BOSTON — ASK Harold Bengin what is popular on this first day of April, and he says, "Anything that squirts." Next are things that explode, followed by furry fake mice to secretly place in a teacher or secretary's desk drawer.
For 46 years Mr. Bengin has helped practical jokers squirt, explode, or mouse their way through April Fools' Day. Standing behind the counter of Jack's Joke Shop in Boston, Bengin says with a laugh, "This is the day to get even, and this is the oldest joke shop in America. Year after year, the old tricks are still the bestsellers."
Squirting flowers and rings, "exploding" pens, books, and cigars (toy caps create the bang), a glass of water that dribbles, a whoopee cushion to sit on - all these still surprise the unsuspecting around the world.
Only China seems reluctant to play tricks. Two years ago, an official Chinese newspaper said, "April Fools' Day jokes are an extremely bad influence." (The China Youth Daily had published a report on April 1 about real estate speculation on the moon.)
"It's a great day to honor the fact that we shouldn't take ourselves too seriously," says Joel Goodman, director of the Humor Project in Sarasota Springs, N.Y. "But there is a difference between constructive and destructive humor, and today is a day that often straddles that line."
Bengin agrees. Today is the day "to do anything that can cause havoc without being destructive. That's the key."
It is also a day for sheer goofy fun as well as elaborate hoaxes. In Fredonia, N.Y., at Aldrich's Beef and Ice Cream, all day long the big item on the menu will be Unheavenly Hash ice cream: corned beef hash mixed with vanilla ice cream. Will people actually eat it?
"Sure," says Terri Spinler, a waitress at Aldrich's for 11 years. "Hundreds of people come in for samples, and some even buy a pint to take home." Last April Fools' Day, the 12th year that Aldrich's has offered ice cream to blanch over, it was nachos and cheese mixed with vanilla.
But the worst, and therefore the best flavor, was the first. Twelve years ago it was beef gravy and vanilla. The result, according to witnesses, was a sort of wretched, brownish lard with a mild odor of wet rug.
Beyond things that squirt or strange ice cream are the straight-faced hoaxes.
Several years ago the British Broadcasting Corporation announced that beloved Big Ben would switch to digital. No more big booms on the hour. The hands of the famous clock would be given away. Brits were not fooled.
Perhaps the most believed April Fool hoax of all time was the hazy photo purported to be an image of the Loch Ness monster taken decades ago. It was faked by a prominent surgeon. Not until 1994 was the hoax revealed.
A hoax that turned Boston upside down for several days occurred in the late 1920s. John Gould, the legendary Maine humorist who has written a column for this newspaper for more than 50 years, was there to watch it.
"On the front page of the old Boston Post," Mr. Gould recalls, "was a brief item announcing that the great Norwegian explorer, Loof Lirpa, was going to deliver an address at Harvard that night, and the public was invited."
Hundreds converged in Harvard Yard at the announced time, milling about until the police arrived. Eventually the men in blue concluded that Loof Lirpa was a hoax. "Sharp-eyed people knew that Loof Lirpa is 'April Fool' spelled backward," Gould says. "Harvard was embarrassed. The hoax has lived on in the hearts of journalists who knew about it."
Joe Boskin, a history professor at Boston University, recalls an April Fools' Day about 10 years ago. A New York-based Associated Press reporter asked Mr. Boskin about the history of April Fools' Day. Responding in the spirit of the day, and thinking the reporter knew he was jesting, Boskin made up a story on the spot.
"I told him it began in the 4th century AD during the reign of King Constantine," Boskin says, laughing. "One of the court jesters proposed that he be king for the day and be called King Kugel - and kugel is a Jewish noodle dish. And so the reporter wrote it all down as the origin of April Fools' Day and said I had done original research."
Not until several days later, after Boskin returned from a trip and told a humor class, did the truth slip out and create a media storm.
"It was written up in some 200 newspapers," Boskin says, "and I was interviewed on 'The Today Show' and others. The head of the New England Associated Press actually called me a liar. I thought the reporter knew I was kidding him. He wanted to know the name of the jester, which I said was Kugel, and I thought if anybody should know, a New York reporter should know about kugel."
Some scholars say April Fools' Day began when Marco Polo was in China around AD 1272. In the area known as Pamir he found wild sheep of huge size known as "Phulis Aprilus." One horn of the sheep was solid and the other was hollow. When the beast was slain, the hunter guessed which horn was solid. If he guessed wrong he was known as an "Aprilus Phulis."
Others insist that this is the origin of Halloween.