Current Issue

Jan. 19, 2011

Vol. 111, No. 6


Pranks for the memories

The very best of student escapades

By Gregg Lange ’70, illustrations by Phil Scheuer
Published in the January 19, 2011, issue

Take an environment that can generate the Triangle kickline, Cane Spree, and the Nude Olympics, let it percolate for 250 years or so, add a pile of 18-year-olds and The Daily Prince­tonian’s annual joke issue, and you would expect some pretty spiffy student pranks to break out.  

You would be right.

From the discovery of the first 500-pound farm animal on the top floor of the first dorm, Nassau Hall, in 1756 – roughly 10 minutes after the first undergrads took up residence – students have approached with zeal and craft an array of jokes, hoaxes, and physical gags that beggar the mature imagination and often social propriety.

Here, counting down, are Princeton’s top 10 pranks – at least in this ­reviewer’s mind:

No. 10   When Harold Shapiro *64 returned to become Princeton’s president, his home phone number was listed in the local directory. So in 1996 an enterprising group of students printed hundreds of fliers advertising a new pizza joint on Nassau Street offering large cheese pizzas for only $5, and delivery until 2 a.m. – with Shapiro’s number. The telephone line at the new Hal’s Pizza was inundated by midnight, but the resourceful economist found the weak spot in the hoax: He took the phone off the hook. 

No. 9   There was a point behind clapper stealing when it began in 1864: If the Nassau Hall bell didn’t ring, you didn’t have to go to class (or so students said). Freshmen nabbed the bell dozens of times over the decades, breaking inside locks, climbing outside walls, even masquerading as repairmen. But the expense to the University of computer-timing mechanisms, dramatic 40-foot student swan dives onto gravel and potentially — of course – lawyers doomed the quasi-annual tradition in 1992, when the clapper was removed permanently. 

No. 8   On the theory that no altruistic gesture should go unpunished, final exams – unproctored, thanks to the Honor Code pledge, since 1893 – have proven a marvelous target of opportunity. Many are the examinees (unfailingly, ringers) who have burst into sobs and violent rants, ripped their papers to shreds, and stormed out. An inspiring exam-hall favorite in the ’60s and ’70s was the Red Baron, a dashing — literally – ace streaking through, to thunderous applause, in World War I pilot’s leather helmet and goggles, red silk scarf and/or red cape and/or red sneakers ... and nothing else. 

No. 7   On the Thursday prior to the Yale football game in November 1979, four Yale cheerleaders picked up their mascot, Handsome Dan, for a photo shoot from the professor who owned him. They all then vanished. Not being complete sadists, the disguised Princeton undergrads who had pulled off the bulldognapping called the owner to reassure him and promise him wine and cigars, then returned Danny Girl – the only female Dan to date – to the real Yalies at halftime of the game at midfield, demurely festooned in orange and black.  

No. 6   The Princeton University Band’s track record of friction with author­ity figures may have peaked with a November 1967 show at Harvard televised by ABC. The network was unhappy with the scramblers’ previously broadcast double entendres and was going to ignore the band; members got wind of this and invited the TV director to its Saturday-morning Cambridge rehearsal. The first formation was a gigantic “ABC” on the field with network theme music, while the public-address narrator intoned blandishments about “a blatant plug.” The director thought this was cute, so the network reversed course and carried the band show at halftime. On the field, though, the “A” quickly changed into an “N” and the band broke into “Who’s Sorry Now?”

No. 5   Awarding extra points for longevity, and for repeatedly appearing in front of both administrators and parents, we laudate the Latin salutatory address, a staple since 1748. Ostensibly a display of the students’ amazing facility in classical languages, around 1950 it took a huge leap into prankdom by surreptitiously giving only the new graduates Latin cue sheets telling them to applaud (hic plaudite), boo, hiss – whatever – at crucial points; thus it serves each class as a last bonding in-joke of us against the world. Stubbornly remaining in the original Latin as the rest of the Commence­ment ceremony switched over to English, it continues to this dei and ad infinitum.

No. 4   There have been many inspirational imaginary classmates, usually created to embody group spirit – among them, Scott Fitzgerald’s classmate Bert Hormone ’17 and Ephriam di Kahble ’39, who one term “turned in” 20 signed final exams (recall #8 above) – but the hands-down winner is Joseph D. Oznot ’68 p’01 s’01, created from thin air by four members of the Class of 1966 and so well-credentialed (great SATs and personal interview executed by non-Princeton ringers) that he was enthusiasti­cally admitted by an oblivious admission office. His new Class of ’68 took the gag and ran with it, documenting Oznot’s daring global exploits in Class Notes over the years, including his relatively recent marriage to his daughter’s freshman roommate. 

No. 3   Under pressure from veterans in 1936, Congress made controversial World War I bonuses payable immediately. In view of the grim world situation, an impromptu Prince­ton student group thereby demanded $1,000 payments in advance to all draft-eligible males since they certainly would be called into the military soon, and were at least alive to enjoy the money now.   Gleefully anointing themselves as the Veterans of Future Wars, they struck a nerve in the national psyche; 500 campus chapters organized almost ­instantly, outraging both veterans and Congress.

No. 2   In 1875, acting on a rumor, Rutgers students stole the Revolu­tionary War cannon buried next to Clio Hall. It was returned from New Brunswick to Princeton only through the intercession of impartial negotiators, similar to today’s Middle East diplomacy. Subse­quently, a week before the Rutgers-Princeton 100th-anniversary football game in 1969, it was stolen again, leaving behind a huge hole in the ground and derisive scarlet anti-Tiger graffiti. Several Rutgers groups took credit, and the proctors – based in Stanhope Hall, about 50 yards from the crater – were abashed. The day before the game, the Princetonian was tipped to the truth: Princeton seniors had dug the pit and piled the resulting dirt on top of the cannon, figuring correctly that no one would bother to look underneath. The cannon hoax embarrassed the bogus Rutgers claimants and raised Princeton school spirit, slightly salving the Tigers’ subsequent 29–0 loss.

And the No. 1 Princeton prank of all time: On the Friday afternoon of Houseparties in 1963, the desperadoes swung into action: A car was parked across the Dinky line, four horses rented from a nearby stable, masks and ­six-shooters acquired, “victims” prepared. The Great Train Robbery went off like clockwork, with four students riding out of a John Wayne film to hold up the blocked train on its way to campus, fire a couple blanks, “kidnap” four dates and then – after politely refusing the wallets and gold ­jewelry offered by clueless commuters – galloping into the woods, the eight men and women hanging onto the horses for dear life. The conductor arrived at Princeton station with the honor of being the victim of the only railway holdup in the United States since 1923; the perps rode over to Cap and Gown in full regalia, stopping by Bo Diddley’s live set on the front lawn. Thence they rode west, into the sunset and the mists of legend.  

It’s certainly true that a successful prank is dependent upon timing, the prankster, the prankee, and good publicity — not to mention the local forces of law and order — so this list is necessarily subjective. If you feel your roommate’s adventure with the dry ice, wastebasket, and two hamsters should have made the top 10, don’t just seethe. Rush to with your story, or any other campus-prank tale you’ve heard, and share it by posting a comment to this article. It’s also a good place to check on prank/hoax rumors you may have long puzzled over; arguments will be adjudicated by Liz Greenberg ’02, author of the senior thesis “Barely Remem­bered: A History of Prince­ton University Prank Traditions,” using the strictest of standards:“What would the Red Baron do?”

Gregg Lange ’70, PAW Online’s Rally ’Round the Cannon  columnist, last May received the Alumni Council Award for Service to Princeton. Presumably, this was not a hoax.

Post Comments
13 Responses to Pranks for the memories

Robert M. Ellsworth '82 Says:

2011-01-17 09:21:11

I can't claim credit for a "major" hoax, but one that came very close to being successful was the Malcolm L. Worthell Memorial Carillon, installed in Holder Tower early in the fall term of 1976. I can provide some of the "inside" details here, but it was most interesting to see some of the reactions of students returning late from the Alchemist & Barrister as they heard the undergraduate-campus answer to the carillon at the Grad College ... My favorite "concept" prank was swapping whole floors of offices in Fine Tower. As you may have noted, each floor in this tower is almost exactly like the others, except for the view out the windows. Sufficiently far from the ground, they're interchangeable, except for the usual sorts of "personalization" -- as Vance Packard colorfully put it, "cocking your leg" -- on the various doors. What could be more natural, then, than swapping two floors' worth of door numbers and decorations, with a few quick adjustments to the elevator machinery ... and, as it turned out, I could go right down to the University's facilities building, pull the University blueprints for the elevators and their control wiring, have the blueprints duplicated for me at University expense, and then have the University staff refile them for me. Then just a few measurements and the cutting of a few extensions for the wires, and the stage was set ... Unfortunately, I came down with a hemiparetic migraine headache when the time for performing the caper approached ... and the folks actually doing the "work" decided for some reason just to cut and splice the wires. The prank was NOT so funny when the contractor who had to repair the kludge charged the University something like $750 to reconnect things to code. BTW: I would be interested to know the actual story behind the prank involving "buying the taxicab" that's mentioned in Fitzgerald's "This Side of Paradise" ...

Guy P. Cipriano '78 Says:

2011-01-17 12:13:09

Sometime in the late '70s somebody made up a sign in Latin that was the sign which Dante said was at the entrance to hell - (in Latin) Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here. It was erected on FitzRandolph Gate and was there for weeks. Finally it was removed and translated. That was a pretty good goof, too.

Charles Whitin '73 Says:

2011-01-17 16:38:20

With noses presumably in their oatmeal, and their minds on JPs and theses, it took Ivy Club's esthetes many days to discover shiny, colored pasties adorning the alabaster nipples of the naked caryatids that surrounded, and still uphold the dining room ceiling. Bare breasts were, we thought, entirely inappropriate in a place where every male would stand when a woman entered the room.

Jordan Becker '82 Says:

2011-01-24 09:29:20

Gregg - How about the Antarctica Liberation Front?

Gregg Lange '70 Says:

2011-01-24 17:28:30

The suddenly-modest-after-thirty-years Mr. Becker was one of three triumphant candidates from the ALF for USG office in 1981. Their chairman candidate lost by a mere six votes. Running (away from ____?) on a platform of taking over Antarctica ("the continent of destiny"), by jihad if necessary, the group ran one chaotic council session, then resigned before anyone had time to call the dean of the college. This was the culmination of three years of ALF activity emphasizing the triviality and powerlessness of the run-of-the-mill student government functions -- or anyway, that was the interpretation of the sane people on campus, who were desperate to infer some sort of rational basis for the anarchic cabal. In a way, the ALF was the political equivalent of the randomize-the-Fine-elevator-buttons prank. I think.

Daniel Arovas '82 Says:

2011-01-25 14:54:10

I wuz robbed.

Sandy Murdock '69 Says:

2011-02-07 09:34:17

I was the Princeton spotter for the 1967 Harvard-Princeton game. Bud Wilkinson and Curt Gowdy were the play-by-play announcers. They burst into laughter, but the screens in the booth went blank as soon as the N appeared. I'm not sure if the sound guy was quick enough to cut off the announcers' loud guffaws. As I recall, Ellis Moore '70 had five TDs and this really will test my memory, but I think that Ellis' father had an ABC connection. The other formations were also varied between the practice and the on-field viewing. The tricks for those were too subtle for the ABC crew to get or censor.

Gregg Lange '70 Says:

2011-02-07 13:28:53

Sandy's little gray cells are working overtime. Ellis Jr. '70 did indeed score five times that day, and three in his only return to Harvard Stadium as Princeton captain two years later. His dad, also Ellis Moore, was indeed a senior exec at ABC; I believe he had the title of network president at one point.

Arthur Liolin '67 Says:

2011-02-07 14:23:09

Re: #1: If I am not mistaken, that was but one episode perpetrated by "the Seven Deadly Sinners." To which one ought to add the celebrated "bulldozer race" down Nassau Street, with two vehicles absconded from the building site of the Woodrow Wilson School. Yet another of their ingenious albeit irreverent deeds was that of a "Church"-brand commode, suspended above the Chapel's French baroque pulpit, through an opening in the ceiling from which originally had hung an ecclesial canopy.

Philip D. Diggdon '54 Says:

2011-03-01 14:37:31

My class was silent and accused of having no fun. We were all 1-A to go fight in Korea if we left school. Joe Dixon Hills did manage to organize the "Joe Sugar Riots." We do the silent cheer at Reunions.

David Warner '62 Says:

2011-03-29 16:50:45

I participated in the #1 prank by agreeing to hold one or two of the horses -- I was a friend of Sam Perry's cousin who was also involved, as I remember. My favorite vignette was being caught my senior year throwing water bombs by the proctors who told me, "We know who you are, [Bill] Bradley, and you better not do it again."

Max Dynin '84 Says:

2011-04-19 09:53:14

I can only deny participating in one major prank: My junior year, the night before the eating club sign-ins, a number of Tiger Inn members, dressed in camouflage and armed with tiger paw stencils and spray paint, painted a trail of tiger paws from Nassau Hall to the front door of our beloved Tiger Inn. We were so well prepared, and the group was so well organized, that we were done within an hour. Unfortunately, the first paw was painted upon the sandstone of Nassau Hall's steps -- and the spontaneous party that followed was rudely interrupted by the arrival of a proctor. The perpetrators hid in the (tiny) keg storage room, while the proctor got our club president's permission to search the club; he never found our hiding place, though. But all our exploits pale in comparison to some of the deeds of our own Joe Palmer '84, who is unfortunately no longer with us. But these merit a story in their own right -- it suffices to say that the proctors were always on the lookout for Joe ...

Frank Getting '73 Says:

2011-04-25 11:26:18

In Triangle Club, much like the tradition of stealing the clapper or the letting loose of a greased pig in the library during preparation for finals, it was traditional for the tech crew to “gross out” the members of the cast in an attempt to fluster them as they performed. In a skit with the Snake delivering a soliloquy that developed into a diatribe with Eve about the advent of coeducation, a branch was flown in from the sky that had a big red apple skewered on a nail that the Snake plucked off and used to tempt Eve. During a 1972 reunion performance, the tech crew added to the apple a second apple with a large yellow banana dangling in the middle. I am pleased to say that the savvy Reunions audience gave the moment a standing ovation and that the Snake and Eve, after waiting for the audience to calm down, delivered the remainder of the skit without a flaw. I believe it was earlier that year, in a book show about a family in which the mother was a roller derby jammer, a female kickline on roller skates was performed in the ladies locker room as the ladies changed from street clothes to their roller derby uniforms. The tech crew made a trip to Trenton and hit all the adult book stores they could find, looking for male full-frontal nude pinups. These foldouts were taped to the insides of the all the green locker doors used as props for the scene. Given the fact that the McCarter stage has, as most professional stages, a few-degree downward slope toward the audience, the doors of the lockers kept swinging open and the ladies were forced to constantly keep swinging the doors shut as the scene developed. The ladies performed admirably, and no one in the audience was the wiser.
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