In 1975, while New York City was in the midst of an economic meltdown, the following advertisement appeared in the Village Voice:
The Art of Panhandling, taught by a Pro. 1-week course. Good income. Contact Omar Rockford at 1182 Broadway, Room 804, NYC 10011
When media outlets caught wind of this ad, they jumped on the story. Television, radio, and newspaper reporters from all over the country wanted to find out more about this "School for Panhandlers" and its founder, Omar Rockford, a.k.a. Omar the Beggar. When members of the press and camera crews arrived at Omar's class, they encountered a room filled with eager students being lectured by a fast-talking masked man on the ins and outs of panhandling.
Omar, who wore the black hood to protect his identity, informed reporters that he taught people how to "fib and finagle" in order to get what they wanted. "It's okay to lie, as long as the means justify the ends," he would say.
The only problem was, Omar himself was a liar. There were no students. There was no school. There was no Omar. It was all a complete fabrication. The man under the hood was no stranger to the numerous media outlets that he was duping. Which is precisely why he had to keep his identity a secret.
Sixteen years earlier, an aspiring writer named Alan Abel decided to pen a satirical story about a group of citizens who wanted to clothe all animals for the sake of decency. It was a humorous commentary on censorship, but magazine editors, to whom he submitted the story, took his Swiftian proposal seriously. They actually believed that the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA) was real.
So Abel took this idea a step further. He hired his friend, an up-and-coming young actor named Buck Henry (The Graduate, Get Smart, 30 Rock) to play SINA' s president, G. Clifford Prout. Buck made his first appearance on The Today Show, speaking with Dave Garroway about the dangers of naked animals in our society. "The New Jersey Turnpike is a moral disaster area!" he emphatically declared. " Those naked animals grazing along the road aren't eating. They' re hanging their heads in shame!" Buck's straight-faced performance as a "moral maniac" could rival Stephen Colbert' s any day.
The media frenzy that soon followed carried over to the public. While some people became outraged at the idea that their pets were nude, and therefore lewd, others eagerly joined in on the march to clothe every horse, cat, dog and cow. In 1963, almost five years after the campaign was launched, Time Magazine finally blew the whistle on Abel's SINA hoax.
SINA was only the beginning of a unique career for Alan Abel, who some people refer to as " the world's greatest hoaxer." His satirical deadpan style has influenced performers ranging from Andy Kaufman to Sacha Baron Cohen. He was creating fake news decades before The Daily Show and The Onion were even conceived. From the Yes Men to Improv Everywhere, Abel's career has paved the way for a number of today's performance artists, culture jammers and media pranksters.
After his naked animal crusade, Alan continued masterminding scores of other allegorical satires and outlandish stunts, all with the purpose to amuse and provoke. Ultimately, with his hoaxes, Alan' s goal has always been to give people what he calls " a kick in the intellect." Taking advantage of a slow news day and presenting ideas that were absurd but believable, Alan understood journalists' soft spots for sensational stories. He knew exactly when and where to strike. New York' s local media was a frequent victim of.
Abel's other stunts included:
In his obituary, The New York Times said that he "made a point in his work of challenging the obvious and uttering the outrageous." Even though each hoax had its own underlying message, Abel's ultimate message is as important now as it' s ever been... Don' t believe everything you see, hear and read.
Happy April Fools Day, Alan.
Jeff Hockett, along with Alan's daughter Jenny Abel, co-directed the documentary Abel Raises Cain which is now available on Hulu and Netflix. The two are currently working on screenplay based on Alan Abel's life.