Harry Reichenbach (1882-1931) was a publicist whose career spanned the early twentieth century. He was responsible for promoting many movies and show business personalities. In his autobiography, Phantom Fame
(written with the help of David Freedman), Reichenbach described a publicity stunt he devised early in his career that has since become a classic example of inventive (though misleading) low-budget promotion. It involved a creature called the "Brazilian Invisible Fish." He wrote:
Some years later I saved a declining lunchroom for an old ex-circus woman by a curious little device. She had to attract a crowd but couldn't afford to spend any money. I told her to place a large, transparent bowl filled with water in the window of her store. Beside the bowl I set up a cardboard sign reading, "The only living Brazilian invisible fish."
People soon gathered to behold this wonder and some swore they could detect the invisible fish making the water move. This suggested an improvement on the idea. I placed a little electric fan in one corner shielded from the onlookers and this blew ripples on the water. After that the crowds couldn't be controlled. "You see it? There it goes! There! No, there!" People vied with each other to point out the fish, and the restaurant that featured such an oddity soon got trade as well. But the prosperity didn't last, because the old ex-circus woman eventually tried to serve the invisible fish as a course.
Although Reichenbach claimed to have invented the "invisible fish" stunt, he almost certainly did not. It was most likely an old sideshow stunt that he knew about and took credit for.
Over the years, the same stunt has been attributed to many other people. For instance, the Broadway showman Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. (1867-1932), who produced the Ziegfeld Follies
, also has been given credit for it.
In 1928, three years before Reichenbach published his autobiography, the following short anecdote describing the stunt (and attributing it to an unnamed New York City restaurant owner) ran in many papers:
Not long ago a bright young man, having opened a new cafe in 44th street, tried to think up schemes for bringing the crowds to his door. So he invested in a goldfish bowl. He filled the bowl with water and printed a sign reading "Invisible fish from South America." Soon the street outside his window was cluttered with New Yorkers trying to see the "invisible fish." On several occasions the police had to be called in to clear the sidewalk. Innumerable ideas were generated by the crowd for bringing the "invisible fish" into view. And several men actually claimed to have seen it through a magnifying glass.
Which, again, merely goes to show...
In the decades following the 1930s, "invisible fish" continued to be a popular stunt to draw crowds, especially at fairs and as a promotional device in store windows. In 1940, as an April Fool's Day prank, radio comedian Don McNeill set up an empty aquarium in the lobby of Chicago's Merchandise Mart with a sign in front of it: "Invisible Peruvian Fish."
The stunt was once featured on Allan Funt's television show Candid Camera
. A hidden camera recorded the reactions of people as they tried to spot the invisible fish supposedly swimming in a fish tank. And in 1950 the cartoonist Merril Blosser featured the joke in his comic strip "Freckles and his Friends."
Real Invisible Fish
There are, in actuality, species of near-invisible fish. Or rather, transparent fish. For instance, in 1960 Dr. Leonard P. Schultz, the Smithsonian Institution's curator of fishes, published a report in which he described the marine life around the Marshall and Marinas Islands. In this report, he described a species called "sand divers," which spend their lives in the loose sand at the sea bottom. He wrote that they are hard to spot because only their eyes can readily be seen, their bodies being as transparent as glass.
Links and References
- Reichenbach, Harry. (1931). Phantom Fame. Simon and Schuster. New York. Pgs. 21-22.
- Mizejewski, Linda. (1999). Ziegfeld Girl: Image and Icon in Culture and Cinema. Duke University Press. Pg. 13.
- "He says he caught invisible fish, and he means it." (Nov. 25, 1960). Lima News. Pg. 5.