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Alan Abel: The Antics of a Hoaxer Running Loose

Times Staff Writer

After the revelations that the Geraldo Rivera, Sally Jessy Raphael and Oprah Winfrey talk shows had been hoodwinked by sex-problem poseurs, some cynics thought Alan Abel was behind it all.

“I’m clean,” Abel, a veteran hoaxer, said last week.

He went so far as to swear on his New York Times obituary of 1980 that he didn’t plot the talk-show caper by part-time performers Tani Freiwald and Wes Bailey.

Still, suspicion persisted Thursday when the Raphael show got him to tape a new program with the two pretenders and Dean C. Dauw, a Chicago sex therapist whose referrals led to Freiwald’s and Bailey’s previous appearances.

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Burt Dubrow, the show’s executive producer, later said that Abel and a “plant” in the audience held a loud, angry, completely put-on argument to illustrate the point that what Abel has done in the past--including nearly flimflamming the Raphael show--was all in fun.

Dubrow said he didn’t feel that way about what Freiwald and Bailey had done--appearing as guests to discuss sexual problems that they were making up.

He said the new show will air nationally Thursday. The program is seen in Los Angeles weekdays at 1:30 p.m. on KHJ-TV Channel 9.

Before his encore appearance Thursday, Abel professed not to know why he’d been invited. “Maybe,” he quipped, “I’ll have a bucket of water fall on me, or get a well-deserved pie in the face.”

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That could well come from the hoaxed writer of Abel’s 1980 obituary, which the momentarily deceased and his allies had engineered. It said he expired in Utah while scouting locations for a horror movie.

On Resurrection Day a few days later, Abel disclosed the film’s name: “Who’s Going to Bite Your Neck, Dear, When All My Teeth Are Gone?”

Such antics can be expected of a man who over the years has driven unsuspecting reporters and talk show producers to distraction.

Among other coups, he has gotten Cable News Network, the Miami Herald, New York magazine and Newsday to bite on his “Omar School for Beggars.”

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The school, which Abel said has been listed in the Manhattan phone book for 12 years, is a put-on.

The “CBS Evening News” almost fell for it too as recently as two weeks ago. CBS spokesman Tom Goodman said the put-on wasn’t uncovered until after correspondent Harold Dow had interviewed Abel, who as a panhandler pedagogue uses the nom de scam Omar Rockford.

Omar’s story, intended to be part of a larger one on the subject of panhandlers, didn’t make it to the air.

Asked what led CBS to his school, Abel replied: “The phone book. Which is incredible. I mean, what are they doing wasting their time looking through the phone book?”

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A CNN spokeswoman confirmed Abel’s claim of success there about a year ago. He appeared as dean of Omar’s school for beggars with midday host Sonya Friedman.

“I did it while eating a peanut butter sandwich,” he explained.

A moderately round man of 62 with an often furtive look, Abel has been in the hoax business since the late 1950s, when he campaigned to put pants on animals. His battle cry: “A nude horse is a rude horse!”

His aim, he cheerfully says, is to “shake people up,” add a little levity to life and otherwise contribute to the well-being of the Republic, if not that of talk-show hosts and reporters.

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He earns a living lecturing and writing about his capers and occasionally performs them for pay at corporate functions. The rest of the time he cogitates at his home in Westport, Conn., with his wife, Jeanne, his occasional partner in hoax.

(He helped her run for President in 1964 and 1968 as Yetta Bronstein, a Bronx housewife. Her campaign slogan: “Put a Mother in the White House.”)

Abel’s mental hotfoots in recent years have included his “Females for Felons” project, in which he poses as the “mentor” for three idealistic former Junior Leaguers “who want to provide heterosexual relations for those men who don’t want to be homosexuals behind bars.” The women are actresses.

He got that venture on both the “Morton Downey Jr. Show” last year and Raphael’s show several years ago when the latter still was taped in St. Louis. But the “Raphael” show never aired.

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“Raphael” producer Dubrow said he felt something was amiss and called a pal in San Francisco. The friend told him that “Females for Felons” seemed a classic Abel hoax. Dubrow checked further, found out that it was and pulled the show.

But Abel was invited back, Dubrow said, for another show in which host Raphael let Abel elaborate on his “Felons” project--during which time she put him on with feigned anger and shouts. After he left, she dubbed voice-over explanations of what was going on for the viewing audience, Dubrow said.

But it was a clean hit for Abel when he and “Females for Felons” arrived at the Downey show. The program only aired in New York then, but was rapidly earning a reputation for its shouting, rough-and-tumble style of inquiry.

“He called me a pimp a dozen times,” the prankster mused. He said Downey, after learning he’d been had, invited him back to tell all, and engaged in a raucous “leg-puller” of a second show.

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A spokesman for Downey’s program confirmed this account.

Abel said he tried to interest Geraldo Rivera’s nationally syndicated “Geraldo” in his women-momentarily-behind-bars project, but it was no dice: “I think the Downey revelations spooked ‘em. But they don’t want to play. They want the real thing.”

Officials at all these talk shows say they check and double-check to make sure their guests are who they say they are. Credibility is at stake.

Still, Abel said, there are ways to get by the guest-verification process.

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You start by studying the shows, learning their styles, then you “come up with a concept that fits a certain niche, one that’s off-the-wall, funny, amusing, educational and has all the elements of a good story,” he said.

That done, “you have stationery printed. . . . Then you get a telephone electronic answering service. Use that service as your headquarters, because what they (show producers) do is interview you on the phone.

“And if you pass their interview . . . you’re on the air.”


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