‘Can I speak with Miss Phoule? First name, April?’

A long-forgotten April 1 Milwaukee Tradition

Mar. 30, 2017
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aprilfools
A gag photo of the Washington Park Zoo’s lion keeper, taken in anticipation of April Fool’s Day.

It never seemed out of the ordinary. A missed call note was left on the desk of some unassuming Milwaukeean, found when they returned from lunch or a trip to the bathroom or a meeting. It noted that someone had called for them and requested that they call them back. There was a name and a number. The number was usually West 0492 – not a number most people would recognize. The name was varied. Perhaps it was “Mr. Fox.” The person finding the note did not know any Mr. Fox, but dealt with lots of people they couldn’t immediately place by last name. So the person picked up the phone, dialed the number and asked for Mr. Fox. The voice on the other end of the line groaned and replied curtly that Mr. Fox was unavailable and would not be available later or tomorrow or next week or ever. The caller was taken aback and started to explain that they were simply returning… “Look at your calenderer, dummy,” the voice on the other end of the phone said. “You’ve just called the zoo.”

It was, of course, the first of April. April’s Fools Day.

The art of the crank call is something that has been lost today, but back in the 1930s and ‘40s, it was annual rite for local pranksters to dupe coworkers and friends into placing embarrassing April 1 phone calls. The Washington Park Zoo was the most common target. By 1937, the Milwaukee Journal was reporting how clerks and office workers at the zoo had come to dread the holiday and constant stream of calls it brought. Throughout the day, they were forced to explain to people why they were not able to speak with Mr. Lyon, Mr. Baer, Mr. Fox, Dr. Pelican or Miss Elle Fant. Hundreds of calls also flooded the Humane Society (Mr. Curley and A. Dog were frequently requested there). The police took the unusual step of simply hanging up when someone said they needed to talk with Mr. Copper or Mr. Gunn and the county morgue wasn’t sure how to handle the requests for Mr. Mortis or Mr. Stiff. Calls to the morgue usually started just past midnight and the overnight shift there actually seemed to enjoy fielding the calls – it did wonders to break up the monotony.

By 1939, the police were also fielding several fake distress calls and responded to about a dozen made-up incidents. This was certainly no laughing matter. Calls to the zoo and similar locations were now made with repressed laughter and youthful voices, indicating that it was less often gullible adults unwittingly making the calls and more so local kids assuming themselves to be very clever. One year, the calls became such an annoyance at the zoo that the office receptionist stormed off the job mid-day.

By the late 1940s, the zoo adapted a policy of only answering the phone during select hours on April 1. Only those who had regular business with the zoo would know when to call. The national trend of April Fool’s crank calls also started to ebb around this time. By the late 1960s, the Bell System reported that April Fool’s crank calls had dropped from 10,000 annually to about a quarter of that.

More recently, a professor of folk culture at UWM has started an oral history project on the practice of the American crank call. If you have any memories of receiving (or making) such calls, you can contribute and will be paid $45 for your participation. Those interested are asked to call 414-771-3040. Ask for Prof. Sal Amander. 

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