David Bruce: Practical Jokes Anecdotes

• David F. Day was the editor of a Democratic paper in Colorado in the late 1800s and supported the silver standard. Francis E. Leupp, a journalist who was a Republican and who supported the gold standard, visited him. In addition to being a newspaper editor, Mr. Day was also busy as the Indian Agent for the Southern Ute Indians. Because he was so busy, Mr. Day allowed Mr. Leupp to write the editorial for the week of his visit and ordered his newspaper to print whatever Mr. Leupp wrote. Mr. Leupp decided to take advantage of Mr. Day’s generosity by writing “A Confession Wrung from Conscience,” an editorial piece ostensibly written by Mr. Day, but which totally reversed Mr. Day’s position, arguing in favor of the gold standard instead of the silver standard. Because Mr. Day lived in a silver-mining area where arguing in favor of the gold standard was both unpopular and likely to be dangerous, he was forced to hide his family until he could explain the cruel practical joke in the next week’s edition of his newspaper.

• Many people in the frontier days had a rough sense of humor. A Methodist preacher asked Texas cattleman Brit Bailey for a place to sleep overnight in his house. Mr. Bailey agreed, providing that the preacher obeyed the “house rules.” Shortly afterward, Mr. Bailey pulled a gun on the preacher, then said that the house rules were for the preacher to strip naked, climb up on a table, and dance. The preacher had no choice but to obey. Later that night, Mr. Bailey turned his back on the preacher, and when he turned around, he found himself looking at a gun in the preacher’s hand. The preacher then ordered Mr. Bailey to strip naked, climb up on a table and dance. Mr. Bailey had no choice but to obey. (Later, the two men became friends.)

• Comic singer Anna Russell, who was born British, became a naturalized American citizen. She was very nervous about taking her citizenship test, despite having studied for months. (Studying history was rather odd. In English schools, she had studied the War of Independence and learned that the Americans were the bad guys and the English were the good guys, but now she had to learn it the other way around.) An American official made her even more nervous when he looked at her ominously and said that he hoped she had studied hard. The official asked her to write a sentence in English, and then he asked her who was the first President of the United States. Finally, he signed her citizenship papers. A shocked Ms. Russell asked, “Is that all?” The American official replied, “Yes, but I had you rattled there, didn’t I?”

• When conductor Arturo Toscanini first dined at the home of Samuel Chotzinoff, several people wanted to be invited so they could meet the famed conductor. Mr. Chotzinoff’s sister-in-law was so eager to see Maestro Toscanini in person that she agreed to serve as a maid. During the dinner, Toscanini was very favorably impressed with her beauty. At a later dinner, Mr. Chotzinoff decided to play a trick on Toscanini. This time, his sister-in-law blackened her teeth and turned herself into a frump. Near the end of the meal, she sat on Toscanini’s lap and kissed him. The Maestro was horrified at first, but once the trick was explained and he knew the identity of the “maid,” he was delighted with the trick.

• At the General Electric laboratories, old-time engineers used to play a practical joke on new engineers by telling them to frost the inside of an electric bulb so it would diffuse more light. The new engineers would try to do this, but fail, and then the old-time engineers would explain that such a thing was impossible. However, the old-time engineers played the practical joke on a new engineer named Marvin Pipkin. Mr. Pipkin amazed the old-time engineers by becoming the first person ever to frost the inside of an electric bulb. 

• Opera singer Leo Slezak frequently crossed the Atlantic to travel to the Metropolitan Opera in New York. When his piano accompanist Professor Oscar Dachs became seasick, Mr. Slezak decided to play a joke and send for Professor Dachs to accompany him as he practiced singing. Several messengers went to Professor Sachs and returned, saying that the Professor was ill. Mr. Slezak stopped the joke after a messenger reported that the Professor had used language that a gentleman should not use and had thrown an ashtray at him.

• Mark Twain was at the races outside London, where he met a friend who had lost all his pocket money gambling and who asked if Mr. Twain would buy him a ticket back to London. “I’m nearly broke myself but I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” Mr. Twain replied. “You can ride under my seat and I’ll hide you with my legs.” The friend agreed, but unknown to the friend, Mr. Twain bought two train tickets. When the train inspector came by to collect the tickets, Mr. Twain handed him the two tickets, then said, “My friend is a little eccentric and likes to ride under the seat.”

• In Richard Wagner’s Siegfriedis a scene in which Siegfriedapproaches the sleeping Brünnhilde, removes her breastplate, and sees the words “Das ist kein Mann.” The tenor Alberto Remedios tells a story about a production in which Siegfried approached a mischievous sleeping Brünnhilde. When Siegfried removed her breastplate, he saw the words “Do not disturb.”

• At Cornell, Hugh Troy once advertised that the annual freshman class picture would be taken outside White Hall. At the advertised time, all the freshmen stood outside White Hall while the photographer stood ready to take their picture. However, when the photographer ordered the freshmen to say “Cheese,” that was the signal for Hugh’s friends to drop buckets of water onto the freshmen from the roof.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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