Across the Universe: One of the best April Fools’ pranks ever, 24 years later
It was 24 years ago when a pair of local journalists conjured a plan to pull off the ultimate April Fools’ Day joke. The only problem was the prank worked a little too well.
As the story goes, in March 1992, then-North Lake Tahoe Bonanza photographer Jim Grant and news editor James Robbins decided, with a print edition coming on April Fools’ Day, a hoax was in order.
Grant — who these days works as a photographer for the Nevada Appeal newspaper in Carson City — went to Raley’s and bought a toy brontosaurus. He tied a weight to it with an old shoestring and took the figurine behind the Bonanza’s office and used a whole roll of film to photograph the “monster” in the water.
Grant wanted to imitate the famous blurry, grainy photo of the Loch Ness Monster. The story and the now-infamous image of the Tahoe monster ran on the front page of the Bonanza’s April 1, 1992 edition.
The intro to the story read as such: “U.S. Coast Guard officials pulled an Incline Village man from the frigid waters of Lake Tahoe Monday evening after his tiny motor boat was swamped by what witnesses described as a 75-foot, green lizard with a long neck.”
It went on to tell the harrowing story, quoting bogus sources like “John Hoaks” (aka “hoax”) and “Dr. Tae Kin” (aka “taken”).
“We thought it was so outlandish no one would believe it was true,” Grant said in 2009. “Not putting ‘April Fools’ at the end of the story was a big mistake in hindsight.”
“These were pre-Photoshop days,” Grant also remarked. “Pictures didn’t lie. What you saw was what happened.”
Readers took the bait, and to say the community “didn’t get the joke” would be an understatement.
Jeff Ackerman, the Bonanza’s publisher at the time, said he and his staff fielded roughly 200 phone calls the day of publication about the “lake monster” article, including one from a real estate agent who said the story hurt potential housing sales.
Of course, the most famous call was from an irate woman, and it still ranks as one of the best pieces of reader feedback ever.
“I got a call from a woman who said the story traumatized her dogs, since she took them to the lake each morning,” Ackerman recalled in 2009. “’Lady,’ I told her, ‘The bigger story is that your dogs read the Bonanza.”
Over the years, this story gets brought up in all kinds of conversations, and that quote about the Bonanza-reading dog is still remembered with great bouts of head-shaking laughter.
These days, a story and photo like this would almost never pass muster. Still, you never know. So this Friday, on April Fools’ Day, remember: “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”
Kevin MacMillan is managing editor of the Sierra Sun and North Lake Tahoe Bonanza. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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