Gary Dahl dies at 78; creator of Pet Rock, 1970s pop culture icon

Gary Dahl, who instigated the Pet Rock fad of the 1970s, dies at 78

Over beers in a Los Gatos bar, Gary Dahl's drinking buddies spewed tales about incontinent dogs, destructive cats, overly fecund gerbils and vacations foiled because no one could baby-sit the bird.

Everyone had problems with a pet except for Dahl, who claimed his was hassle-free.

"I own a pet rock," he quipped.

His friends cracked up and turned it into a running joke. Dahl laughed his way to the bank.

Dahl, who was 78 at the time of his death last week in Jacksonville, Ore., was the creator of the Pet Rock, one of the most successful gag gifts of all time. Although it was only sold during the three-month holiday buying season in 1975, it endures in pop culture history as the inane fad that resonated with the "Me Generation."

Inspired by the riffs in the bar, Dahl, then an underemployed advertising copy writer, began writing a booklet modeled on dog training manuals. Soon he had pages full of such pearls of prudence and perception as what to do if a pet rock seems anxious: Place it on some old newspapers, he wrote, and the rock "will know what the paper is for and will require no further instruction."

Teaming up with a designer, Dahl produced a cardboard carrying case complete with 14 air holes. On the outside was printed "This box contains one genuine pedigreed PET ROCK." Inside was the instruction manual and a smooth Mexican beach stone on a bed of straw.

Dahl's quirky brainchild became a phenomenon, selling more than 1 million Pet Rocks at $4 apiece. Time magazine called the cleverly packaged novelty "1% product and 99% marketing genius."

It hit the market at an opportune moment. A president had resigned, the Vietnam War had ended and the nation was ready for a giggle. "This takes them on a fantasy trip — you might say we've packaged a sense of humor," Dahl told People magazine in 1975.

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, he offered plenty of hilarity. In a section on tricks, for example, Dahl's spoof manual informed owners that the Pet Rock can roll over — as long as it is attempting the feat on a hill.

Pet Rocks also love to play dead and, he noted, "they'll actually practice it on their own."

He acknowledged that some tricks, such as fetching, were too taxing for a rock ("Rarely, if ever, will your Pet Rock return with the object, but that's the way it goes"), while other tasks were simply impossible. "You're a little confused if you think a Pet Rock can be taught to stand. A rock," he wrote, "has no feet."

But as an object of pop culture devotion, Dahl's rock definitely had legs. It spawned Pet Rock clothes and even a Pet Rock cemetery in Detroit, complete with artificial turf and concrete tombstones. "George went through too many windows," one epitaph read.

More than a year after the Pet Rock had flown off shelves at such posh retailers as Neiman Marcus, a Time magazine reader wrote in with what sounded like a rallying cry for Pet Rocks' rights. "It saddens me," the letter writer lamented, "that there are Americans who would buy a Pet Rock from a prestigious store just for one-upmanship. A true pet lover would take in any rock and give it a good home."

The son of a waitress and a lumber mill worker, Gary Ross Dahl was born Dec. 18, 1936, in Bottineau, N.D., and grew up in Spokane, Wash. After high school, he served in the Marines and briefly attended Washington State University before moving to California, where he became a copywriter in San Jose.

Twice divorced, he married the former Marguerite Wood in 1974. The next year, she found herself trawling a beach for rocks, most of which her husband rejected. "I thought I had married a madman," she recalled this week.

Besides his wife, who confirmed his death March 23 from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Dahl is survived by two daughters, Chris Nunez and Samantha Leighton; a son, Eric; a stepdaughter, Vicki Pershing; a sister, Candace; and nine grandchildren. He lived in Oregon for the last nine years.

Although Dahl turned a rock into gold, the aftermath wasn't all fun. Sued by two of his investors who accused him of shortchanging them, he wound up paying a six-figure settlement.

On the brighter side, the money he earned enabled him to open his own pub in Los Gatos. He called it Carry Nation's, after the radical temperance crusader.

Dahl later wrote "Advertising for Dummies." He was running his own agency, Gary Dahl Creative Services in Campbell, Calif., when he won the Bulwer-Lytton contest for bad fiction writing in 2000.

He created other gag items, such as the Sand Breeding Kit, which came with male and female vials of sand for growing "your own desert wasteland," kitty litter or landfill, but they failed to match the appeal of the massively adored rock.

His misses didn't stop scores of hopeful inventors from pestering him for help with their own get-rich-quick schemes, all of which he said were dreadful.

"And now," he told the Washington Post a few years after making marketing history, "if people would just forget I did the Pet Rock, I'd be happy."

elaine.woo@latimes.com

Twitter: @ewooLATimes

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