April fooled you once, twice ...

Posted Tuesday, Apr. 01, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

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Loathed by some, embraced by others, April Fools’ Day is a curious and even sadistic holiday. Instead of plying your pals with cards, candy or flowers, you try to humiliate or confuse them with pranks, jokes or gags. It’s like Halloween, but without the treats, parties, haunted houses or costumes — just the tricks.

It’s only fitting that April Fools’ Day has a history that is shrouded in mystery. Though theories abound, no one really knows where or when the holiday originated.

The most popular theory is that it began in Europe during the 16th century, when the Gregorian calendar (named after Pope Gregory XIII), which started the new year on Jan. 1, replaced the Julian calendar (established by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C.), which had started it on April 1.

Supposedly, those who did not adapt to the change and attempted to celebrate New Year’s Day on April 1 were called “April fools.”

Another common theory ties April Fools’ Day to the onset of spring and the way it often “fools” humankind with unpredictable weather. Given the cool days we’ve had here in North Texas recently, this is not an entirely unreasonable hypothesis.

Regardless of its origins, April Fools’ Day is an unavoidable occurrence each year. Even celebrities, news outlets and other noteworthy entities get in on the act. Here are a few of the more infamous pranks pulled over the years.

Animal antics

• Remember the days when neighborhood dogs were free to roam the streets? In 1965, a Copenhagen newspaper, citing road safety, reported that the Danish parliament was ordering citizens to paint their pooches white in order for them to be seen more easily at night.

No word on how many Fidos, Rovers or Spots (or the Danish equivalents thereof) had their coats coated with aerosol paint, but you can bet it was a sticky mess (and potentially a very unhealthy one for the painted pups).

• Equally odd was a 1980 Soldier magazine report that the fur on the bearskin helmets worn by Buckingham Palace guards grows and must be trimmed periodically. Backed by pseudo-science and a relatively convincing barbershop photo, the phony scoop was picked up and run as the real deal by the London Daily Express.

• Discover Magazine was behind a 1995 story that a new species — the hotheaded naked ice borer — had been discovered by a wildlife biologist in Antarctica. This fanged, plate-headed creature could supposedly bore/melt its way through ice to ensnare unsuspecting penguins.

The penguin-poaching prank must have been convincing because it spawned an avalanche of reader mail.

• Speaking of penguins, according to a 2008 report by the BBC, the formerly flightless fowl could now fly the friendly skies. Or at least a certain species could. While producing its series, Miracles of Evolution, the BBC released an instantly viral April 1 video of airborne Adélie penguins heading south for the winter. Of course, it was all done through the magic of special effects.

Food hoaxes

• In 1957, in what was perhaps the first April Fools’ Day prank delivered via television, a British news show called Panorama had thousands of people convinced that spaghetti grew on trees. In southern Switzerland, there was reportedly a springtime bumper crop of spaghetti trees, as evidenced by faux film footage of women perched on ladders, picking pasta off the branches and placing it in baskets.

At the end of the three-minute “news” segment, the erudite-sounding broadcaster said, “For those who love this dish, there’s nothing like real, homegrown spaghetti.”

• Taco Bell caused patriotic panic in 1996 when it ran a full-page ad in the Dallas Morning News (and five other major newspapers), stating that it had purchased the Liberty Bell, “one of our country’s most beloved historic treasures. It will now be called ‘Taco Liberty Bell’ and will still be accessible to the American public for viewing. While some may find this controversial, we hope our move will prompt other corporations to take similar action to do their part to reduce the country’s debt.”

The ad did indeed create controversy as thousands of concerned citizens deluged Taco Bell’s corporate headquarters and the National Park Service in Philadelphia with angry phone calls.

• Another fast-food chain, Burger King, cooked up a whopper of an April Fools’ hoax in 1998 with the introduction (via USA Today) of the “Left-Handed Whopper,” a burger created to cater to the many southpaws inconvenienced by such everyday objects as potato peelers and spiral notebooks.

Despite the roundness of the Whopper, the ruse worked, and legions of customers descended on Burger Kings across the country, requesting the special sandwich, which supposedly had condiments that were “rotated 180 degrees.” Curiously, Burger King also reported that many right-handers came in looking for their “own version” of the bogus burger.

Political pranks

• In this post-9-11 era, no reporter would instigate a hoax like that of journalist Cedric Parker, who in 1933 wrote a pseudo story for The Capital Times detailing the collapse of the Wisconsin State Capitol. The front-page feature was clearly tongue-in-cheek, claiming the explosion was possibly caused by the ignition of the “large quantities of gas, generated through many weeks of verbose debate in the Senate and Assembly chambers.”

Although the photo of the dome toppling off the statehouse was accompanied by a small “April Fool!” warning, many readers were upset.

• While most April Fools’ tricks are constructed strictly for laughs, some are intended to prove a point. The latter holds true with Tom Moore and Lane Denton of the Texas House of Representatives, who sponsored a resolution in 1971 to honor the “dedication and devotion” of one Albert DeSalvo, better known as the “Boston Strangler.” It was unanimously approved.

“No one reads these bills or resolutions,” Moore said prior to withdrawing the resolution. “If someone gets up and says it's a good proposal, then everybody votes yes without reading it or even giving it a good second thought.”

• In 1991, NPR’s Morning Edition pulled off a “kinder, gentler” prank when they reported that George H.W. Bush had agreed to be the Democratic presidential candidate, potentially kicking off an unparalleled period of bipartisanship in our country.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater was in on the joke, saying Bush would “gladly accept the head of both parties, also the Whig Party and the Tory Party.”

Science mischief

• Predating the food synthesizer in Star Trek by nearly a century, the New York Graphic announced in 1878 the invention by Thomas Edison of the “food creator,” which was a “machine that will feed the human race,” turning “air, water and common earth” into “biscuit, meat, vegetables and wine.”

Regrettably, despite Edison’s innovative genius, the notion remains a sci-fi fantasy.

• The value of pie is obvious: It’s delicious. The value of pi, on the other hand, is open to interpretation, at least according to the April 1998 issue of the New Mexicans for Science and Reason newsletter, which claimed that the state of Alabama was changing it from 3.14159 to the “biblical value” of 3.0.

The story went viral on the Web but was merely a prank poking fun at those trying to eliminate the teaching of evolution from the classroom.

• Years before Disney bought Marvel Comics, the Muppets and Lucasfilm, the “House of the Mouse” purchased MIT. Or so many believed when, in 1998, students hacked into the school’s computer system and altered the school’s website to say, “The Massachusetts Institute of Technology: A Division of the Walt Disney Company.”

Mouse-ear graphics and an accompanying press release lent additional verisimilitude to the hoax.

Sports stunts

• In 1963, Cassius Clay, who would later become Muhammad Ali, was known almost as much for his witticisms as for his boxing skills. Clay was a primo pugilist to be sure, but he could also trade barbs with the best of them.

Even so, it shocked the intelligentsia when the Yale Literary Magazine announced — tongue planted firmly in proverbial cheek — that he had won a prestigious poetry award for his “mockery of the loose trochee, culminating in shocking spondees in the penultimate lines, and the final heavy line in irregular iambics,” which produced “stanzas almost perfectly orchestrated.”

• Since the early 1950s, Peanuts fans have enjoyed watching Charlie Brown try to kick the football, only to have Lucy van Pelt pull it away at the last second. In a strip published April 1, 1970, Lucy pulled a prank of a different sort (or should that be sport?), telling Charlie Brown that the legendary Ted Williams was at the door, wanting “some advice on how to manage a baseball team.”

Naturally, the “Round-Headed Kid” fell for it, saying, “It could have happened.”

• For better or worse, Mark Cuban, the feisty owner of the Dallas Mavericks, has a habit of screaming at the referees when he perceives that his team has been the victim of a bad call. So it was easy for the fans attending the Mavs’ home game against the New Orleans Hornets on April 1, 2003, to believe that he actually got in a basket-brawl with a ref during the second quarter.

Fortunately, it was all staged. Like most April Fools’ pranksters, Cuban’s bark is clearly worse than his bite.

Sources: news.discovery.com, www.museumofhoaxes.com, www.huffingtonpost.com, www.mirror.co.uk

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