1. The Great Rose Bowl Hoax
The Rose Bowl is serious business in college football, which makes it a ripe setting for pranks. The 1961 game saw the Washington Huskies play the Minnesota Golden Gophers (actual name) at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl Stadium, not far from the California Institute of Technology. Annoyed at the fact that their school played games there but was typically ignored before and during the game, a group of Caltech students rigged a prank to gain attention for their school at halftime. The Huskies cheerleaders were leading the crowd in a series of card stunts, where everyone holds up a colored card to create a giant image. The Caltech students switched the instruction sheets for the people holding the cards, and during one of the stunts, they held up their cards to spell out “CALTECH” in dark letters on a white background. NBC cameras filming the game caught the prank and broadcast it 30 million viewers across the country. Score one for the geeks.
2. The Harvard-Yale Prank
Speaking of card stunts: The annual football game between Harvard and Yale is always fierce, but it got even hotter in 2004. A group Yale students distributed cards to Harvard fans and told them that raising them would spell out “GO HARVARD,” when it really spelled out “WE SUCK.” Nicely played, though Harvard had the last laugh: They won the game with a final score of 35-3. Ouch.
3. Veterans of Future Wars
In 1936, a group of Princeton students formed the Veterans of Future Wars as a way to satirize conflict and the government’s plan to allow early payment of bonuses due to veterans of World War I. The Veterans of Future Wars jokingly reasoned that they’d probably go to war eventually and could use the cash early. Although the large-scale prank spread across the country and gathered more than 50,000 paid members in 1936, it soon fell out of favor with the onset of a new presidential election and the growing threat of a new world war. Still, a smart idea, well-executed.
4. Caltech Sweepstakes Caper
You gotta hand it to the Caltech kids: They know how to have a good time. In 1975, McDonald’s restaurants in Southern California held a contest in which they planned to give away gift certificates, a new car, a year of groceries, and good old cash. However, the company made a mistake when it told people they could enter as often as they wished. Armed with the letter of the law, a group of students created a computer program that created 1.2 million (!) entry forms, and they entered them all. McDonald’s wasn’t happy at all, but they went ahead with the drawing. Caltech won 20 percent of the total prizes, and they donated the new car to the United Way.
5. The Frozen Statue of Liberty
In 1978, students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, led by jokers who had won their way into the student government, erected a partial head and arm modeled after the Statue of Liberty to make it appear as if the statue had been submerged in the icy Lake Mendota. Some protested the cost, but the student body president happily refunded the dime-per-person cost to anyone who wanted it.
6. Hugo N. Frye
A pair of Cornell University students in 1930 got the best of the Republican party by sending out invitations to GOP leaders to a celebration for little-known patriot Hugo N. Frye. Although none could make it, they all sent letters commending Frye’s service to his country. Frye was fictional, though, and his name was a play on the phrase, “You go and fry!” (Which in 1930 I’m guessing made sense to people.) The students read the letters aloud at the celebration and wound up shaming the politicians, though they were also made to apologize by Cornell.
7. Arm the Homeless
In 1993, a new organization in Columbus, Ohio, called Arm the Homeless made waves for its announcement that it planned to raise money to provide guns and ammunition to local homeless people. Citizens complained in the newspaper, and the group even gained national attention, but it was soon revealed that Arm the Homeless was a gag cooked up by three students at Ohio State University. They claimed they just wanted to shine a light on some serious problems as well as the dangers of media, but they weren’t prepared for the backlash. The group lived on a few years later in an April Fools gag in Phoenix.
8. The Great Pumpkin
In 1997, somebody pulled off the impossible at Cornell University: They placed a pumpkin atop the spire of McGraw Tower. The prank combined the best aspects of a good joke: simple, public, and impossible to avoid. A decade later, people were still in the dark about who’d put the pumpkin up there, though the story remains as popular as ever.
9. The Rooftop Drive
In 1958, a group of students at Cambridge University hoisted a car up to a seemingly inaccessible roof and left it there for the rest of the school to discover. Fifty years later, the alumni responsible revealed their identities as well as the methods they used to get the car up there. It took a team of 12 students and quick thinking to get it done, but it remains one of the greatest pranks ever.
10. Victoria Who?
Ah, Facebook. So helpful one minute, so dangerous the next. In 2006, USC basketball player Gabe Pruitt struck up an online relationship via Facebook with a UCLA student named Victoria, and he even agreed to meet her in person once he got back to Los Angeles after an away game against UC-Berkeley. Just one problem: Victoria was a creation of Berkeley students, who revealed the truth by shouting “Victoria!” at Pruitt on the floor and chanting his phone number (which he’d given to the fake girl online) at him relentlessly. The guy went 3 for 13 on the night, and USC lost. Ice cold, but good prank.