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Alan Abel, professional hoaxer and '20th century court jester,' dies at 94

Alan Abel, professional hoaxer and '20th century court jester,' dies at 94
Jenny and Alan Abel in front of the White House, in a photo from the Slamdance documentary "Abel Raises Cain." Alan Abel died Sept. 14 at age 94. (Bob Pagan)

His props included pantaloon for a kangaroo, a burlap sack for a deer, Bermuda shorts for a horse and a muumuu for a cow. And with a purported army of tens of thousands of followers, Alan Abel set out on a moralistic crusade to clothe "any animal that stands higher than 4 inches or longer than 6."

His organization, the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, had a name that was apparently antithetical to its mission, and a president — a prudish, bespectacled gentleman named G. Clifford Prout — who looked suspiciously like comedian Buck Henry and declared that “a nude horse is a rude horse.”

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Founded in the late 1950s, based in a New York City broom closet that Abel said he rented for $5 a month, SINA supporters went on to draw shorts over Greyhound’s canine logos; organize a protest at the Kennedy White House, where they urged the first lady to clothe her bay gelding; and air-drop clothing onto a cow pasture, because “decency today means morality tomorrow.”

It was all a hoax, the first in a long series of escapades that would establish Abel as one of the world's most outre pranksters. Before he directed Henry to reveal the organization as a joke, in a 1964 interview with Time magazine, the group drew the attention of the New York Times, Life magazine, Johnny Carson, Walter Cronkite and even the Internal Revenue Service, which inquired about its putative $400,000 endowment.

“I like to give people a kick in the intellect,” Abel later explained to the Chicago Tribune. “It's an adventure in absurdity, an adult fairy tale…. Besides, the sane and sensible people don’t seem to be enjoying themselves very much. When was the last time you saw a banker smile? Or a lawyer laugh?”

Abel, 94, died Sept. 14 at his home in Southbury, Conn., nearly 40 years after he managed to fake his own death and get it printed in the New York Times. The initial accounts, also picked up by the New York Daily News, reported that he suffered a fatal heart attack while scouting locations for a horror movie he was said to be filming, titled “Who’s Going to Bite Your Neck, Dear, When All of My Teeth Are Gone?”

Those reports were retracted after Abel appeared at a news conference to disprove his premature passing. In orchestrating what he later described, punningly, as “a tremendous undertaking,” he had enlisted a dozen friends in the hoax and had even made a down payment for a wake.

“Now,” he lamented, “when I really die, I’m afraid no one will believe it.”

Abel’s death, by all accounts entirely real this time, was confirmed by the Carpino Funeral Home in Southbury as well as by his daughter, Jenny Abel, who said he had congestive heart failure as well as bladder and prostate cancer.

A self-described “20th century court jester,” Abel said he realized he had a penchant for making people laugh while in college, when he accidentally fell into the orchestra pit while walking onstage to deliver a lecture on music.

He worked as a concert drummer and percussionist before becoming a full-time hoax artist, arranging “allegorical satires,” as he once called them, that made him a forerunner to satirists such as Stephen Colbert and Sacha Baron Cohen.

Among his earliest hoaxes was a political campaign for one Yetta Bronstein, a fictitious Jewish homemaker from the Bronx who sought the presidency in 1964 and 1968. With the slogans “Put a mother in the White House” and “Vote for Yetta and things will get betta,” Bronstein — voiced by Abel's wife and frequent collaborator, Jeanne Abel — ran on a platform that included replacing congressmen's salaries with commissions and putting truth serum into the Senate water fountain.

Abel was involved in a host of other gags, many of which targeted censorship attempts and hoodwinked credulous reporters.

Amid John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s bed-in interviews and nude photo shoots, Abel devised the First Topless String Quartet (“Bach with breasts,” Life reported flatly). He announced the creation of an International Sex Bowl, an Olympics-style event in which couples competed to demonstrate coital excellence. He also hired actors to stage a fake wedding for Ugandan dictator Idi Amin at the Plaza Hotel in New York.

Abel was also responsible for an infamous infiltration of “The Phil Donahue Show” soon after it began broadcasting live in 1985. Responding to what he saw as the growing sensationalism of American talk shows, Abel placed several pranksters in the audience for one episode and had them faint whenever Donahue approached with the microphone.

“His producer told me he kicked the furniture in his office, he was so upset,” Abel told Esquire magazine in 2011. “It really threw him out of control…. Then his ratings went up and he was very pleased. Phil sent me a Christmas card that said: ‘Hope nothing causes you to feel faint in the next year.’ ”

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While Abel received some financial support from well-heeled backers, a group of people “who lived vicariously through his hoaxing,” as his daughter put it, he struggled at times to pay the bills. He eventually lost his house to creditors.

His pranks, he said, were never about the money — and he never accepted any donations made out to him or his organizations.

“Even with clothing naked animals, there were people who wanted to send in money,” he told Esquire. A Santa Barbara woman “sent a $40,000 check. I fondled it for about five minutes and then sent it back. I told her I couldn't accept money from strangers.”

Alan Irwin Abel was born in Zanesville, Ohio, on Aug. 2, 1924, and raised in nearby Coshocton. His mother wrote book reviews and accompanied silent films on the piano; his father, the son of a Lithuanian immigrant, ran a general store.

“He’d put ‘Limit — two to a customer’ in front of the things that wouldn’t sell, and they’d be gone in a minute,” Abel told the New Yorker. “Maybe the learning experience in this is that you shouldn’t believe everything you read.”

Abel graduated from Ohio State University in 1950. He was working as a musician, drumming with groups including the Radio City Music Hall orchestra, when he found himself caught in a traffic jam during a drive through Texas. The delay was caused by a cow and bull mating on the highway.

The incident, which spurred chagrined expressions on the faces of some of Abel’s fellow travelers, inspired him to write a satirical story about clothing animals. After the Saturday Evening Post rejected the article, believing it was sincere, he decided to found SINA.

While conducting his pranks, Abel also led creativity workshops at the New School in New York and lectured on advertising and promotion. He wrote several books, including “The Great American Hoax” and “The Confessions of a Hoaxer,” and penned a humor column for the San Francisco Chronicle and Gannett newspapers.

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With his wife, he produced and directed the mockumentary films “Is There Sex After Death?” and “The Faking of the President.” He was featured in the 2005 documentary “Abel Raises Cain,” directed by his daughter and her husband, Jeff Hockett.

In addition to his daughter, of Collinsville, Conn., survivors include his wife of 59 years, the former Jeanne Allgeier of Southbury, and a grandson.

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