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J. Shane Mercer, Published March 01 2009

Notorious hoaxmaster visits Fargo Film Festival

Fargo media outlets, consider yourselves warned: Alan Abel is coming to town.

Abel, a notorious media prankster, is in town for the Fargo Film Festival, which runs Tuesday through Saturday. He’s the prime subject of the documentary “Abel Raises Cain,” which screens at the Fargo Film Festival at 7:45 p.m. Saturday, and he’ll be on hand for a Q-and-A session following the screening.

As a journalist, it’s hard not to be a bit on guard at the prospect of interviewing Abel. And it’s probably a good idea. For decades he’s been perpetrating hoaxes on the media from grabbing headlines with a false campaign to clothe animals to faking a wedding of former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

The hoaxmaster’s schemes are outlandish. Starting in 1959, he spent years promoting a fake group called S.I.N.A., the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, which called for animals to be clothed. Abel says the San Francisco Chronicle ran two banner headlines saying the campaign was coming to town. And it did, with its backers declaring the San Francisco Zoo to be a “moral disaster area.”

According to Abel’s Web site, the group pulled the wool over the eyes of folks at “The Tonight Show,” the “Today” show and the “CBS Evening News” with Walter Kronkite.

It was good fun, no doubt, but not just fun.

“There’s always been some justification for doing the spoof,” Abel says during an interview from his home in Easton, Conn.

S.I.N.A. was a “protest against censorship,” he says. “Why not put pants on them … because we’re censoring everything else? We’re censoring films, records, movies and whatnot; why not censor those naked animals?”

Abel’s daughter, Jenny, co-directed the film.

“I think in reality he’s a satirist, you know like a modern-day Jonathan Swift – not with all of his pranks, but many of them,” she says. “I believe that my dad is doing satire, but he’s also a culture jammer, and I think that he’s also an activist in many regards. It’s just that his kind of activism, people don’t know how to deal with it because it’s so different.”

For another prank, Abel adopted the persona of Omar the Beggar in the 1970s and 1980s. Omar made waves by supposedly founding a school in which he taught people to be professional panhandlers. At his school he taught his “students” the craft of effective panhandling. Among the keys to good panhandling was a good story.

For example, you might put ketchup on your sleeve and claim, “I’ve just been mugged and I need cab fare to the hospital.”

“Well,” says Abel. “They can’t give you a quarter for that, they’ve got to give you folding money for that.”

Then there was his fake euthanasia business. In response to the storm of headlines about Jack Kevorkian in the 1990s, he created a fake business that purported to offer euthanasia cruises aboard a boat called “The Last Supper.” The deck of the boat was to be greased, the rail removed and the boat would tilt, dumping the passengers to their death as an organ played a hymn.

“I was flooded with people who were not just terminally ill, but people who figured they had nothing left in life to live for,” Abel says.

On one occasion during that hoax, he and an actor who was supposed to be planning to go on one of the cruises met with a reporter at a restaurant. The actor told his sad tale.

“And everybody in that restaurant, they were just like in a catatonic state. They could not believe what they were hearing as he was pouring out his life story,” Abel says. “He had nothing left to live (for). He wasn’t married. He was 40 years old. He had no relatives. All he had was a dog … And he started to cry.

“And it was the craziest situation I think I’ve ever been in my life,” Abel says.

The list goes on. He promoted a bogus Ku Klux Klan Symphony, led a fake campaign to ban breast- feeding and succeeded in getting his own obituary put in the New York Times.

“It was the first time that the New York Times ever had to retract an obituary,” he says.

But Abel says he never “crossed that line into fraud.” In fact, he says that during the animal-clothing hoax a Santa Barbara woman sent him a check for $40,000 – in the 1960s.

“And I sent the check back and said I only accepted money from my relatives,” he says.

There’s no single answer as to how Abel and his wife have been able to make a living through the years. Jenny Abel calls her parents jacks of all trades. Abel had a wealthy backer for years. Jeanne makes miniature decorative items. They’ve done some writing and made a film called “Is There Sex After Death?” Abel also does some consulting and lectures.

Jenny Abel says the documentary, which took the Fargo Film Festival’s prize for best documentary feature, “was kind of one of those things where I couldn’t not do it.”

“I felt like I was the only one who could tell the story in a way that I knew it should be told,” she says.

As to why her dad does the things he does, Jenny Abel says part of it is that her dad, a talented drummer who used to play at Radio City Music Hall, is a “born performer” and enjoys making people laugh. She also says he enjoys making people think and question things.

“I’d say he also does it because he can,” she says.

And Abel has no intention of quitting. On his Web site, the last entry on his hoax timeline says “More to come … stay tuned.”

“I have a small group of people who are always ready to go out and picket and protest,” he says.

If you go

Fargo Film Festival tickets

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734