David Bruce: Practical Jokes

On his yacht, Bill Buckley once invited Dick Clurman, an editor at “Time magazine,” to watch a showing of “The Wizard of Oz” emanating from Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, Mr. Buckley had misread the time the movie began, so when he turned the TV set on, the movie had already been on for 30 minutes. Mr. McClure, who had never seen the movie, was disappointed, but Mr. Buckley said, “I wonder if my name cuts any ice down there.” Mr. Buckley then telephoned the Puerto Rican TV station, explained who he was, and asked them to please start the movie over again. Mr. McClure, incredulous, watched as the TV screen went blank for a moment, and then the movie started again from the beginning. Actually, this was a practical joke. The movie was on a videocassette — new at the time. Mr. Buckley had only pretended to call the TV station, which was NOT broadcasting the movie. While pretending to talk to the TV station, he had rewound the movie and then started it again. By the way, Mr. Buckley could be prickly. Occasionally, he wrote something in his magazine that caused people to write him and tell him to cancel their subscription to his magazine. Sometimes, he wrote back, “Cancel your own d*mn subscription.”

Walt Kelly was an artist for Walt Disney before becoming famous as the creator of the cartoon strip “Pogo.” One of his fellow Disney artists had a trick of walking into a room and throwing his coat across the room and onto the coat rack. Mr. Kelly cut the coat rack up into many small pieces and then taped the pieces back together. The fellow artist came back from lunch, threw his coat across the room onto the coat rack, and the coat rack collapsed into many small pieces. Another Disney artist, Bob Moore, remembers fellow artist Freddie Moore nailing a small target at the end of a long hallway along which were the rooms of many artists. Mr. Moore did not think anything about it at first, but then an arrow came flying down the hall and into the target. His fellow artists were using the hallway for archery practice. Bob Moore remembers, “You had to have a white flag on a stick if you wanted to get out of your room.” Walt Kelly loved his wife. Once, she criticized a hat that he was wearing and did not want him to wear it anymore, so he had it bronzed (after it was formed into the shape of a heart), and then he filled it with orchids and gave it to her for Valentine’s Day.

Early in his career, cartoon director Chuck Jones of Bugs Bunny fame used to work with a boss named Ray Katz, who would go around and check up on animators to make sure that they were working. In fact, many of the animators sometimes slept on the job. One animator who suffered from insomnia — he was unable to sleep on the job — rigged up a system to let people know when Mr. Katz was coming. A red light in each office would shine, and anyone who was awake would wake up everybody who was asleep. The system worked well — Mr. Katz never caught an animator sleeping. However, the writers and directors were also hooked up to the system, and they did not work for Mr. Katz, and so he never caught a writer or director working. They always hid their work and began reading a newspaper or polishing their shoes when the alarm went on. Whenever the alarm system let everybody know that Mr. Katz was no longer around, the animators would go back to sleep, and the writers and directors would go back to work.

Mel Blanc, the voice of such cartoon characters as Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, and Daffy Duck, once played a practical joke on a friend (also a jokester who had victimized Mr. Blanc a few times) who owned two restaurants. He telephoned his friend, and pretended to be a female officer at the Water Works: “This is to alert you that due to a broken water main, all water will be shut off in approximately one hour.” He then viewed the proceedings from a good vantage point. Employees at both restaurants were filling pots and pans with water so that they could continue to stay open after the water was shut off. He waited for a while and telephoned again, again using the woman’s voice: “I’m sorry to have inconvenienced you, but I’ve made a terrible mistake. The water will not be shut off until tomorrow night.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” played many pranks during his life. As a first-year student at Oxford, he played the female character of Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play “The Rivals.” He and the other actors visited a tea-shop, wearing overcoats while on the train, but taking them off and revealing their costumes in the tea-shop. Later, when he was an Oxford don, he would sometimes dress as an Anglo-Saxon warrior and, wielding an axe, chase after a startled neighbor. Also, during lectures he would say that leprechauns existed — to prove their existence, he would take out of his pocket and display a pair of four-inch-long green shoes. And when he was an old man, he would buy something and sometimes hand the storekeeper the money needed to buy the item — along with his false teeth.

Roger Ebert had a great admiration for actress Katherine Harrold. When he and Gene Siskel were reviewing on TV a horror movie she had starred in, Mr. Ebert thought that she was very effective and Mr. Siskel accused him of being partial to her and said to him, “Instead of reviewing her movie, why don’t you ask her to dinner?” Soon afterward, a letter arrived from Ms. Harrold, saying to Mr. Ebert that she had enjoyed the review and inviting him to go out to dinner with her the next time he was in New York. Mr. Ebert asked Mr. Siskel if he had written the letter as a practical joke. Mr. Siskel said that yes, he had. But the real practical joke was that Mr. Siskel had NOT written the letter.

© 2015, David Bruce, All Rights Reserved

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