FELIKS BANEL

When ‘Almost Live!’ knocked down the Space Needle for April Fool’s Day

Apr 1, 2022, 10:08 AM | Updated: 1:12 pm
Space Needle April Fool's Day...
A fake image of an imaginary collapse of the Space Needle accompanied an infamous simulated news report on "Almost Live!" KING TV on April 1, 1989. (KING TV via screen grab)
(KING TV via screen grab)

This is the story of the April Fool’s 1989 Space Needle collapse hoax, as told in “Almost Live!” host John Keister’s own words from an interview recorded March 31, 2022, condensed and edited by Feliks Banel. This “War of the Worlds”-like story goes best when accompanied by the local 1962 folk song, “Wasn’t That a Mighty Day When The Needle Hit the Ground?” by Mike & Maggie.

I had recently been made host of “Almost Live!” because the original host, Ross Shafer, left for Los Angeles and things weren’t going real well, and we were looking for something that we could maybe spike the ratings or get some conversation going in town. We had the assistant program director come and say, “Hey, you know, we’ve got a space for the show on April Fool’s Day. How about you guys do something live on April Fool’s Day?”

And it gave us the opportunity. We realized if we are live, we could do a joke. And there was a certain history that I’d done pranks at the University of Washington. I worked for the student newspaper, and we used to, on April Fool’s Day, print stories that we would try to freak out the student body with.

We found that the closer you got to stories that looked real the better it worked, like if you said, “Martians Land,” people wouldn’t be fooled, they’d just say, “Whatever, you know, OK fine.” But if you did a story like, “Surprise Bill Eliminates Tuition for In-Staters,” people would be like, “Oh my God!” and only then they’d realize it was a joke.

So I came from that kind of a background. And when we found out that we had this opportunity, one of the things that was a common phrase that was used in broadcasting in Seattle was, “Look, I’m going on vacation, and I don’t want to hear from anybody. The only time I want to hear from somebody is if the Space Needle falls down.” It was a common thing to say.

So at some point it occurred to us, “Well, let’s just fake that the Space Needle fell down.” So we hired an actor, we did a fake announcement, and we got the graphics department, the art department, to make a graphic. Computer graphics were brand new in those days, and so they made what I think would be considered not a really super-great looking thing. But at the time, it looked very realistic, this computer image of the Space Needle having fallen.

We were encouraged to show the graphic to the program director, which I was against. I said, “No, he’ll just say we can’t do it, you know?” And so he looked at it, and he said, “Well, you know, if you do this, you’ve got to put ‘April Fool’s’ on the screen.” Which I was like, “Well, why bother even doing that? If that’s what we’re going to do, why bother? I mean, that’ll ruin the whole surprise of it.” But fortunately, those words on the screen inoculated us later from some legal stuff. When it was all said and done, it said, “April Fool’s Day” on it.

Editor’s note: at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, April 1, 1989, instead of “Almost Live!” beginning its special live broadcast on KING TV, an actor who didn’t normally appear on “Almost Live!” was seen sitting in an office that kind of looked like a newsroom. He gave a report, and then a graphic was shown, with the Space Needle in ruins but with the word’s “APRIL FOOLS DAY” also clearly visible. The faux anchor spoke slowly and carefully and said the following: “Good evening. Approximately seven minutes ago, at 6:53 p.m., the Space Needle collapsed. Information at this point is incomplete. We do know that injuries are minimal. Fortunately, the Needle was nearly empty when the accident occurred. A maintenance man who was working on the lower level has apparently been taken to Harborview’s emergency room for minor injuries.”

I was hosting the show, and coincidentally there was a cab waiting for me outside the building when the show ended because I was going to host the finals of the Laugh-Off that were taking place at the Paramount, the comedy competition. So I finished the show, jumped into a cab and left. I left the crew there to deal with what was happening, which was that thousands of people were calling in furious or to complain. So many people called the 911 lines that they were shut down so that people with actual emergencies couldn’t get through.

People started talking, and the way this sort of news travels fast, it traveled all over Western Washington. Then in Eastern Washington, people heard about it and medical people drove over the pass to volunteer, because they thought it was this humanitarian disaster.

Later in the evening, we got a camera up on the roof of KING TV on Dexter Avenue and we showed viewers, “Look, it’s still standing. It’s OK.” By the time I got home, my wife at the time was saying, “What did you do? I mean, the phone is ringing off the hook.”

I listened to all these messages, and it was all just friends of mine, mainly who worked in the newspapers, going, like, “’Keister, what have you done?’ ‘What did you do?’ ‘Keister, my God, what have you done?’ ‘Oh man, you really screwed up this time, dude.’” That kind of stuff.

Though she later became a well-known member of the cast of “Almost Live!”, it was also Tracey Conway’s very first appearance on the show. We knew that she had an MFA out of the University of Southern California and was a good actress. We needed someone to really display emotions, and so she was featured in the fake report like a witness.

Really, it was her performance that kicked it in, because when she was interviewed, she was like, “Oh my God, it just fell over.” It was kind of like the Hindenburg thing. Probably people came into the room to see “What’s this woman on television crying about?” and then they saw the graphic.

A lot of people had birthdays and anniversary dinners up there, and people were freaking out that their daughter’s graduation party or their cousin’s wedding party was going on up there.

It was the day after when I found out that these medical volunteer people had driven over from Eastern Washington and that people were genuinely freaked out about it. Then there were people who had called in to play jokes on us, and KING management was not aware that these were jokes. But people called up and said, “Hey, my grandfather had a heart attack. I called 911, and because you guys shut 911 down, we couldn’t get help and he died.” Two or three people called in and said that members of their family had died because we screwed up the emergency response system. So I was really freaked out about that, but then we found out that those were jokes that were played on us.

Nothing bad happened to anyone other than the people who got all exorcised, and I certainly sympathize with those people. I mean, we didn’t think people would take it seriously. We thought they’d take it seriously for like one second, and then it would come back to me on camera, doing the opening of the show, and I said, “Wow, bummer about the Needle.”

It teaches you a lesson. The next day, there were headlines all over not just America, but all over the world about it, and it was big-name papers, like the Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune. And all these were big headlines.

On Monday, we were sitting in the boardroom at KING TV’s old building along Dexter Avenue. They were all sitting around, the legal team and everybody, and they’re trying to sort of strategize about their position going forward. But what happened was that at the beginning of the week, it looked like we were going to have to face all these lawsuits and all this sort of stuff.

By the time the next show came around, I did apologize but management at KING and the Space Needle really weren’t that mad anymore. A year or two ago, I ran into the guy who was the manager of the Space Needle at that time at a charitable event I was performing at. He was so happy to meet me and he’s like, “Wow, that was some some wild times.” At this point, he thought it was hilarious. He loved it. He thought it was great.

No one got hurt. Now, all of that being said, it’s not something we would dare have tried nowadays. But if we had, I’d be doing time. I mean, people don’t have a sense of humor about this kind of stuff.

People remember two or three things about “Almost Live!”– the Ballard Driving Academy, Billy Quan, and, “You guys did the Space Needle.” And everybody thinks it’s this really hilarious story. I get called every year about this story and everybody goes, “Tell us about this hilarious thing that happened,” and I go, “Man, it wasn’t hilarious at the time.”

Editor’s note: John Keister recently launched an Instagram account at this link.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.

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When ‘Almost Live!’ knocked down the Space Needle for April Fool’s Day