April Fools’ Day was really something back in the day, these 3 California pranks show

A Taco Bell sign
This photo will make a lot more sense if you keep reading.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

Good morning. It’s Monday, April 1. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

April Fools! Here are 3 classic California pranks

Full disclosure: I’m not a big fan of April Fools’ Day pranks orchestrated by local governments, corporations or, worst of all, news organizations. Rarely do they hit the right tone and level of inventiveness to actually be funny.

Companies announcing name changes or bankruptcies? Yawn.


Sure, plenty are harmless. Cities love to put their amateur Photoshop skills to work or fire off a social media post for some low-stakes tomfoolery. Cool, whatever.

In an age of fake news, increasingly convincing AI-generated imagery, and brands chasing every conceivable trend, April Fools’ Day floods the attention market with forgettable-at-best, tasteless-at-worst content that carries a one-day shelf life.

But it wasn’t always this boring. Some ingenious pranks of the past — and some arguably over-the-line — actually got people out of the house or riled up enough to call the government.

Here are a few California-based pranks that went above and beyond (or maybe too far?) on April Fools’ Day.

The San Diego space shuttle landing

In 1993, hundreds of San Diegans rushed to a small airport in the morning, hoping to witness an event very few get to see in real life: a space shuttle landing.


Because of a systems malfunction at Edwards Air Force Base, space shuttle Discovery was being diverted to touch down at San Diego’s Montgomery Field. Or so they’d been led to believe by a local radio station. But of course, no space shuttle was landing. There weren’t even any in orbit at the time.

The elaborate hoax was orchestrated by KGB-FM, which aired an interview with a faux NASA spokesperson to confirm Discovery was en route. Radio listeners even thought they were patched in with the shuttle crew at one point.

The ruse was believed to bring more than 1,000 people to the area, tying up traffic for hours. The airport manager had to explain to hundreds of angry would-be onlookers that they’d been had. The city’s Police Department threatened legal action for the chaos.

The whole saga was summarized well in this local TV news package.

Surely some people were peeved, but those interviewed by CBS 8 at the time seemed to take it in stride and appreciate the elaborate hoax, even if it created traffic issues and tied up some police resources for a nonexistent event.

Monkeying around with L.A. Zoo phone operators

Prank phone calls often feel like a remnant from a bygone era. (Do kids these days even know what *67 does?) Which is why this 1986 story I found in the L.A. Times archives struck me as equal parts nostalgic, delightful and wholesome.


Back in those days, when April 1 rolled around, the switchboard operators at the Los Angeles Zoo were inundated with calls. The people on the other end of the line asked if Ellie Font or Al Gator were available. Or they were returning calls from G. Raffe or Ryna Soris.

“Every April 1 it is the same,” former Times reporter Penelope McMillan wrote. “The phone at the Los Angeles Zoo in Griffith Park doesn’t stop ringing.”

For many of these calls, the zoo operators were merely a conduit for someone else’s prank. The likely scenario: Some practical joker left a message for a friend as, say, Mr. Wolf, then provided the zoo’s digits as the callback number.

“It’s crazy, absolutely crazy,” zoo spokesperson Lorri Cohen said at the time. “Several zoos around the country actually close down their switchboards April 1 rather than deal with it, and we considered that. Then we decided we may as well make the best of it.”

Adding to the confusion was the fact that several zoo staffers at that time actually had animal-related names, including Ruth Baer, Bob Wolf and Ralph Crane.

It’s unclear whether this tradition is still common in an era of automated phone menus, but kudos to those pre-internet pranksters for having their fun without the ability to share it further than their landline phone cords could stretch.


The ‘Taco Liberty Bell’

Last but most audacious is a stunt that may still hold the trophy for best corporate April Fools’ Day prank ever.

Taco Bell was behind this 1996 ruse, which created a national uproar. But the “Mexican-inspired” fast-food chain was founded and is currently headquartered in Southern California, so we’ll allow it.

The company took out a full-page ad in several major newspapers announcing it had bought the Liberty Bell to help reduce the national debt.

“It will now be called the ‘Taco Liberty Bell’ and will still be accessible to the American public for viewing,” the ad read. “While some may find this controversial, we hope our move will prompt other corporations to take similar action to do their part to reduce the country’s debt.”

People flipped out. Some radio talk show hosts bought it and spread it to listeners. A Clinton press secretary even joked about it to reporters.


The National Park Service, which maintains the Liberty Bell, received hundreds of angry calls and had to assure the public it had not sold off one of the nation’s treasures.

The stunt might have broken the internet, had most people actually used it back then. Only about 8% of the population was on ye olde World Wide Web at the time.

A Taco Bell spokesperson later apologized to “those people who didn’t get the joke.”

Pranks in the April Fools’ Day spirit sure hit differently back then. So as you go about your day, check your back for a “Kick me” sign, take any major brand announcements with a barrel-full of salt, and crank up the Who for good measure.

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