David Bruce: Practical Jokes Anecdotes

• When he was a young man acting in England, Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927) played a practical joke on his friends when they came to see him in a play in which his role was very brief and unremarkable. First, he informed his friends that since he was now a master of makeup and of changing his voice, they would find it difficult to tell who he was on stage. He also told his friends that he had taken a stage name — but the name he gave them was that of an old actor in his troupe who specialized in playing old men. He then hinted to his friends that in the play his character would be concerned about long-lost children. Finally, he bought a cane similar to that used by the old-man character in the play, and he made sure that his friends saw it. The joke worked. Mr. Jerome’s friends thought that the old actor was Mr. Jerome, and they applauded his every move.

• Impressionist George Kirby put his talents to use in 1956 when he and several other black entertainers performed in Miami Beach at the Beachcomber. This was during the Jim Crow era, and the Miami Sunprinted an article with the headline “We Don’t Want Niggers on the Beach!” As the black entertainers were in their dressing rooms nervously preparing for their performance that evening, they heard a mob, including voices that shouted, “Let’s get dem niggers!” Everyone opened their doors and looked outside, and then they heard the laughter of Mr. Kirby, who had put his talents to use in a practical joke that broke the tension before the performance.

• Judi Dench’s co-stars enjoy teasing her. While John Miller was researching his biography of her, he witnessed a fluff by Ms. Dench while she was acting in a TV series. Geoffrey Palmer told Mr. Miller loudly, so Judi would hear, “Make sure you put this in your book, John — she isn’t always perfect!” On another occasion, Mr. Miller was talking with Billy Connolly, who also spoke loudly so she could hear, “Sssshh, she’s coming — I’ll finish telling you later.” In addition, once when Ms. Dench was being interviewed, she laughed when she heard Mr. Connolly tease her by screaming in the next room, “She was a nightmareto work with.”

• During World War II, some of Walter Winchell’s friends pulled a practical joke on him. Immediately following his radio broadcast, Mr. Winchell was handed a telegram that said: “The Berlin radio reports that Adolf Hitler has been killed while inspecting Eastern Front defenses.” Mr. Winchell screamed, “Damn the luck! Hitler’s dead and I’m off the air!” However, after learning that the telegram was a fake, he said, “I’d go off the air forever if no more bombs were dropped on babies, if no more people were shot because they believed in something different, if there would be no more prejudice with a gun in its hand.”

• In 1916, Casey Stengel bet Brooklyn Dodger manager Wilbert Robinson that he couldn’t catch a baseball thrown out of an airplane. Wilbert accepted the bet, and Casey got an airplane with an open cockpit. As Wilbert stood in the field wearing a baseball mitt, Casey and the pilot flew over the field. At this time, one of the greatest practical jokes in baseball occurred. Casey didn’t throw a baseball from the plane — he threw a grapefruit which splattered all over Wilbert’s chest. Wilbert was so angry that Casey was forced to stay in hiding until he was forgiven.

• Occasionally, practical jokes are played during operatic performances. In a performance of Bohemein Philadelphia, Frances Alda was surprised when her fellow singers turned toward her on stage with monocles in their eyes. When snow fell on stage, mixed with it were such items as buttons that hit the top of the bonnet she was wearing. A glass of water turned out to be a glass of ink. And when De Segurola put on a hat on stage, he discovered that it was filled with powder that cascaded over his shoulders.

• Operatic bass singer Lablache was a huge man. One day, he was in Paris at the same time as the little person known as Tom Thumb. A couple of men wished to see Tom Thumb, but they were directed by a practical joker to knock at Lablache’s door. Lablache opened the door, and the two men told him they wished to see Tom Thumb. Lablache replied, “I am Tom Thumb.” the two men expressed surprise, saying, “But we thought you were quite small!” Lablache replied, “Before the public, yes! But at home I prefer to be comfortable.”

• John Salkeld was an English Quaker as well as a man who enjoyed humor. This worried his more serious Quaker friends, who decided to talk to him about what they felt was his joking to excess. They stayed at his house a long time to talk to Mr. Salkeld, who left them for a few minutes, then hurried back to tell them excitedly, “Friends, come at once. My wife is speechless.” They ran into the room where she was, only to discover that she was sound asleep.

• Knowing that yawns are infectious, a group of Quaker girls once played a joke at meetings while at school. Whenever a person of authority — a teacher, an elder, a minister, an overseer — looked at them, one or more of them would yawn. Then they watched with delight as the yawn passed from one person of authority to another. The girls felt that there was nothing wrong with this game, as they played it only when a meeting went past its normal closing time.

• During Word War II, Spike Milligan and his fellow soldiers used to set saluting traps for unsuspecting officers. One would see an officer coming, then pass the word to the others, who arranged themselves in a line spaced at 10-second intervals so they could wear out the officer’s saluting arm.

• Senator Russell Long, a Democrat from Louisiana, once noted that there weren’t any Republicans on the floor of the United States Senate. Therefore, he made a motion that the Senate vote unanimously to abolish the Republican Party.

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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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David Bruce: Practical Jokes Anecdotes

• At Cornell, an architecture professor worried that a crack in the ceiling of his lecture room would someday develop into a fallen ceiling. One day, he walked into the lecture room and saw that his fear had been realized — a big hole was in the ceiling, and chunks of plaster were lying on the floor. The professor rushed out to get some maintenance workers. When he returned with them, they saw only the regular crack in the ceiling — no gaping hole and no chunks of plaster on the floor. Here’s what had happened. Hugh Troy, an architecture student at Cornell, knew of the professor’s worries, so he had created a painting of a hole and even made it three-dimensional by gluing bits of plaster to the edges of the “hole.” They fastened the painting to the ceiling at night, and put chunks of plaster on the floor, then after the professor had discovered that the ceiling had “fallen” and left to get help, they cleaned up the mess and removed the painting.

• While in Canada, Anna Russell was invited to live at a farm with her Aunt Alice — and Uncle Ern, whom she had never met. Arriving at the farm, she discovered that Aunt Alice was gone, but she had a nice talk with a man who said he was her gardener. He gave her a lecture on plants and keeping a compost pile, and he certainly knew a lot about gardening. When Ms. Russell asked how long he had been working for her Aunt Alice, he replied, “Man and boy, fifty year. She be a right fine lady to work for.” However, Ms. Russell was shocked when her Aunt Alice came home and gave the gardener a kiss. The mystery was explained when Aunt Alice said, “Hello, Ern,” then introduced Ms. Russell to her practical joker of a husband.

• In the musical Dreamgirlsis a scene in which the actors and actresses pretend to be playing musical instruments. One actress whom Derryl Yeager disliked did not want to mess up her lipstick, so she always put the mouthpiece of her French horn not on her lips, but on her nose, reasoning that the audience was far enough away that they wouldn’t notice. Mr. Yeager decided to play a practical joke on the actress, so he filled up the mouthpiece of the French horn with toothpaste. The actress didn’t notice the toothpaste until she pulled the French horn away from her nose — and suddenly a string of white goo appeared dangling between the French horn and her nose.

• Gladys Cooper once wrecked a theatrical performance with a series of practical jokes. One actor lit an exploding cigar. The actresses who were supposed to eat cookies on stage were given cookies with flannel inside them. An actress who was supposed to eat an apple discovered that the apple was made of soap. Actor Gerald du Maurier witnessed these practical jokes and worried that he would be the next victim. His character was given a parcel on stage, and he thought that when he opened the parcel, something might fly out. Relieved to discover that the parcel was not booby-trapped, he sat down on a cushioned chair — which was rigged to emit a series of squeaks.

• Lee Greenway, a makeup man on The Andy Griffith Show, was a practical joker. An extra once came in for his makeup job at the beginning of the week, and Mr. Greenway asked him to remove his left shoe, then he put on the extra’s makeup. The next day, the extra again came in for his makeup job, and Mr. Greenway said, “Forgot to take your shoe off.” After the extra took off his left shoe, Mr. Greenway put on his makeup. The following day, the extra came in for his makeup job, and he started to take off his left shoe, but Mr. Greenway said, “No, no, this is Wednesday. We don’t take our shoe off on Wednesday.”

• Leo Slezak knew an operatic tenor who continually boasted of his prowess in billiards, so Mr. Slezak decided to play a joke on him. He knew a professional billiards player by the name of Pfeiler and arranged to have Mr. Pfeiler play billiards with the tenor, who had never heard of Mr. Pfeiler. In the game, Mr. Pfeiler allowed the tenor to get ahead, then he prepared to dazzle the tenor with brilliance. As he was shooting ball after ball into the pockets, a waiter entered the room and told the tenor that Mr. Pfeiler had said for him to hold the tenor’s cue stick until the game was over.

• Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote the screenplay for Wuthering Heights, one of critic Alexander Woollcott’s favorite books. Mr. Woollcott invited Mr. Hecht and Mr. MacArthur to his island, where he hoped to find out details of their screenplay. Knowing how snoopy Mr. Woollcott was, Mr. Hecht and Mr. MacArthur deliberately faked pages of their screenplay and left them out for Mr. Woollcott to find — the pages portrayed Heathcliff as a Wild West cowboy with six-shooters.

• In an episode of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Maynard G. Krebs, played by Bob Denver, jumps into a swimming pool. The scene was scheduled to be shot in the morning, but it kept being delayed until afternoon. When he finally jumped into the swimming pool, Mr. Denver found out why. The crew had filled the pool with ice cubes and had to wait until they melted so Mr. Denver would not know how cold the water was until he jumped in.

• At the Metropolitan Opera, tenor Leo Slezak had just finished performing in Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Armide. He saw an old, distinguished gentleman standing nearby, so he pushed him onto the stage, pointed to him, then bowed. Afterward, reporters asked him whom the old gentleman had been, and Mr. Slezak told them that it had been Gluck himself. The reporters printed the story, not knowing that Gluck had died in 1787.

• In his book The Compleat Practical Joker, H. Allen Smith tells about Brian G. Hughes, a manufacturer in Manhattan who used to go into a bar on a rainy day and purposely leave his umbrella at the bar so it would be stolen. Then he would find himself a good seat and wait for the thief to go out into the rain and open the umbrella — from which would fall confetti and streamers reading “This umbrella stolen from Brian G. Hughes.”

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David Bruce: Practical Joke Anecdotes

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Charlie Chaplin enjoyed performing for other people — more than he enjoyed being a ladies man. One day, Sid Grauman of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood decided to play a trick on Mr. Chaplin. Mr. Grauman borrowed a realistic female mannequin, dressed it in a negligee, and installed it in a hotel bed. Mr. Grauman then told Mr. Chaplin that a female admirer of his wanted to meet him, and he told Mr. Chaplin at which hotel room he could meet her. Mr. Chaplin arrived, and immediately began to perform for what he thought was a real-live woman. Not until 30 minutes had passed did Mr. Chaplin discover that he was performing for a mannequin.

Robert Merrill was touring with the Met in Aida along with a chef-cum-makeup-artist named Poppa Senz. One day Poppa Senz told him to come to the theater before a performance, and he would cook him a spaghetti dinner. Mr. Merrill accepted the invitation, and Poppa Senz made a wonderful dinner with extra garlic. However, when Mr. Merrill walked on stage to make his entrance, the prima donna playing Aida smelled the garlic on his breath and slapped him — she was allergic to garlic, a fact well known to Poppa Senz. When Mr. Merrill looked over at Poppa Senz, who was standing offstage, he saw that Poppa Senz was doubled over with laughter.

Les Moss, a good man at repairing baseball gloves, once was given the glove of an opposing player, catcher Clint Courtney, to mend. He did so, but he also sewed some pieces of Limburger cheese into the glove. As the game wore on that day, the catcher’s mitt began to stink. Umpire Ed Hurley noticed the stink, and he asked Mr. Courtney, “Don’t you feel well?” Mr. Courtney said he felt fine, but the stink grew worse as the game continued, and eventually Umpire Hurley threw Mr. Courtney out of the game with a strict order to see a trainer about his “problem.”

Music-hall comedian Alec Finlay was a practical joker. When his friend Jimmy Logan wanted to use his dressing room, Mr. Finlay let him, but when Mr. Logan entered the dressing room, he discovered that large padlocks were on all the cases and every drawer and wardrobe had been tied shut with thick rope. However, Mr. Logan got revenge. A couple of nights later, he had an orchestra play “Happy Birthday” for Mr. Finlay, and he sent him 12 gift-boxes — but the “gifts” were Mr. Finlay’s own padlocks and rope.

To film the Gilligan’s Island episode titled “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Gilligan,” Bob Denver, who played Gilligan, was suspended by a cable 50 feet above the stage. Mr. Denver looked down and saw two crew members holding the cable suspending him above the stage. One of the crew members said to the other crew member, “Let’s go get a cup of coffee,” then they let go of the cable and walked away. Mr. Denver screamed — but he hadn’t fallen an inch. The cable was tied to the stage, and the two crew members had only pretended to be holding the cable.

Theatrical actress Beatrice Lillie enjoyed playing practical jokes. In the 1936 play The Show is On, she stood behind a box office window and co-star Bert Lahr, famous for playing the Cowardly Lion in the movie The Wizard of Oz, was supposed to go to her and exchange one-liners. One night, Mr. Lahr approached the box office window, but she said, “So sorry, box office closed” — then slammed the window in his face.

Reporters for the tabloids play dirty tricks on each other, such as calling an opposing newspaper with a bogus news tip. For example, a reporter will be sent out to investigate a place where a major celebrity is supposed to be recuperating from a life of excess. The reporter will drive for hours, only to find out that the address given by the tipster is that of a desert shack no celebrity would ever live in.

Dean Acheson was the Secretary of State under President Harry S. Truman. One day, Hugh Troy hired a character actor to impersonate Mr. Acheson while the real Mr. Acheson was away. So on a Sunday morning, as people went to church on Sunday, they were startled to see “Dean Acheson” in full regalia, including silk hat and striped trousers, sitting on the steps of his Georgetown home, fishing — in a bucket of water.

In Austria, operatic tenor Leo Slezak sometimes heard musical societies play at dances for summer visitors. Often, as the night wore on and the band members became drunker and drunker, the music declined in quality. Once, he saw a band member stuff a sausage into the mouth of a tuba, thus preventing the tuba player from getting any sound at all from his instrument.

Comedian Rich Hall used to have fun in New York City. He would take an old movie camera with him, stand on a street corner, wait for curious passersby to gather around, then say that he needed their help to finish making a low-budget horror movie. After he had passed out the scripts, people ran screaming on the sidewalks of New York.

Zen master Soen Roshi sometimes played tricks on his students. His students used to enter a room where he was sitting behind a curtain, and they bowed in his direction. Soen once placed a pumpkin on the cushion he was accustomed to sit on behind the curtain and laughed as his students bowed to the pumpkin.

Irish playwright Brendan Behan once promised to paint the apartment of poet Patrick Kavanagh absolutely free of charge while Mr. Kavanagh was away from home. He lived up to his promise — but he painted the apartment completely black.

Elizabeth Gurney Dimsdale, a Quaker, once saw some small boys trying to ring a doorbell. She kindly rang the doorbell for them, but immediately the small boys ran away. She hesitated, then she ran away, too.

During a rehearsal of Un Ballo in Maschera, African-American diva Martina Arroyo walked out on stage — wearing a fake beard.

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