Pranks for the Memories

Harpo Marx Illustration
This classic 1938 illustration features Harpo Marx’s backfired prank.

Practical jokes have a bad reputation. We tend to think of them as unimaginative annoyances, like putting salt in the sugar bowl, making prank phone calls, or taping a “kick me” sign on someone’s back. But, as the Post reported, a good prank is of a different class altogether.

We’ll start with the case of Humorist Oliver Herford whose exceedingly clever gags arguably approached the level of high art, as Post Contributor Julian Street describes them in “More or Less Practical Jokes.”

In the 1890s, Herford announced to his friends that he had just been invited into a highly exclusive club. From his rapturous descriptions of the Farragut Club, many of his friends hoped they would also be chosen for membership. What they didn’t know was that Herford was the only member of the Farragut Club, which he’d dreamed up just to torment his good friend Richard Harding Davis, who was a bit of a social climber. For years, Davis repeatedly begged Herford to nominate him for membership. Again and again, though, Herford had to tell his friend, with sighs of deep regret, that one member had anonymously voted down his nomination. It’s possible Davis never learned who that one person was.

An Audience Of One

Professor Clyde Miller of Columbia University was another prankster who appreciated subtlety, as Author Fred C. Kelly described him in the Post article “He Sets Them Wondering.”

Whenever a publisher sent Miller a book to review that he found impossibly dull, he’d mail it to a friend along with a note, signed with the author’s name, saying, “I hope you will like the references in this little volume to yourself and that you will not mind the free use that I have made of your name.” Miller enjoyed imagining his friend wearily reading the entire book just to find where his name was mentioned.

Once, as part of a printer’s advertisement, he was sent a stack of sample Christmas cards left over from various jobs. On the inside were the names of complete strangers—a Dr. Montgomery, and a George and Helen McFarland. He mailed these cards to his friends with a brief personal note from Montgomery or the McFarlands, telling the recipient “Cousin Frank finally got the job. He would love to hear from you,” or “Ben and Sarah have a new baby. They are naming it after you.”

The Educational Joke

The Post stories of practical jokes also include a few that served an educational purpose, teaching a lesson to people who might not learn any other way.

Actor Rowland Buckstone, for example, taught fellow Actor E.H. Sothern, how it felt to have a practical joke sprung on him. For years, Sothern had played pranks on Buckstone, who had always accepted the joke with a good-natured laugh. Then, one night, Buckstone saw an educational opportunity for his friend.

It happened the night that Sothern announced to his fellow actors that he’d just become engaged to Virginia Harned, the leading lady in his current play.

Buckstone met Harned backstage while the play was in progress and congratulated her on the engagement. He added that Sothern was a brave man for telling her about the … um, sensitive issue. He knew it must have deeply pained Sothern to share with her the secret he kept from so many people.

“What are you talking about?” Harned asked.

Buckstone pretended to be shocked that Sothern hadn’t told her his great secret. The woman pleaded to know what her fiancé was hiding. At last, with a great show of reluctance, Buckstone said, “His glass eye.”

Harned couldn’t believe him. Buckstone offered to prove it. He told her that Sothern had plenty of spare eyeballs and kept them in several hiding places. He quickly led her to the dressing room of Sothern, who was then onstage. He opened the door and pointed to the dressing table, where a glass eye lay in a saucer, just where Buckstone had placed it minutes before.

Harned was aghast. Buckstone began digging through the pockets of Sothern’s clothes where he ‘chanced’ to find another glass eye. Just then, they heard Harned’s cue. She rushed through the wings and onto the stage with Buckstone strolling after her in a contented mood. Standing behind the curtain, he watched her play the love scene with her husband-to-be. He noticed that Harned seemed distracted that night, and spoke her lines haltingly. And, from where he stood, Buckstone could see that her gaze kept shifting back and forth between Sothern’s eyes, trying to figure out which was the glass one.

As soon as they got offstage, Sothern learned of the hoax and cleared up any doubt Harned had. They then began hunting through the theater for Buckstone, but never found him that night.

A Joke For Marital Equality

Julian Street also offered an example that shows a woman as capable as a man in the field of educational pranks.

When his friend, Art Editor Ray Brown, married, he and his wife agreed they would remain independent, and never demand to know where the other had been, or what he or she had been doing.

So on the first night they visited Paris, Mrs. Brown attended a concert and Mr. Brown went strolling alone through the artist’s district. Hours after she arrived back at the hotel, he came staggering in and collapsed on the bed. True to their code, she didn’t ask where he’d been.

The same thing happened for the next two nights. Mrs. Brown sat alone in their room under he would come stumbling to the door in the small hours.

On the fourth night, Mrs. Brown came to a decision. She put on her best evening gown and waited by the window overlooking the street. In the middle of the night, she saw a cab pull up to the hotel door and her husband step out. She immediately left the room and hurried upstairs to the floor above. There, she silently paced the corridor for a half hour before returning downstairs and knocking at the door of their room.

As Street describes it, Mr. Brown opened the door and Mrs. Brown sauntered in, cheerfully saying, “Oh, you got home first.” She yawned, slipped off her wrap and began to make ready for bed, aware, as she did so, of his anxious, questioning gaze.

“During the remainder of his stay in Paris, Ray Brown was given to fits of abstraction in which he would stare at his wife with brooding, speculative eyes. And she was always there to stare at, for he did not leave her any more.”

Years later, as Street was writing this article for the Post, he sent Mrs. Brown a letter asking permission to use the story. She wrote back with the permission and the news that, until her husband had read Street’s letter, he’d never known where she was that night.

Blowing Up in the Joker’s Face

Finally, we consider a category of practical jokes that are rarely reported: the ones that backfire.

According to Alva Johnston’s 1938 article, “What Larks!” Harpo Marx once entered the Tiffany & Co. jewelry store to shop for some expensive jewelry. He was dressed in street clothes. Without his trademark wig and top hat, few would have recognized him. A salesman showed him several trays, but Marx said he saw nothing he wanted. He turned and was heading to the door when he ‘accidentally’ pulled an open bag from his pocket that spilled diamonds, rubies, and pearls across the showroom floor. Several salesmen started toward Marx, then stopped. Even from 60 feet away, they recognized the look and sound of costume jewelry hitting the tiles. They remained where they stood, fixing Marx with an icy stare. No one even helped him pick up the fake jewels.

Humiliated, Marx quickly rounded up the fake gems, handed them to the doorman, and darted outside.

He didn’t dare to show his face inside Tiffany’s again until he returned, ten years later, as a legitimate customer looking for a silverware pattern. Even though a decade had passed since his joke backfire, he had taken only a few steps into the store when a salesman stepped up and said, “No jokes, Mr. Marx.”