The Joker Is Mild 

Gentlemanly joking from the Fred Russell archives

Gentlemanly joking from the Fred Russell archives

Russell’s friend Francis Robinson, who later became an assistant manager at the Metropolitan Opera, had an impersonator’s gift, and Russell knew how to employ it. At the 1936 Vanderbilt football banquet, alums and contributors were told they were about to hear a live radio hookup from Chancellor James Kirkland. The boosters squirmed uneasily throughout the “broadcast,” in which the speaker chastized their allegedly deficient support. None of them knew that the voice, a dead-on imitation of Kirkland, really came from Robinson, stationed in a phone booth outside.

Sportswriters across the country tell of Russell’s stay at a Chicago hotel during the weekend of a Vanderbilt-Northwestern football game. Checking in ahead of Russell was a large, overbearing woman who loudly bombarded the desk clerk with her demands and expectations.

“Be absolutely sure,” she warned huffily, “that I receive a wake-up call at 7 a.m.”

When the woman repeated her room number for emphasis, Russell jotted it down. That night, he set his own alarm for an early hour. At 6:55 a.m., he dialed the woman’s room.

“Good morning,” he announced cheerfully when the woman answered. “This is your wake-up call. It’s time to get your fat ass out of bed!” Then he scurried down to the lobby to watch the fun as the aggrieved woman thundered off the elevator and lit into the dumbfounded clerk.

Behind the plate one hot summer night at Sulphur Dell was a “fat, noticeably nervous young umpire freshly promoted from the Southeastern League.” In the dugout was Fresco Thompson, a crusty manager for the Birmingham Barons and habitual umpire baiter. In the press box, serendipitously, was Russell.

Thompson, true to form, rode the ump mercilessly, maintaining, in Russell’s words, “a steady flow of uncomplimentary remarks.”

In the daintiest backhand cursive he could muster, Russell composed a note and had a press-box boy deliver it. “Dear Mr. Thompson,” it read, “I drove all the way from Dothan, Ala., to see my nephew umpire his first Southern League game, and I will appreciate it very much if you will quit saying such ugly things to him. Lou Ella Brown.”

For several innings, Thompson respectfully maintained silence. But after a close play at the plate went against his team in the seventh, he could no longer contain himself. He kicked dirt and resumed his verbal vilifications.

Moments later, the manager received a second note: “Mr. Thompson: If you don’t stop insulting my nephew, I’m going to come down there and kick you in the (bleep). Lou Ella Brown.”

Upon reading the message, Thompson fell flat on his back, where he remained until his players revived him. Russell didn’t fess up to the prank for three years.

When Steve Sloan was being courted to become Vandy’s football coach, Russell hosted a party prior to a UT-Vandy basketball game. Vanderbilt Chancellor Alexander Heard came to the gala. So did a guest in a striped shirt—Russell’s friend Allen Wallace, posing as a referee in town to officiate the game. During the party, Wallace conspicuously drained a succession of vodka shots, staggered toward the door and bellowed cheerfully, “Don’t worry about the game!”

“Does this happen often?” a wide-eyed Sloan asked after Wallace departed. He and the scandalized chancellor didn’t realize they’d been hoodwinked until they arrived at the game and saw that Wallace wasn’t part of the officiating crew.

Russell’s friend Maxwell Benson, a fancier of fine clothes, once began sporting an elegant, custom-made hat he had ordered from one of Nashville’s finest men’s stores. Russell ordered a copy that was perfect, down to Benson’s monogram, but one-quarter size smaller.

Then, with help from Benson’s secretary, Russell contrived to swap the two hats back and forth. When Benson would leave his hat on a rack at his office, the secretary made the switch. A week later, if Benson checked the hat at a restaurant, a Banner copy boy might return the larger original.

The gag went on for weeks. “The new hat was just enough smaller for him to notice,” recalls a friend who was in on the prank. “He’d study it for the longest time, wondering what could be happening.”

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