Thursday, December 17, 2015

What is that photo? [See previous post]

In February 1979 an astonishing sight appeared on Wisconsin’s Lake Mendota. The top of the Statue of Liberty seemed to emerge from the icy water. Astonished local residents flocked to the lake to witness the bizarre spectacle. It was not a mirage. It was, instead, one of the most famous college pranks of all time.

The presence of Lady Liberty on Lake Mendota was the handiwork of Jim Mallon and Leon Varjian. They were the two leaders of the “Pail and Shovel Party” that had gained control of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s student government in the Spring of 1978 — much to the surprise of everyone, including themselves.
For years the affairs of the university’s student government had attracted little interest. Turnout for elections was invariably low. Mallon and Varjian decided to shake up the status quo by running an absurdist campaign. They made outrageous campaign promises. For instance, they promised to convert the entire student government budget, all $70,000 of it, into pennies and allow the students to dig into it with pails and shovels. (Thus, the name of their party.) They promised to order all campus clocks to run backwards so classes would be over before they could begin. They said they would put dormitories on wheels and roll them to different parts of the campus each morning to provide students with a new perspective. They pledged to flood Camp Randall Stadium and wage mock naval battles. And finally, they said they would buy the Statue of Liberty and move it to Lake Mendota.

That year’s election saw the largest voter turnout of any for the past five years. Mallon and Varjian swept into office with 1510 votes out of 4529. Varjian commented, “The students felt we had the best campaign platform. We built it in front of them on the mall with 1,000 popsicle sticks.”

The Pail and Shovel Party proceeded also to win all of the senior class officer seats, five student senate spots, and posts on the boards of the student newspaper and yearbook. This gave them the ability to do almost anything they wanted. And they proceeded to do exactly that.

As soon as Mallon and Varjian were in power, they began implementing their plan of absurdity. They threw campus-wide toga parties, and bought toys to occupy students during the boredom of registration. But their masterpiece was their fulfillment of their campaign promise to move the Statue of Liberty to Lake Mendota.
The statue appeared on Lake Mendota in February of 1979. Varjian claimed the statue had been flown in by helicopter, but that the cable holding it had snapped causing Lady Liberty to crash through the ice until only the top of her head and her arm remained above water. In actuality, the statue had been constructed in a woodworking shop out of chicken wire and papier-mâché at a price of $4,000. Or 400,000 pennies.

Although an instant hit, the statue was destroyed by arson its first year.(Apparently not everyone at the University had a sense of humor.) A fireproof version replaced it in 1980 and 1981, but it didn’t appear for some years thereafter, in compliance with state regulations for removing structures on the ice. It remained in storage in a Barneveld barn, at one point suffering damage by a tornado.

In late 1995, an anonymous donor covered the cost of replacing the torch and touching up the crown, and the iconic statue returned to the ice from time to time, notably in 2009 on the thirtieth anniversary of the original prank.

All I can add is, "Take that, MIT pranskters!"


Mitchell is Moving said...

I can't believe I had never heard about this before. Thanks. I would love to see that (so thanks at least for the preceding photo).

Anonymous said...