Now that the lakes have finally frozen over, longtime Madison residents may gaze (if their eyes don't tear up too badly) over the bleak landscape of Lake Mendota and reminisce about that fateful February 28 years ago when the Statue of Liberty came to town.
Of course it wasn't the real statue (which is still firmly planted in Upper New York Bay) but an elaborate prank that came at a time when the city was still feeling the effects of anti-war riots and a fatal bombing nearly a decade earlier.
Leading the march toward levity -- literally -- was a scruffy UW-Madison student named Leon Varjian. The New Jersey native organized boom-box parades and toga parties on State Street and was one of the architects of the Statue of Liberty ruse, which has been named one of the top college pranks of all time.
Varjian, who already held bachelor's and master's degrees from other universities in mathematics, came to the city in the fall of 1977 with the goal of studying in "the graduate school of fun."
He said he was attracted by UW-Madison's reputation for wacky stunts. Then-Madison Mayor Paul Soglin said that included the Ad Hoc Committee For Thinking, a group that decorated refrigerator boxes to look like mainframe computers in the late 1960s. The person inside would slip pieces of papers through a slot, answering questions posed to the "computer," Soglin said.
Varjian soon became a leader in a movement that came at a time "when people needed to smile," then-Dean of Students Paul Ginsberg said.
Varjian may not have invented the six-year college plan, but he was certainly one of its most dedicated practitioners. He attended UW for 12 semesters, taking just one 1-credit class each session. He never got a degree here.
"I only got 11 credits," Varjian recalled in a recent interview, "because one semester I got an incomplete."
Varjian doesn't remember the class he didn't finish. But he recalls one of the classes he took quite clearly: "Colloquium in Environmental Toxicology." Why? "Because," Varjian said, "I took it five times."
'University of New Jersey'
He began his campaign of whimsy on the first day of class in the fall of 1977, when he set up a table on Library Mall. The shaggy-haired 26-year-old persuaded more than 100 students to sign a petition calling for UW to be renamed the "University of New Jersey" so, he said, "students could go to a fancy East Coast school without moving."
Jim Mallon, then a 22-year-old junior, said he was attracted to the "subversive" nature of Varjian's humor, and the two started by performing street theater a few times a week. One of the schticks was using hula hoops to turn the statue of Abe Lincoln on Bascom Hill into a giant ring toss.
Soon after arriving in Madison, Varjian got himself appointed to the Wisconsin Student Association (WSA) and eventually teamed up with Mallon to run for vice president and president, respectively, of student government in the spring of 1978.
Varjian and Mallon campaigned as part of the Pail & Shovel Party, a political organization that, Varjian explained, sought to appeal to the "4-year-old in all of us." Among the stunts they pulled during the campaign was slinging mud at a likeness of one of their opponents. They then slung mud at each other, said Mallon, a TV and film producer who lives in suburban Minneapolis.
Mallon said the pair took aim at the seriousness of student government at the time. While the establishment sought to end apartheid in South Africa, Pail & Shovel promised to paint the Downtown curbs fluorescent so drunken students could find their way home from the bars. (The drinking age then was 18).
"They (student government) were a dry, humorless group -- extremely sullen -- and completely ripe for parody," recalled Mallon, who went on to create the wacky Mystery Science Theater 3000 show for Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Channel.
Statue of Liberty
Varjian said the two tried "not to utter a single serious word" during the race. They vowed that, if elected, they would bring the Statue of Liberty to Madison.
In the winter of 1978-79, after winning their first election, the two and their accomplices set out to deliver the campaign promise that no one had taken seriously. (They had also promised to put dormitories on rollers to give students a "new perspective" each morning. That campaign pledge was never fulfilled.)
Varjian recalled that the original plan was to drag the head and torch of the faux Lady Liberty onto the lake behind Memorial Union under the cover of darkness, assemble the pieces and walk away, allowing people to discover it seemingly poking out of the ice at sunrise. Gawkers would be told that the statue had been delivered by helicopter to Madison but had broken through the ice and was resting on the bottom of Lake Mendota.
But the contraption -- a plywood frame covered by chicken wire, papier mache and muslin cloth -- was more nettlesome than the pranksters anticipated. "It took us three days to put it together," Varjian said, adding that the pieces actually were one and a half times the scale of the real statue.
The prank that began in mid-February 1979 electrified the community and became an instant Madison icon. But the $4,000 in WSA funds they spent to build the statue sparked a short-lived scandal that included an investigation by the Legislative Audit Bureau, a lawsuit and a thwarted effort to impeach Varjian as WSA vice president.
Adding fuel to the fire, in early March 1979, some spoil-sport torched the statue. But Varjian and his group didn't give up. They raised money, rebuilt the statue from giant blocks of Styrofoam and put it back on the ice the next winter, in February 1980.
By then, the mischief-makers had become well-known for their wacky stunts. Soglin, who was mayor at the time, credits Varjian and Mallon with launching the first large-scale Halloween party on State Street in 1978.
In the fall of 1979, students heading to their first classes of the year were greeted by 1,008 plastic pink flamingos on Bascom Hill, another prank that rocketed its way into campus lore. Afterward, as Varjian and the other pranksters puzzled about what to do with the 84 dozen lawn ornaments, the problem resolved itself.
"The students," Varjian said, "started stealing them.
Mallon, 50, credits Varjian as being "perhaps the most brilliant mind I ever met -- and I've met a lot of very smart people." He said the pranks they pulled fit the mood of the campus at the time, creating "a respite between the radical years and the conservative Reagan years."
Varjian, 55, long ago hung up his drum major's hat and toga for a suit and tie, "another costume" that he's worn now for 21 years. He's "Mr. Varjian" to the students at Midland Park High School in New Jersey, where he teaches math. In 1996, Varjian was named New Jersey's math teacher of the year.
Every so often, Varjian said one of his high school students discovers his prank-filled past on the Internet. The Statue of Liberty stunt also lives on in the 1992 book by Neil Steinberg, "If At All Possible, Involve a Cow." Steinberg, a Chicago Sun-Times columnist, ranked the stunt the No. 4 college prank of all time.
The Varjian-Mallon Lady Liberty legacy has since been resurrected on both Lake Mendota and Lake Monona.
Varjian said the pranks had no particular meaning. "To me, it was just fun -- something fun and silly, and I got a kick out of it," he said.
But Mallon believes there was something more.
"I think what this was in a larger sense," Mallon said, "is the power of pure joy."