Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Never Give A Sucker An Even Break

I have always admired people who are creative enough to pull off a good practical joke. And I never cease to be amazed by how gullible most people are, including myself.

People are so fascinated by monsters I believe we could balance the national budget by charging admission to the "Secret Alien Space Ship Center" somewhere in the Arizona desert. My favorite deception was pulled off by Oscar Hammerstein, Sr. This story comes from a Will Rogers biography, himself no slouch when it comes to tricks, and is true. Over a number of years Hammerstein owned a series of night clubs in New York. In one, he placed a goldfish bowl full of water on a table and charged people $1 to see the Invisible Fish. Believe It Or Not, hundreds of people paid their $1 to see the fish that wasn't there. But here's the real story... Hammerstein thought it would be a good idea during the summer to open a roof-top night club. He thought it would be much cooler up there and as a result, the place would be a hit. He was already heavily invested in the club before he realized that it was actually hotter on the roof than in the street. He knew people would quickly figure that out and he would lose his shirt. His solution? He heated the elevator. That way, people experienced great relief when they stepped out into the "cool" rooftop club. The club was a hit. But my favorite practical joke was played on someone where I used to work. It was really clever, and funny as hell. At the time, I was working for the local public television station which was housed in an old building that was once an automobile dealership. This was back in the days when public television was still primarily inhabited by media outlaws. Needing new digs, the station launched a big capital campaign to build new studios on the riverfront, at the site of some old oil storage tanks. Everything was going just fine, the money was being raised, plans drawn, construction about to begin. The station’s photographer was a big, teddy-bear of a man who loved to gossip and was always poking his nose into other people's business. We called him Mother Foto. Foto was an overweight vegetarian. He’s the only person I’ve ever met who got fat by eating vegetarian junk food. Stuff like baked potatoes smothered in butter, sour cream and cheese, fried cheese sticks, french fries and the like.

Somehow, one of the guys at the station got his hands on some letterhead from Texaco Oil company. How he got this idea I’ll never know, but it was inspirational.

He typed a letter on the letterhead addressed to the station's president, from the Executive Vice President of Texaco Oil. He made a copy of the letter and left the it where he knew nosy Foto would spot it. The gist of the letter was something like this... It's been a pleasure working with you and as a show of our appreciation, we would like to leave one of the oil tanks on the site of your new studio for your use and suggest that since they are light proof, they make excellent dark rooms. Of course, there is always the risk of an explosion. Well, Foto hit the ceiling. How could anyone even consider risking his life in an exploding dark room!? He straight away sent a letter to the Executive Vice President of Texaco, asking how he could even consider such a thing and demanding a full explanation or "you will hear from my attorney." One afternoon the station president, Fred, is sitting at his desk and the phone rings. It was the EVP of Texaco Oil wanting to know what the hell was going on down there. Fred, thinking it was some kind of joke, hung up on him. The phone rang again. This time it was the EVP and the corporate attorney. Of course, Fred immediately called Foto into the office to get to the bottom of this. The out wash was a huge laugh shared by all. The Texaco EVP thought it was the funniest thing he had ever heard. Unfortunately, Foto wasn't as amused, but he took it well, which made it even better.

I still laugh when I think about it. If you have one to share, please do.


  1. That is a funny story, Kinda miss the days where you could do that sort of thing and not have some asshole pushing a PC agenda down your throat.

    Detroit Public Television pulled a good one. They upped and moved their broadcast facilities 50 miles outside the city.

  2. Excellent story. I can’t think of anything to match that by a long way.

  3. Is that a son and grand babies on your banner? I like the changing banner theme. Is it a lot of work?

    I love a good practical joke and am known for pulling pranks on people.

    Good story.

  4. WM... I'm afraid you're right, somehow we seemed to have lost our collective sense of humor. Too bad. DPTV should be downtown. Although there could be reasons for being on the outskirts... proximity to the broadcast tower, budget, etc.

    Simon... Thanks. I'm no where near that creative, or maybe too self-absorbed to think of pranks like that. You have to be a student of human nature to be able to come up with those kind of schemes.

    Peach... You ARE a southern charmer. Son and grand babies indeed. That's Charleston, the twins, Hannah and Heidi, and 4-yr-old Hayes.

    The banner is no big deal. I have now created a Photoshop template and simply insert the pictures. Although I must say it did take a while to get it there. But I enjoy it. It's a hobby.
    Would like to hear about some of your pranks. I've done a few, but nothing as creative as the story.

  5. I meet a welder once while working on a project. He and I got to talking, and one of the businesses was removing old watertowers from their sites. He took one apart and reassembled it at his storage yard. It was winter here in south Florida so he made it a studio, lived there for about 6 months untill the fire marshall found out and he had to move.

  6. Now ain't that the government for you. Not the housing authority or the building inspector or even the police... but the fire marshal. WTF? Was he afraid it was going to burn down?

  7. Those were great. I unfortunately don't have anything near as entertaining either. Little pranks still make my day though.

  8. Indy and EOR... not sure I could come with another one right now either. Although, as I think about it...

  9. The second most creative and quasi-funny practical joke (I say quasi, because it was on me...) I've experienced was when I was the Curator of Exhibits for a state history museum. We did our own designing and fabrication, and had an excellence shop for that purpose.

    One day I went into the shop and got a little pissy with the two fabricators. I don't remember exactly why, but I was in a bad mood. I told them that the shop was a mess, and needed cleaning up. I wanted all of the wood and plywood scraps that weren't useful, thrown out, and everything shipshape by the end of the working day.

    Later I went to lunch. When I got back, I pushed on the door to my office, and couldn't get it open. After a great deal of effort, I finally got it open enough to get in. The entire office was filled with plywood and wood scrapes...desk...drafting table...chair...everything. I got the message.

  10. Oh, yes, and laughed my ass off. They got my butt into a little better mood.

  11. Good one JJ. I remember a similar thing revolving around the Alabama/Auburn football game. One of the bank presidents (this was during my chamber of commerce days) was a big Auburn fan and a bunch of friends decorated his office in Crimson Tide red complete with a chicken dyed red. What they didn't know was that he planned a little vacation around the game and didn't come back from Birmingham for a week. You can imagine what he found when he opened the door.

  12. Ah yes, that is funny as hell! A well executed prank in sooo many ways. I will remember this as if I were there, with your shrewd story-telling. BTW, it's rediculous how much weight I've gained as a vegetarian for the past 17 years.


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