On April 1, 1989, Seattle's KING-TV reports that the Space Needle has collapsed. It is, of course, a prank, courtesy of the comedy show Almost Live! But the prank goes awry when many fall for it, in something akin to a War of the Worlds redux.
"The Space Needle Collapsed"
Almost Live! was an award-winning Seattle-based television comedy show that aired on KING-TV (Channel 5) from 1984 to 1999, featuring notable local comedians such as Pat Cashman (b. 1950), Tracey Conway (b. 1956), Nancy Guppy, John Keister (b. 1956), and others. In the spring of 1989 the show normally aired on Sunday evenings, but on April Fools' Day that year, it switched to a Saturday night slot.
It was a gray, dreary Saturday evening in Seattle, chilly, breezy, and damp, about what you'd expect to find on the first day of April. At 7 p.m., as dusk fell outside, the show went on the air. About 10 seconds into the introduction, a somber-looking announcer (hired especially for the prank) broke in with a "special report" and announced "Good evening. Approximately seven minutes ago, at 6:53 p.m., the Space Needle collapsed" ("An April Fools' Joke ..."). Two "photos," created by the show's art department, appeared on-screen of the Space Needle apparently collapsed in large pieces on the ground and on nearby buildings. Along the top of the screen, in all capital letters, appeared "Space Needle -- April 1, 1989" with a second capitalized caption below: "April Fools Day" ("An April Fools' Joke ...").
All around Seattle and Western Washington, people stopped and stared at their television screens. After a second or two, most of them got it. But not everyone. Meanwhile, the announcer remained deadpan: "Information at this point is incomplete. We do know that injuries are minimal. Fortunately, the Needle was nearly empty when the accident occurred" ("An April Fools' Joke ..."). The skit included one of the show's regulars, Tracey Conway, playing the role of a shocked eyewitness who recounted, "I heard this sound. It was like thunder and I looked up and it was swaying. And it went over. It was like somebody just kicked the bottom out from under it" ("An April Fools' Joke ..."). The announcer discussed speculation about the cause of the collapse, and the show returned to the intro; next, here came host John Keister walking onstage and joking about the "collapse." (The clip can be found on YouTube.)
Seattle's War of the Worlds
Problem is that a lot of people had already fallen for it. This was before the internet or social media. Instant communication in 1989 generally meant an in-person visit or a telephone call (or maybe a fax), and in 1989 a phone call would have most likely been limited to a landline since cell phones were so new that few people had one. Thousands of people panicked. The Space Needle alone reported that more than 700 people called, asking about family members who were dining at the restaurant atop the Needle. Police reported that the city's 911 line was swamped with calls, and KING-TV was similarly inundated.
Word soon got out that it was a prank gone awry. KING-TV got so much heat that it had to issue an apology the next day. Craig Smith, a program director for the station, said, "It was an unfortunate combination of real subtle humor and the fact that it aired Saturday rather than its normal time period on Sunday ... The [on-screen] disclaimer obviously was not sufficient" ("KING-TV on Space Needle Hoax"). Ironically, both station management and some on the show were concerned before the broadcast that a few viewers might fall for it, which led to the disclaimer in the first place.
The heat kept coming. The police didn't appreciate the city's 911 lines being tied up by the prank. Local officials were displeased because the faux newscast suggested that the collapse might have been linked to construction of the Metro bus tunnel downtown. Other people were just plain pissed. Some suggested heads should roll. It caused enough of a stink that a chastened Keister was obliged to apologize on the show the next week:
"On April Fool's Day, we broadcast a prank -- a phony news report -- in which we said that the Space Needle had collapsed. Now, we meant this as an April Fool's Day joke. We labeled it as a joke, and we thought that people would take it as a joke. Unfortunately ... it didn't work that way" ("This NOT Just In").
It was Seattle's own replay, a half-century later, of the War of the Worlds scare -- the infamous Orson Welles national radio broadcast (loosely adapted from the H. G. Wells novel) reporting a Martian invasion of Earth, which caused a nationwide panic in 1938.
Eventually, however, the absurd humor of it all shone through. In fact, Keister was invited to ring in 1990 at the annual Space Needle New Year's celebration. Almost Live! continued its comedic capers through the 1990s, won more Northwest Regional Emmy awards, and made its mark on late-twentieth century Seattle history.