April's Fools: Niagara Falls stopped and spaghetti grows on trees

As fanciful – or foolish – as stories of Niagara Falls running dry or spaghetti growing on trees might seem, at first blush they found believers, although perhaps the people who bought into the stories hadn't yet glanced at the calendar and noticed it was April 1.

Penguins can fly, too, if you believe everything you see on April 1

If the water ever did stop rushing over Niagara Falls, tourists would not be amused. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

If the news headlines and documentaries were to be believed, water had stopped rushing over Niagara Falls and spaghetti was growing on trees in Switzerland.

As fanciful — or foolish — as the stories might sound now, at first blush they found believers, although perhaps the people who bought into the tales hadn't yet glanced at the calendar and noticed the date: April 1.

Of course, pranksters don't always hit a good mark on April Fool's Day. Then-Boston mayor Tom Menino did not take kindly to a 1998 prank by rock radio hosts Gregg (Opie) Hughes and Anthony Cumia who told listeners the civic leader had died in a car crash in Florida, for example. 

Menino was still alive, but the radio hosts' jobs were not: they were fired, although they resurfaced on a radio station in New York a few months later.

Here's a look at a few more fanciful moments from April Fool's Day in years gone by.

Niagara Falls has stopped

The powerful roar of water gushing over Niagara Falls has lured tourists for generations, so the prospect of anything seriously amiss with the natural wonder would garner considerable concern.

When the Niagara Falls Review reported that the falls had stopped because of an ice jam on April 1, 1980, The Canadian Press quickly picked up on the story.

Trouble was, the story was a fake, the creation of reporter Michael Clarkson, who told another reporter 30 years later that at the time he "thought we needed a good laugh."

And, he said in the 2010 report in the Review, there were plenty of clues suggesting the story wasn't real. There was no way there would be enough ice above the falls to create a blockage that year. Plus, a savvy reader might have wondered about one of the people Clarkson quoted in his story: a hydro worker named J.D. Salinger, who uncannily bore the same name as the famous and reclusive American author Clarkson had recently tracked down and interviewed.

"I wrote it as a joke, and I thought they'd catch it right away," Clarkson said in the Review report.

It was eventually caught, about 45 minutes later, but not before the Toronto Star almost dispatched photographers to the Falls, Clarkson said.

Spaghetti grows on trees

The BBC's flagship current affairs documentary program went out on a April Fool's Day limb in 1957, and took several viewers along with it, when it broadcast a report about a Swiss family doing their annual spaghetti harvest.

Panorama's report told the tale of a family in Ticino who would gingerly pick their pasta from a tree and then place the spaghetti sticks to dry in the sun.

The show was not an unmitigated success for the venerable British broadcaster.

"Some viewers failed to see the funny side of the broadcast and criticized the BBC for airing the item on what is supposed to be a serious factual program," the BBC says on its website.

But some people were more gullible.

"Others, however, were so intrigued they wanted to find out where they could purchase their very own spaghetti bush," the BBC says.

Still, the broadcaster did make some history with its antics.

"This is believed to be one of the first times the medium of television has been used to stage an April Fool's Day hoax," the BBC says in its online On this Day report.

Care to visit the exotic isle of San Serriffe?

The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom makes much of its April 1 tradition of giving readers something beyond the reality of everyday headlines.

"The spoof by which all others are measured is the Guardian's 1977 San Serriffe travel guide, a seven-page travel supplement to a non-existent island which was described throughout using an obscure vocabulary composed entirely of printing terms," the newspaper said in a 2013 blog posting.

"The success of this hoax is widely credited with inspiring the British media's enthusiasm for April the first jokes in subsequent years."

The idyllic island tucked somewhere in the Indian Ocean bore the shape of a semi-colon, had a leader with the moniker of Maria-Jesu Pica and a capital called Bodoni, names that might have sent up red flags for fans of fonts.

Gullible readers were taken in, but the spoof did find its own supporters: the newspaper sold San Serriffe bumper stickers and T-shirts.

A pitching prospect who tosses the ball at 168 mph

Baseball fans always live for the next great hope for their team, and New York Mets fans were mesmerized by the apparent talent of Sidd Finch, a pitching prospect who was the focus of a Sports Illustrated cover story on April 1, 1985.

Trouble was, for Mets fans anyway, Finch was a figment of the imagination of writer George Plimpton, who trotted out details like Finch being able to lob a fastball at 168 miles per hour, and that he wore only one shoe and had been to Tibet to learn yoga.

The story "instantly became its generation's War of the Worlds, leaving thousands of frenzied fans either delighted at the April Fools' prank or furious at being duped," the New York Times reported in 2005.

Sports Illustrated owned up to the hoax two weeks after the original article appeared. But Finch did find further literary life: Plimpton turned the story into a novel published two years later.

Penguins can fly

Back to the BBC, where clearly the April Fool's tradition still runs strong.

In 2008, viewers were treated to stunning nature footage that seemed to shatter that long-held evolutionary belief — based on science, of course — that penguins can't fly. And it was lovely footage.

But a savvy viewer of what was actually carefully crafted computer animation could catch on fairly quickly to the April Fool's prank.

The "documentarian" detailing the "discovery" of the penguins' feat was no David Attenborough. Rather, it was Terry Jones from the Monty Python comedy troupe.


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