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9.29.11: Almost a Disaster – Needle Joke Gone Wrong

Space Needle History: Thursday at the Needle

Knute Berger, Writer-in-Residence

The 1980s were a more innocent time. People believed what they saw on TV and comedians thought the idea of towers falling down could be funny. The two things collided on April 1, 1989 when John Keister, host of the KING local comedy show "Almost Live," aired a fake news report that the Space Needle had fallen over. Despite the fact that "April 1" appeared on the screen, Seattle went nuts.

I had lunch at the Needle today with Keister, who recounted the panic he set off, not unlike the "Martian invasion" dramatized on radio in the 1930s by Orson Welles. Keister said he had done April Fool's news stories for the University of Washington Daily when he was in college, and he got the idea for the "Almost Live" segment from an expression he heard used commonly in the broadcast media when a reporter was headed out for some time off: "Unless the Space Needle falls down, don't call me."

This day, the comedy show had a prime time slot, and Keister's brief reported included a picture of the Needle lying in ruins on the ground. The phones began ringing off the hook: 700 calls came in to the Space Needle from worried folks who had friends and family visiting or working on the Needle. The police said the the city's 911 system was overwhelmed. Keister had to go back on the air and reassure everyone the Needle was still standing, but not everyone got the word. "A team of doctors from Eastern Washington came over to help give humanitarian aid," he says.

Higher ups at KING were furious, as was the news department, and "The Space Needle was beyond pissed," he recounts. Apologies were issued, and Keister kept his job, and he gained a new respect for the power of TV: it never occurred to him that people would believe it for more than a few seconds. He says that in those pre-Photoshop days, people believed what they saw. It also was a lesson in what a beloved icon the Needle had become: newspapers around the world carried the story of the joke gone wrong.

The Space Needle forgave him. In fact, he was invited to host the Needle's "Times Square of the West" event on New Year's eve later that year to ring in the 1990s. Keister says knowing what he knows now, he would never have done it. But also thinking back, he says "There was a moment in my life when I was strong enough to push the Needle over, and I'm very proud of that."


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