from "It Takes All Kinds" by Maurice Zolotow
S. S. Adams - mischief, incorporated
In the long and painful history of practical joking— which began in the paleolithic era when a caveman humorist disguised himself in the skin of a sabre-toothed tiger and scared his fellow cavemen out of their wits and continues till the present when jaded movie stars stealthily insert lighted matches in between the soles and uppers of somebody's shoe and give the victim what is known as a hotfoot—Sam Adams, a staid seventy-three-year old industrialist of Asbury Park, New Jersey, stands out like a beacon light. (In this case, probably, the beacon light explodes in your face if you go anywhere near it.)
Adams, a short, placid, chubby gentleman, with kindly watery blue eyes and a solemn unsmiling expression, is the Thomas Alva Edison of practical jokesmithing. He is famous for having invented such sadistic little contrivances as Cork Screw (number 146 in the S. S. Adams Co. catalogue: "A cork screw with a left-handed thread. Usually takes the victim several minutes to wake up"); Imitation Bed Bugs (number 19: "One of these Imitation Bed Bugs placed on a pillow will scare the ladies most to death"); and Squirting Cigarettes (number 868: "A cigarette package which resembles a popular brand contains three imitation squirting cigarettes, which may be loaded with water. The moocher gets it in the eye when he borrows one of these").
In all, Mr. Adams estimates that during his forty-six-year career as a jokesmith he has devised about 650 of these charming gadgets, and of these forty have seemed significant enough for him to patent.
Mr. Adams also manufactures his fiendish contraptions on a mass-production scale. His factory, with its ninety employees, grinds out more exploding cigars and squirting rings than all his malicious competitors combined. He does a gross business of more than $500,000, which accounts for about $3,000,000 in retail sales. The joker's novelty trade, which has some 3,800 store outlets, does a business of $4,000,000 a year. "I sell much more of my items in California than in any other state," Adams says. Vermont is the weakest territory for joker's novelties. Adams has only two customers in Vermont, and, judging from the paucity of orders, he thinks they must be starving to death. The rush season, of course, is February and March, when dealers are stocking up for the April Fool trade; but the pre-Halloween and New Year's Eve seasons are good too. March and August are the peak months for the suppliers to man's inhumanity to man.
As he gets on in years, Adams broods more and more about the excruciating phase of his business. He has nightmarish visions of little children getting hold of number 848, Sneeze Powder, "The funny powder that makes them sneeze," or jokers who carry practical jokes too far working number 14 on a weak-hearted lady (Auto Bomb: "When anyone steps on starter it shoots, whistles, discharges black smoke and shoots again")
"I guess," Adams says, in a gentle voice, shaking his large round bald head, "if I had a nickel for every time I've been cussed I'd be the richest man in the world today."
One of his few consolations is that few children buy these joker's novelties, apparently on the theory that it is cheaper simply to put a tack under Aunt Susie than pay 25 cents for number 56, the Shooting Book ("A large book which shoots when opened. Ten extra-large percussion caps are supplied with each book"). Retailers bear out Adams' contention that the overwhelming majority of buyers are men past thirty. The biggest repeat business comes from salesmen and sales executives, who are wild about joke novelties. Theatrical entertainers, dentists and fraternity men are also incurable addicts of the mechanical gag.
"The whole basic principle of a good joke novelty," Adams explains, "is that it has to be easy and simple to work. If you have to go through a lot of complications to set the stage for the gag, the public will not go for your item. The best idea is to work with an ordinary everyday object which is around the house."
The Shooting Coaster fits this definition perfectly. It is a metal coaster upon which you casually place the victim's highball. There is nothing unusual about the mise en scene. Just a nice tinkling amber highball on its round coaster on a coffee table. You don't ask the victim to take anything or to do anything. The victim only follows his normal course of action. He picks up his drink. As soon as he raises the glass, ever so slightly, an explosive device, loaded with a paper percussion cap, goes off, scaring the pants off him and frequently causing him to drop his highball right on your imported Persian rug, a result which will no doubt greatly amuse the wife of any practical joker.
"Naturally," says Adams, who speaks of these matters in a coldly analytical tone, never chuckling or grinning, "the reaction should always be unexpected. I mean, you have to say to yourself, speaking as an inventor, what is the opposite reaction I want to create from what Mr. Average Man would normally expect? I mean, if you pick up a glass of milk or water, what is the opposite reaction you expect? Naturally, if the glass leaks, that is the opposite reaction. So I invented a glass which leaks, the famous dribble glass, which is probably the most pirated item I ever had. Although I got out a patent on it, the Japs and the Germans and the fly-by-nights in this country drove me crazy with their cheap imitations of it, and they undersold me by 50 per cent. But I am happy to say that no other dribble glass ever dribbled as much as the Adams dribble glass, which is still supreme, and sells more than '500,000 a year."
The present and highly improved dribble glass is a six-ounce tumbler which has an ingenious design of grapes and grape leaves embossed near the mouth. Narrow, almost invisible, slits are cut into four of the grape leaves. The beauty of the dribble glass, according to experts in the field, is that the victim is not aware that there is anything wrong with the glass. The water doesn't overflow. It just slides down the side of the tumbler, drips into the victim's hand, and streams into his sleeve. The victim thinks his table manners are awkward. He wipes his mouth self-consciously. He looks around guiltily. He makes up his mind to sip his water gracefully, slowly. But all in vain. The dribble glass dribbles incessantly.
Another condition a joke novelty must meet if it is to attain the stature of a classic is that the victim, instead of being infuriated, must be anxious to see another poor soul hoaxed.
"When I am fooling around with a new idea," Mr. Adarns reveals, "I try to picture Mr. Average Man sitting around a cocktail lounge or in somebody's house before their weekly game of poker and I try to ask myself if this new item will go in that sort of group so if person A pulls the gag on person B, person B will get a kick out of waiting for person C to walk in and get the surprise of his life."
It was mainly for this reason that the Joy Buzzer— patent number 1845735, which Adams considers his most remarkable invention—caught on in 1932 and sold like hot Joy Buzzers, although it was priced at $1, rather high for a joker's novelty. It's 50 cents today. The Joy Buzzer is a round tin box, which is secreted in the fingers of the joker's hands. When he shakes hands with the victim, the infernal machine gives forth an ominous hum and a sharp point is pressed into the dupe's palm, giving him the illusion of an electric shock.
"When pressed on the back of somebody's neck, it feels like a live wire, or you leave it on a seat, boy, do they jump!" states Mr. Adams coldly.
Oddly enough, when practical jokers worked the buzzer they found that instead of being punched in the nose, their victims would say, "Will you pull that gag on a friend of mine I'll bring around tomorrow?" The buzzer helped to pull the S. S. Adams Co. through the depression. Mr. Adams did not lay off a single hand or cut wages.
In 1949, the two biggest rivals in the hostility industry coalesced when Fun, Inc., a Chicago outfit owned by a hard-headed and handsome ex-magician named Jules Traub, merged with S. S. Adams. Traub says that 65 per cent of the output is joke novelties, ten per cent is puzzles and 25 per cent is magic. Next to the Joy Buzzer, the hottest selling gags are the shooting fountain pen, which retails for 50 cents, and the money-making machine ($1) which turns out currency when you insert blank sheets of paper. There are trends in joker's novelties like everything else. Two years ago there was a run on masquerade gimmicks—long noses, fantastic eyeglasses, phony moustaches. The cycle now seems to be turning toward imitations— an artificial fly imprisoned in an ice-cube to be placed in your guest's highball; rubber olives and rubber cherries suitable for cocktails; and realistic-looking rubber peanuts and rubber chocolates.
Last year, Traub conceived the idea of merchandising these gimmicks through department stores, and, with the aid of Bob Reinhart, another ex-magician, he is putting out a $1 combination kit of joker's novelties for the carriage trade.
The psychology of the practical joker has never concerned Mr. Adams to any extent, as he is not of a philosophical turn of mind. He grows indignant when it is suggested that the people who purchase his products are only a cut above an imbecile.
"Listen," he says, "the smarter a man is, the more he appreciates a good laugh. The most brilliant mind I know, ex-Governor Hoffman of New Jersey, was one of my best customers. One summer, when the Governor was staying at Sea Girt, he bought over two hundred of my Pop Ball Surprises, the most expensive item in the catalogue, and he worked the gag all summer on some of the most prominent people in the political and social world."
The Pop Ball Surprise, in the super de luxe version which retails for $4.75, is a gaily wrapped package, no lugger than a shoe box, which has the appearance of a Christmas present. When the cord is untied, the sides of the box fly apart, and no less than fifty balls—enough, as Mr. Adams says, to fill a barrel—jump out of the little box. The balls, made of honeycombed tissue, are as big as oranges, but, when compressed, can be tightly fitted into a small space.
Offhand, Mr. Adams names as the most eminent practical jokers he has known or heard of, Governor Hoffman, T. Coleman du Pont (who loved number 723, Explosive Package: "Three packages tied within each other. During the process of opening there are eighteen explosions and when the last package is opened a five-foot snake jumps out"), Bob Fitzsimmons, Jack Dempsey, comedian Milton Berle, Himber, movie director W. S. Van Dyke, Orson Welles and Henry Ford.
Some years ago, Adams gave one of the Joy Buzzers to a friend, G. A. Lyon, a manufacturer of auto parts in Detroit. Lyon showed the buzzer to Ford, who was fascinated by its ingenuity. The next day Ford went through the River Rouge plant and devoted the entire day to giving electrical handshakes to foremen and minor executives of the Ford Motor Company.
Bob Fitzsimmons and Adams became fast friends in 1912 when the ex-heavyweight champion bought a farm in Dunellen, New Jersey. Fitz, a good-natured, exuberant boy who never grew up, always carried a supply of Adams' itching powder in a vest pocket and when he was introduced to a stranger he dipped his thumb into the pocket and rubbed some of the powder against the victim's wrist while saying hello. Fitzsimmons' own epidermis had grown inured to nettle-rash. He was particularly pleased, once, when he managed to switch one of the cigar bands of the brand Adams used to smoke on an Adams' exploding cigar and saw the look of amazement on Adams' face when the cigar blew up. (Incidentally, exploding cigars do not really explode. They are now worked by a small spring, tied with a bit of cord which is burned away as the cigar burns down, thus releasing the spring. It seems that about thirty years ago, a Pennsylvania miner inserted a bit of dynamite in a cigar and killed a man, and several states then passed laws against explosive cigars.)
Itching powder is nothing but the pollen from a particularly nettlesome variety of nettle. Once, Anthony Biddle, of the Philadelphia Biddies, who was an amateur pugilist of some renown, was spending the weekend at Fitzsimmons' farm. Fitzsimmons sprinkled Biddle's bed with liberal quantities of itching powder. Biddle's skin was abnormally sensitive. When he went to sleep, he experienced severe agonies and his skin broke out all over with a violent rash. When he began to run a high fever, Fitzsimmons telephoned Adams, in the middle of the night, and askcd him what to do. Adams suggested putting Biddle under a cold shower and said he would be out with a doctor as soon as he could arouse one. The doctor diagnosed Kiddle as suffering from urticaria, the most extreme form of nettle rash.
Mr. Adams is touchy about the dangerous implications of his trade, and says he never will manufacture any item which can injure a person physically or damage anybody's clothes or furniture, at any rate, beyond repair. "It ceases to be a joke when it does any serious damage," he says. "I have done a considerable amount of research on electrical shocking devices, once even fooled with a portable shocking unit that could be quickly wired to any chair, but I gave it up as I figured there was too much risk in it, as some dumbbell is liable to go out and electrocute somebody with a weak heart."
Fifteen years ago he conceived the idea of a gimmick which, when fixed, gave off realistic clouds of smoke. He invested $7,000 in a set of dies to produce the perforated lubes, bought quantities of chemicals and had ten thousand items made up as a starter. He tried the gag out on a member of the Rotary Club, of which he is past president. The victim, in whose coat pocket Adams had slipped the gimmick, saw the smoke, ripped off his coat, flung it on the Moor and stamped on it. It seemed like a natural. Then Adams read an article about theatre panics. He pictured some dimwitted joker placing it in somebody's overcoat in a theatre and starting a panic. So he dropped the whole idea and never shipped a single smoke-maker.
The S. S. Adams Co. takes up forty thousand square feet of space in three buildings, located by the railroad depot at Bradley Beach, which is one of a series of summer-resort towns located on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in northern New Jersey. Approaching the factory, you imagine you are about to enter an old public building, as the main plant is a long three-story colonial edifice, with ivy twining over its faded red-brick walls. A clock tower over the entrance gives it the mellowed air of the old State House in Boston.
On the ground floor, dozens of men and women, with the intensity of watchmakers, are placing explosive springs into cigars and percussion caps into books. Others, working on the thirty punch presses and five power presses, are stamping out imitation ink blots and imitation black-widow spiders from sheets of tin. Lathes, milling machines, jigsaws, scrollsaws are methodically grinding out their quota of deviltry. Adams owns two of those remarkable automatic machines which, when a piece of metal is fed into their maws, turn out a completed joker's novelty in five quick operations. One of the machines does everything but hand the item to a victim and laugh.
Adams sits at an unpretentious desk in a large office, facing the railroad tracks. The office staff of five girls works in the same room. Most of the day he is either trying to perfect new devices—he brings out twenty new ones each year—or improving old items. His pockets bulge with half-completed gadgets and with memoranda which he writes to himself. He jots ideas on the back of match-packs, envelopes, scraps of paper. One reads: "Exploding apples, bananas, in fruit bowl? Shooting fruit bowl? Ha ha." There is a drawing of a bowl with esoteric marks on it, indicating some hidden mechanism. Ideas, he says, may come from anywhere, and they usually come suddenly, without any conscious effort on his part, out of the blue.
Once his son, then fourteen years old, came home with lipstick smears on his cheeks and his mother upbraided him for going to kissing parties. This gave Adams the idea for Hot Lips (number 244: "When these soft rubber lips are pressed against a victim's cheeks they impart a perfect kiss."). Hot Lips has caused untold amounts of trouble to uxorious victims of the gag, who had much I feeble explaining to do to their wives as to how a cupid's bow smear happened to be on their shirt fronts.
Each week, Adams receives several letters from amateur invventors. Their ideas are usually either stale, impractical or expensive. One chap in Cochranton, Pa., has been submitting unusable ideas for twenty years. Typical of the weird suggestions is this one from a chap in Portland, Ore.:
What do you think of this idea? I know you put out the large red rubber thumb for hitch hikers a few years ago. Why not now a large skin-flesh colored cloth thumb to slip over the red thumb; made up with the nail part painted with phosphorus paint to hitch hike at night. It glows. Or even made cheap out of cardboard or papier-mâché molded. Or a tiny red glass reflector or mirror stuck where nail is located which will glitter when auto headlights shine on it.
"You can see," says Mr. Adams, with editorial crisp-ness, "that this man has not given the basic elements of a joker's novelty much deep thought."
The future Ford of foolery was born Soren Sorenson Adams in Aarhus, Denmark, in 1869. His father was a sabot maker, who removed to Perth Amboy, N. J., when Sam—as he has always been called—was two years old. Sam never attended high school. In public school, he was a mischievous boy, but probably no more so than the average boy. He put salt in the sugar bowl and pulled chairs out when people prepared to sit down. At twelve he went to work as a printer's devil for the Middlesex Democrat., a weekly paper published in Plainfield, N. J. He received $1 a week. In his spare time he studied the art of pool and became such a competent technician that he took up pool playing as a livelihood and made a nice income on side bets.
He then discovered he had a flair for shooting and he took up trapshooting professionally and, for years, entered competitions all over the country. In between meets, he was a picture-frame salesman. In 1904, he shot 97 out of 100 at the Grand American Handicap in Indianapolis. This year was also significant as marking his first budding as a practical joker. He had always loved a little joke and frequently gave out iron cigars and exploding cigars, which were then sold as a sideline by postcard novelty shops at resort towns. Once, when he was courting a girl, he placed an imitation tin fly in her soup; the girl didn't see the humor of it and broke off their relationship.
In 1904, he was a salesman for a dye company, one of whose products was a German coal-tar derivative with which the firm had been having difficulty as the people who processed it found it made them sneeze. At great expense, Sam's company refined the sneezing ingredient out. They had barrels of the ingredient lying around and, one day, Sam took some of the powder, a murky grayish stuff, and placed it in a bottle. The next time he saw a chance he placed some powder on the back of his hand and blew it into a roomful of people. The resulting consternation made him laugh his head off. After that, he was never without some sneezing powder and soon friends began asking him for the powder. It occurred to him I here were commercial possibilities in all this.
When he became dissatisfied with a hotel he was operating in York, Pa., he sold out his half-interest to a partner or $1,500 and set himself up as the Cachoo Sneeze Powder Company in a one-room office and factory in an office building in Plainfield, N. J. He soon changed the firm name to S. S. Adams and Co., as the makers of bottles and corks were chary of extending credit to anything as bizarre as the Cachoo Sneeze Powder Company. At first, Adams did all the work himself. A chemist in Newark refined the powder for him. (To this day, Adams is mysterious about the name of the coal-tar dye or the identity of the sneeze powder.) Adams, himself, poured it into bottles, corked it, packaged it, and went out to sell it to novelty shops. Finally, George Zorn and Co. of Philadelphia, which retailed paper hats and noisemakers for parties, ordered several gross and when they moved quickly, they ordered fifty thousand bottles of Cachoo. The first year Adams sold $15,000 worth of Cachoo. Cachoo became a national craze. Church services, school sessions, theatre performances, political meetings were thrown into disorder by clouds of sneezing powder. Newspapers wrote editorials against it. Fights in saloons started as a result of it. The mucous membranes in the noses of thousands of Americans were irreparably weakened as a result of too much Cachoo.
Adams followed up Cachoo with a Shooting Cigarette Box and a Shooting Book, the latter bearing a deceptive over reading, A Night in Paris. The following year he was out with the dribble glass. 1910 was chiefly important lot his discovery of jumping-snake items. His first snake whimsy was a three-foot serpent in a jar of jam. He developed a reddish preparation which, when mixed with birdseed and painted around the inside of a jar, perfectly resembled the look of strawberry jam. "No one has ever touched my improved jam formula," he says. "It's a funny thing, but if you took my jar of jam and put it alongside a real jar of jam it looked better than the real jam. Strive as they will, the Japs or Germans or nobody in this country could touch it."
The snakes are, currently, five feet long and constructed of springs encased in green cambric, and you can buy them in cold-cream jars, peanut-brittle cans and marshmallow cans.
Adams also has an eight-foot snake in a large jar which he has never marketed. "Biggest darn jumping snake in the whole world," he says proudly. He likes to show it off to visitors at the plant.
Mr. Adams is legally separated from his wife, a fact which may cause no surprise to any wife of a practical joker, although Mr. Adams has long ago ceased playing practical jokes on his friends and neighbors and hasn't given away an explosive cigar or a shooting book for twenty years. He has two married daughters and a son, Joseph "Bud" Adams, thirty-five years old, who is now a partner in the firm and is in complete charge of all production. Bud is beginning to show propensities as a joke novelty inventor. Not long ago, Traub put on his suit coat before going out to lunch. He suddenly became aware of a very noticeable stink in the office. He looked all around, under desks and chairs, wondering if there was a dead fish around or if somebody on the office staff had forgotten to apply some underarm deodorant.
Finally, he asked Bud, "Do you smell anything funny?"
Bud agreed he did.
"Where do you think it's coming from?"
"I hate to say this, Jules, but I think it's coming from you."
Traub blushed and then asked several of the office girls.
They all, after some hesitation, verified Bud's observation.
Just when Traub was getting ready to go home and shower, Bud revealed that he had secreted a rag doused in fish glue in the breast pocket of Traub's coat. They next played the trick on Sam Adams, and it was the first time Bud had ever pulled one on the old man. Adams and Traub are now exploring the possibilities of commercially marketing the stink-rag.
Adams as a person is a cold, remote, quite detached individual, who has all the signs of being unable to give or receive warmth and intimacy. For forty years, all his dreams and energies have been channeled into his business. Even though he suffered great anguish from a duodenal ulcer, he would not take the time out to have it removed. When Traub entered the business, Adams went to Johns Hopkins for the ulcer operation. A few hours after the operation, Bud went to visit his father, and he found him sitting up in bed and trying to sell a Baltimore dealer some of the latest items in the Adams catalogue.
Adams lives alone in a small four-room apartment at the Loch Arbor Arms in Asbury Park. There are no collapsing chairs or exploding books around the place, which is furnished modestly with Grand Rapids non-shooting furniture. There is a little balcony outside his living room. Dining the late Sunday afternoons, in warm weather, Adams likes to stand on the balcony and take the air.
From where he stands he can see the boardwalk and the ocean and watch the bathers disporting on the beach.
"It gave me an idea," he says, "upon which I have been spending a good deal of thought: a bathing suit made of a material that would disintegrate when the victim went into the water. Can't you just picture the look of surprise on their faces! Boy, it sure would be a darn funny joke novelty, but I haven't perfected it. However, I am still working on the idea!"