleason assented readily and off they went. Just before the game started, Shor confided to Jackie that he was betting a huge sum on him. based on his boasts of his prowess.

The match began and Joe clicked off ball after ball, finishing and winning before Gleason could catch his breath. Shor grabbed a cue stick and took off after Jackie, howling with rage. Gleason ducked, then Toots stopped. “C’mere,” he called. “Meet the guy you played.” And a crestfallen, no-longer-boastful Gleason shook hands with Willie Mosconi, the world-famous pool and billiards champion.

Practical jokes can backfire too, and sometimes with a thunderous roar. Several years ago, a radio station in South America emulated Orson Welles’ man from Mars broadcast, airing a mythical but highly realistic “invasion” as Welles did. Welles, however, did not intend his broadcast as a prank, but the South American station did. Citizens at first were petrified with fright, and then, when the joke was revealed, they marched irately on the studios and promptly burned down the building.

It was only a few months ago that a State legislator pulled a practical joke—in no less a spot than the Arkansas House of Representatives—and then heartily wished he hadn’t. Representative James Bruton had been kidding a fellow lawmaker about the latter’s bachelor status. To lend point to his argument that it was better to be married than single, Bruton introduced a gag bill in the House to slap a $750 annual tax on bachelors in the State.

It was aimed only at the unwed representative, but Bruton had scarcely dropped the bill into the legislative hopper when all hell broke loose. He suddenly found himself besieged with a deluge of mail, telegrams, phone calls, and harsh knocks on his hotel room door. Newspaper editors wrote stinging editorials and commentators blasted him on radio news programs. Some bachelors threatened to leave the State for jobs elsewhere and constituents peppered Bruton with irate demands to kill the measure.

The bewildered Bruton, almost hidden by the pile of nasty letters on his desk, mopped his brow and announced to all and sundry that it was only a practical joke. The roars subsided, and Bruton vowed he’d never put a gag bill in the hopper again.

Harpo Marx, an inveterate practical joker, almost got arrested in the august jewelry house of Tiffany & Co. one day. Marx, unrecognizable in street clothes, filled his pockets with ten-cent-store trinkets and casually wandered into the store. He knew that Tiffany’s, with its many millions worth of fabulous gems, was guarded about as thoroughly as Fort Knox. Private detectives were all over the place and Harpo deliberately drew their attention by looking in the showcase and glancing furtively around.

Then when he knew he had been marked for watching, he strolled to the door and deliberately fell on his face. From his pockets tumbled dozens of assorted dime-store rings, bracelets, earrings, and assorted jewelry. Guards pounced on him, pinned him to the floor, then scurried around to retrieve the worthless trinkets from under customers’ feet and behind the showcases.

Harpo tried to explain but was squelched. He spent an uncomfortable several minutes in the clutches of the steely-eyed guards before he could convince them it was all a gag.

At that, Harpo only fooled one store. A New York reporter once bamboozled not only his own newspaper, but millions of people and high government officials as well. The victim was the New York Herald Tribune and this is the story of that sensational, out-size joke on a nation: It was a quiet August afternoon in the paper’s office when the city editor received a vague tip that a floating cabaret was anchored outside the 12-mile limit off Long Island, N.Y., serving illegal liquor to millionaires and chorus girls. It was Prohibition time and a scandal was in the making. A reporter was put on the story.

A couple of days later, the newsman came through. Tribune editors were elated at a clean scoop. Under a copyright line, they printed the story with a four-column headline on page one: “New Yorkers Drink Sumptuously on 17,000-ton Floating Cafe at Anchor 15 miles off Fire Island—Wine, Women, Jazz, and Revelry Turn Night to Day on Mystery Ship.” Illustrating the article was a three-column map showing the exact location of the vessel.

The reporter told of spending a night aboard the ship, which he found after scouring the ocean for two days in an open boat. In complete detail, he described the silverware, napkins and other fittings, and pointed out that all markings identifying the ship’s name and registry had been obliterated. He told of a jazz band furnishing the music “to which millionaires, flappers and chorus girls whirl on a waxed floor with the tang of the salt air in their lungs.”

Things happened fast. From Washington came orders to the Coast Guard headquarters in New York to drop everything and hunt the ship down. Prohibition enforcement officials were hauled on the carpet. Rival newspapers sent men ranging up and down the coast to find the floating palace.

Days passed but the vessel was not located. In fact, they still haven’t found it. It existed only in the reporter’s fertile imagination. He had simply seen a wonderful opportunity and couldn’t resist it. A few days after he realized the jig was up, he sent the paper a signed confession and never returned.

Practical jokers take keen delight in bamboozling the experts. A stunt that can fool a savant is considered infinitely more successful than an ordinary one, say, such as the inscription one man noticed recently on a large stone at the side of a road. “Turn me over,” it read. Curious, the man heaved and struggled and finally got the boulder on its back. On the other side was the laconic statement: “Now turn me back again so I can fool someone else.”

That’s everyday stuff in the hoaxer’s repertoire. More rewarding from the perpetrator’s point of view was the time an elephant was discovered on a barren beach on Staten Island, N. Y.

Now there was no circus or zoo on the island and no resident remembered having misplaced an elephant. Moreover, no elephants had been missing from New York, many miles across the water. How, then, had the pachyderm gotten there?

Scientists and natural historians immediately got embroiled in a controversy. Some said the elephant had swum all the way from Africa. Lengthy, footnoted treatises began appearing in the scientific journals on the amazing discovery that elephants possessed enough stamina to cross the ocean. But other experts scoffed, and the argument raged until the man responsible could contain himself no longer.

He stepped forward and identified himself. He was a press agent for a Coney Island amusement park and he admitted having charted a boat and ferried the elephant to the beach in the dead of night!

Equally satisfying to the hoaxers was the time, only last Winter, that eminent doctors swallowed whole the story that a woman had given birth to seven children in Santiago, Chile. The news broke early last December and sent medics into a tailspin because the chances of a successful septuplet birth are roughly 464,000,000,000 to one.

But there it was, confirmed by Santiago doctors and police authorities, and every newspaper in the U. S. headlined the sensational news. More bulletins followed—children were doing fine; they came along about an hour and three-quarters apart; the mother, a 32-year-old peasant woman, was recuperating nicely.

But then came the snapper—Chilean students were holding a gala carnival and had invented the entire thing to give zest to the proceedings. Posing as doctors, they had issued an elaborate series of reports, allowing no one to see “mother and children.” Even local medical men were completely fooled.

Then there was the time the Gemological Institute of America received a brown, bean-sized object in the mail, with a request for identification. The institute is staffed by expert mineralogists who check on all types of gems for custom officials, importers, dealers, insurance brokers, and police. The scientists worked for hours, using their lab equipment and massive tomes of gem minerals, but could not identify the stone.

They were still at it late in the day when a cleaning woman arrived with mop and bucket. Curious, she peered over the experts’ shoulders and finally queried: “Say, that’s a kidney stone, ain’t it? I had mine removed last year and they looked just like that.”

And darned if she wasn’t right!

  1. Toronto says: May 23, 20121:53 pm

    I’ve been involved in some pretty big stunts, but that first one was WAY over the line.

  2. Stephen says: May 24, 20126:11 am

    My own favourite grand practical joke is the memorial in Dublin to Father Pat Noise, which unlike some of the stories told above didn’t inconvenience anyone:…

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