Oral History: When Geraldo Rivera Opened Al Capone's Vault

For gangland aficionados, it was almost as good as the Super Bowl. On April 21, 1986, nearly 30 million viewers tuned in to The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults, a live primetime excavation hosted by Geraldo Rivera that promised to dig deep into the catacombs of the criminal’s hotel hideout on Chicago’s South Side. For two hours, Rivera shouted over power tools, ignited dynamite, took target practice with a submachine gun, and teased the possibility of finding money, weapons, or the decayed corpses of Capone’s rivals.

For Rivera, it represented an opportunity to rekindle a career that had stalled following a highly-publicized departure from ABC after 15 years with the network. “I knew everyone in the news business would be watching,” he tells mental_floss. “And as the evening wore on, I had more and more of a sinking feeling.”

In 2016, to celebrate (or bemoan) the program’s 30th anniversary, Rivera and producers recalled the dangers, obstacles, and insanity of broadcasting an urban archeological dig on live television. If Capone’s alleged bunker held any secrets, they wouldn’t come easily. 

I. TELEVISION, CHICAGO-STYLE

MyAlCaponeMuseum via YouTube

In the late 1970s, producers John Joslyn and Doug Llewelyn (The People’s Court) formed The Westgate Group, a production company based out of Los Angeles. At the same time the two were actively searching for programming ideas, Joslyn got wind of a discovery by mafia historians Harold Rubin and Thomas Bangs: Capone’s old haunt, the Lexington Hotel on Michigan Avenue, had a concrete wall in the basement that might contain some of the late mob kingpin’s possessions.  

John Joslyn (Producer): I happened to read an article in the newspaper about the Lexington Hotel and how the owner believed there was a vault in the basement. I sat down with Doug, my partner, and said, “Doug, what do you think about this?” He thought it was a big concept. We ran it by a pal of ours in New York who was in ad sales, and he goes, “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.” He fell on the floor. He told us we had to do it.

Allan Grafman (Then-Vice President, Tribune Entertainment): It landed on the desk of the president of Tribune, Sheldon Cooper. We were only a few years old at the time and had syndicated shows, but doing something live was unheard of. I met with Westgate and thought this could really be something.

Sheldon Cooper (Then-President, Tribune Entertainment): We were generating content for our stations, and to sell across the country. It was really for stations that couldn’t afford original content on their own.

Joslyn: ABC said, “You don’t know what’s inside?” No. NBC said, “We gotta know what’s inside.” I told them no. They would not go on the air without it, but we weren’t going to do that.

Grafman: It was way too out there for the big networks.

Peter Marino (Then-Vice President, Program Development, Tribune Entertainment): John went on to tell me about the rumored tunnels that went under Michigan Avenue from the Lexington Hotel to the Metropole Hotel, directly across Michigan Avenue. John mentioned not only the tunnels but a hidden staircase and three cement vaults. The center vault … had electrical cables protruding from the top of the vault. Why would there be electrical cables? Were they to light up a wine cellar? Were bodies buried in the vault?

Joslyn: Tribune stepped up. It was a big commitment, to do a live show and not know what’s in the vault.

Cooper: Al Capone was known internationally. You go to Europe and say “Al Capone,” and they make a pistol with their finger.

Grafman: I sold it worldwide, to 20 different countries.

Clark Morehouse (Then-Executive Vice President, Sales, Tribune Entertainment): The year before, a company called TPE did a live special and tried to raise a vault out of the Andrea Doria from World War II. They didn’t find a whole lot, but they did a 22 rating, which was very nice, so we were coming on the heels of that.

Donald Hacker (Then-Executive Vice President, Tribune Entertainment): Peter and Allan had this crazy idea of doing this as a live event, which was interesting. The hotel itself was being renovated for a female job training school by the Sunbow Foundation.

Joslyn: It was a nonprofit women’s group that trained women in low-income neighborhoods.  

Hacker: They had found secret passages. So I thought, yeah, this could be intriguing. This was long before the History Channel or the Discovery Channel, but it was in that vein.

In 1985, Tribune agreed to finance a $900,000 production by Westgate that would consist of a live breaching of the vault peppered with documentary-style footage that would tell the story of Capone’s rise and fall in the criminal underworld. Initially, the choice of a host seemed obvious.

Cooper: Joslyn was telling me they were planning on talking to Robert Stack. [Stack had portrayed Capone’s nemesis, Eliot Ness, on the 1959-1963 television series The Untouchables.] I said, that’s not a bad idea, but I really think we need someone who can walk and talk at the same time.  

Hacker: We felt we had to have someone who could handle a live event, someone who came from news.

Marino: Having seen Robert Stack attempt to host a morning TV talk show, I felt we needed someone who could do it without cue cards, a real reporter. Sheldon suggested Mike Wallace. A terrific idea, but I doubted CBS would allow their 60 Minutes star to appear on our syndicated special.    

Cooper: I said, “Well, there’s this guy who just got fired from ABC, but he won them a whole bunch of awards.”

Morehouse: Bringing in Geraldo was a real outside of the box thing, but it turned out to be genius.

Joslyn: Shelly was adamant about it.

Morehouse: Geraldo had done a story about Willowbrook, about mentally challenged kids being abused on Staten Island, that catapulted him into the ABC thing. [The piece won Rivera a Peabody Award in 1972.]

Cooper: Then there was some kind of quarrel over something that would be on the air in 10 seconds today. [Rivera stood up for a colleague, Sylvia Chase, who had a 20/20 story about Marilyn Monroe’s alleged affairs with John and Robert Kennedy withheld from broadcast.]

Morehouse: It was a hard fall from grace.

Cooper: He was so down over losing his job at ABC that he just wanted to get away from everybody. 

Hacker: I vividly remember calling his agent and describing what we were going to do and having him say, “Hell, no.”

Cooper: I told him to forget them. He’s out of work and somewhere in the world. Go talk to him directly.

Hacker: He had taken his sailboat out and was somewhere in the Panama Canal. I think we met in Marina del Rey.

Geraldo Rivera (Host): My agent got in touch and said he had an offer but that he didn’t think I’d be interested. I asked how much. He said $25,000. I told him, “Get $50,000 and I’ll do it.”  

Joslyn: We overnighted him all of the research we had done. He called the next day and said, “OK, deal.”

Rivera: It’s a two-hour show, so we’ll do an hour documentary, and whatever happens with the vault, happens.

II. A DIRTY JOB

Westgate had roughly four months to complete pre-production on the special before it aired. In addition to getting proper permits from Chicago and permission from Sunbow, there was a concentrated effort to get some idea of the origins of the “vault”—a 125-foot long concrete wall that began in the Lexington’s basement and stretched out underneath Michigan Avenue's sidewalk.

Joslyn: It wasn’t a safe with a tumbler. It was a large concrete mass.

Tim Samuelson (Cultural Historian, City of Chicago): What started this whole thing was the fact someone had found a sidewalk vault under the Lexington. It was common practice in the late 19th century to build out underneath a sidewalk and have doorways leading to the space. Businesses could have storage, load packages, that kind of thing. They’d start to leak and get sealed up with brick, concrete, then filled up with gravel and sealed over. I have a feeling someone heard “vault” and it took on a whole new definition.

Cooper: I remember getting a call from the business manager at Tribune Tower saying people were worried the street might fall in and people would be hurt or killed. Then it was concern over fires. We took it very seriously.

Grafman: It was a boarded-up mess of a building. I think [Sunbow] was around to make sure we didn’t blow it up.

Morehouse: I remember we took a bus trip down there on the coldest day of the year in Chicago. There was this whole story about an underground railroad running whiskey and other contraband.

Samuelson: The lore comes up all the time. The gangs of the time were really low-tech people. They weren’t digging tunnels.

Joslyn: Construction came to me one day and said, “We’re going to have to lower a baby bulldozer down there.” They took the tires off to make it fit. People do not realize the work involved.

Morehouse: They had done X-rays from the street level and on all sides, and the results were inconclusive.

Joslyn: We had ground-penetrating radar not to see what was in it, but to find parameters, to see which direction to go in.

Rivera: We had sonar, we had vibrations, we had the sort of technology available for pregnant women back in those days.

Hacker: [Westgate] had sonar and all this stuff to look at the area, which was quite big. We were reasonably sure something was in there, but we didn’t know what it was.

Joslyn: We got calls from Capone’s family wanting to see what was inside. We told them no. We weren’t going to do it that way.  

Samuelson: They asked me to come down and what I did from the very start was say, “Look, I hate to tell you this, but this is a Chicago sidewalk vault. I don’t think there’s anything in there at all.”

Joslyn: I don’t remember exactly what Tim said, but there was marble tile in the basement area. You don’t fill in holes with one-inch marble. I saw it first-hand.

Rivera: We discerned there was a hollow chamber, but we couldn’t see what might be in it.

Cooper: They were doing interviews with relatives, or people that had been alive at the time, and the thinking was that it might be hiding money, cars, bodies, whatever. It got more exciting the more they talked to people.

Samuelson: They were the ultimate optimists.

Rivera: I was reasonably sure we would find either guns or money or dead bodies. I was pretty confident something was in there.

Cooper: Geraldo was a believer. I was never a believer or a non-believer. I just believed we had a good television show.

Samuelson: They called me once and said, “We found a torture chamber!” I go over there and it was a fuse box.

While construction crews worked to prepare the site for a television broadcast, producers kept busy fleshing out the taped portions of the show; Tribune's ad sales department tried to convince independent stations they had a winner.

Samuelson: They actually brought in Irene Hughes, who was at the time the biggest psychic in America next to Jeane Dixon. She was going to try to pick up the spirit of Capone in the building. We go to the basement, she walks toward the middle of the wall, and says, “Capone is behind it in a garden under glass, laughing, laughing, laughing.” Now, I had researched the hell out of that building. I told her there had been nothing there but a yard. Fifteen years later, the city found some old real estate atlases. What was in the middle of the Lexington? A greenhouse. Honest to god.  

Grafman: Tribune was one of the most honored, most respected media companies in America, and there were times we couldn’t believe they were letting us do this.

Morehouse: Some of the advertisers were nervous about content. About 40 percent of it was pre-taped, which allowed advertisers to pre-screen it. We had General Mills, Budweiser; 24 spots at $100,000 per spot. That’s $2.4 million, less the ad agency commission. We took it to the television convention that January and everyone got into it. We sold all the commercial time.

Hacker: We had to go to each TV station in each market to clear out a primetime spot.

Morehouse: It was like nothing you had ever seen. We had a Model T, models dressed as flappers, and a couple of guys with submachine guns. We played it to the hilt.

Samuelson: I remember sitting with Doug Llewelyn, and he said, “You know, Tim, I know you think otherwise, but I really think we’re going to find something.”

Grafman: Half of it was the excitement of what we were doing, and half of it was dread.

III. LIVE

At 7 p.m. central time on April 21, 1986, Tribune syndicated The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults to more than 180 domestic stations. An enthusiastic Rivera stood in front of the Lexington promising an adventure akin to excavating Tut’s tomb.

Rivera: I recall a producer giving me a pep talk. “Get out there and nail this on-camera open.” Live programming is controllable in a studio. This was like stepping off the ledge of a building.

Morehouse: We had forensic examiners in case there were bodies.

Cooper: Everyone had come to see this. Not just here, but from overseas, press from all over the world.

Samuelson: There was a guy there who was selling homemade T-shirts, “I was at Capone’s vault.” But they were used and had sweat stains on them.

Joslyn: We were going to blow up one part of it on live television with dynamite. To get a permit to light dynamite in Chicago? We didn’t get permission until 4 p.m. that day.

Samuelson: I remember early before the show, Geraldo had split the back of his pants. I don’t think they had an extra pair, so they were going around looking for safety pins.

Grafman: We got lucky with the time slot. The week before, Reagan had bombed Libya.

Joslyn: We had concerns about security. Once Geraldo came off the street and went into the building, we padlocked the doors. No one was getting in or out.

Samuelson: There were three of us lined up side-by-side upstairs. Me, because I knew the building and could identify stuff, the coroner, and somebody from the IRS in case they found money.

Joslyn: The IRS had a lien if there was money inside. [After his death in 1947, Capone still owed over $800,000 in unpaid taxes.]

Joslyn: We pulled down the first concrete wall and went, “Oh, god. More dirt.”

Samuelson: I looked at the layers, the broken-up sidewalk on the bottom and the slag from the steel mills on top and said, “Sorry, it’s all over.” I see Doug go over to Geraldo, point to me, shrug his shoulders, and then Geraldo sits on a milk crate and puts his hands over his face.

Joslyn: We found some bottles.

Rivera: We were finding nothing but trivial things.

Samuelson: He pulls out some old bottles and says, “Samuelson, you know old bottles, right? Come identify these.” They were two little cheap liquor bottles with an Illinois tax stamp of 1948. Probably from workmen who drank their lunch.

Morehouse: It was just a bunch of s***.

Samuelson: They were going to break down a retaining wall with a huge water main on the other side. If they had broken the pipe, it would’ve flooded the basement instantly. Everybody would have died.  

Joslyn: No. That was before the show. It flooded about 4 feet.

With time running out on the two-hour broadcast and nothing but dirt remaining, Rivera blew an air horn and called off the workers. “We didn’t find the hollow spaces we were led to believe were in there,” he told viewers. “Sorry.”

Joslyn: He called it. “OK, guys, we tried.”

Morehouse: Geraldo played it like a Stradivarius.

Rivera: It was an old building. I do not recall fearing it would collapse on my head. I was much more engaged emotionally with finding something. Later, I maybe would’ve liked for it to fall on my head.

Joslyn: There was a little confusion when the show ended. We had an extra 90 seconds, so Geraldo sang. He padded it. It was total improv.

Grafman: I think he felt his career was over.

Cooper: He was destroyed when the show ended.

Rivera: All of the construction guys went and got drunk with me.

Hacker: Geraldo was very depressed he didn’t find anything. My take on it was, it was a great adventure. People had fun. It was a great two-hour movie with a bad ending.

Grafman: Twenty of us went to a place on the South Side, some honky-tonk, and had a drink or two. Some had three or five. I don’t even know if we went to bed.

Cooper: It was one of the saddest evenings you ever saw. Everybody was downtrodden.

Grafman: We thought, "Oh, well, that’s quite a way to go out." I don’t want to say we were fearing for our jobs, but we were fearing for our jobs. Until the ratings came in.

IV. MADE MEN

Following the anticlimactic conclusion, Rivera and the producers of Capone’s Vaults went their separate, inebriated ways. While the press had a field day—“the Windy City was never windier,” according to the company’s own Chicago Tribune—the public held a different view.   

Morehouse: The next morning the teletype machine is cranking out the overnight ratings. It did a 35 share in New York, a 70 share in Chicago.

Cooper: In those days, ratings came over these big machines rattling off the ticker tape in a glass booth.

Grafman: We thought it would do a 20. It did a 35 [share, the percentage of all televisions tuned into the show]. It was an enormous, colossal success. Nationally, we out-performed the network—The Cosby Show, Family Ties. I got the ratings and slid them under Geraldo's hotel room door.

Cooper: To this day, no entertainment program in syndication has ever gotten a higher rating in Chicago, ever.

Grafman: We set a record for a live syndicated special. We did a home video deal.

Morehouse: Some executives accused me of under-selling it. We guaranteed a 25 share and got more, so there was money left on the table.

Joslyn: Now you do a 2.9 share in New York and it’s great. The world’s changed.

Cooper: The show played later on the West Coast and that was amazing. Even though the news was out, it still got phenomenal ratings.

Rivera: I knew if we found anything, I’d be the toast of the town. I also knew if we didn’t, I’d be widely ridiculed.

Joslyn: We actually kept digging for three or four days after, just to finish the job.

Grafman: We did keep digging, but it was like after you bury a body, just throwing dirt on it.

The Lexington never did get renovated: It was demolished in 1995. Despite Rivera’s fear the special would prove problematic for his career, the opposite happened. In fall 1986, Tribune announced a deal for a daily talk show featuring the broadcaster.

Grafman: We developed a lot of other live specials with Geraldo.  

Morehouse: I think we did five. We did one on missing and exploited children that got an 18 share in 1987 or 1988, and another one on the mafia.

Hacker: We did do other things, but we didn’t open anything.

Grafman: We joked there was nothing in the vault, but inside we found Geraldo’s talk show. We had an 11-year run with that.

Marino: I still hear people say it was a great show with a bad ending. They always say, “It’s too bad that there was nothing in the vault.” My reply is that there was a 50 share in that vault and the special led to a dozen other Geraldo primetime specials, a daytime Geraldo talk show that ran for years, and it certainly led to the reality television craze which continues to this day.

Morehouse: About four weeks into the show, some skinheads got into a fight and broke his nose.

Cooper: That was typical Geraldo. But his ratings were very good.

Joslyn: I remember one morning before the show, we were down in that basement, and it was sub-zero. There was a three-legged cat, a little tiny thing all of three months old. A researcher adopted him. She named him Capone.

All images courtesy of Geraldo.com unless otherwise credited.

12 Perfectly Spooky Halloween Decorations Under $25

Amazon/shopDisney
Amazon/shopDisney

Halloween is right around the corner—which means it’s officially time to bring out the jack-o'-lanterns, watch scary movies, buy your costume(s), and hang up your festive decorations. Although there are thousands of decorations to choose from, you don’t have to blow your budget while decking out your house or apartment in honor of the spooky season this year. With a little guidance, you'll find plenty of ways to create the perfect ambiance at home without going for broke. (And best of all, you can put the money you saved toward extra Halloween candy to stash away.)

From giant spiders to hanging ghosts and lawn decorations, here are a few of our favorite props under $25.

1. Halloween Pillow Covers (4-Pack); $17

ZJHAI/Amazon

These adorable Halloween-themed pillowcases make the perfect accessory for any couch, sofa, or mattress. Made with thick linen fabric, these are durable, sturdy, and designed to last for seasons to come. (Tip: To prevent the zipper from breaking, fold the pillow in half before inserting.)

Buy it: Amazon

2. Black Lace Spiderweb Fireplace Mantle; $12

Aerwo/Amazon

This versatile spiderweb prop is made with 100-percent polyester, and its knit lace spiderweb pattern adds a spooky touch to any home. Display it on your doorway, across your fireplace mantel, or atop your table. (It also makes a great backdrop for Halloween photo ops.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Statement Halloween Signs; $16

Dazonge/Amazon

These festive, statement-making banners come pre-assembled, making them incredibly easy to install. They’re also weather-resistant and washable for both outdoor and indoor use. Use tape, push-pins, or weights to prevent the signs from blowing away.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Jack Skellington and Sally Plush Dolls; $23 (Each)

Disney

Celebrate your favorite holiday with a pair of adorable Jack Skellington and Sally plush dolls from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Jack stands at 28 inches tall, while Sally is a bit shorter at 21 inches. Set them up on your sofa or against the window sill for all to see.

Buy them: Disney Shop (Jack and Sally)

5. Halloween Zombie Groundbreaker; $22

Joyin/Amazon

This spooktacular zombie lawn decoration is sure to scare all of your friends, family, and neighbors alike. Made with a combination of latex, plastic, and fabric, this durable Halloween prop is sure to last for years to come.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Hanging Ghost Decoration; $14

Moon Boat/Amazon

Drape this handmade, 14-foot-long hanging ghost decoration over your porch, doorway, or window. You can also hang it outdoors over a tree or a (very tall) bush. And, since it comes pre-assembled, you won’t have to waste time constructing it yourself.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Two-Piece Hanging Ghost Set; $17

GeeFuun/Amazon

This pair of ghosts adds a whimsical touch to any home. While they’re not “scary,” per se, they certainly are adorable. Display them in your front yard, on your porch, on a lamppost, or a tree. To hang, simply tie the ribbons and bend the wires, arms, and tails.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Pumpkin String Lights; $19

Eurus Home/Amazon

Not only are these solar-powered, 33-foot-long LED string lights good for the environment, they’re also incredibly easy to install (no long, tangly power cable chords necessary). Since they’re waterproof, you can use them both indoors and outdoors. Choose from eight different light settings, including twinkling, flashing, fading, and more.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Inflatable Ghost; $22

Joiedomi/Amazon

This adorable inflatable ghost (which dons a cute-as-can-be wizard hat!) features built-in LED lights and sandbags to help it stay sturdy. It also comes complete with a plug, extended cords, ground stakes, and fastened ropes. Simply plug it in and watch it magically inflate within just a few minutes.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Graveyard Tombstones; $17

meiguisha/Amazon

Turn your front lawn into a graveyard with this six-piece set. Each tombstone is made with foam and designed to add a touch of spookiness to your space. To install, insert one holder into the bottom of the tombstone, and one into the soil. You can use these indoors, as well.

Buy it: Amazon

11. 10-Piece Skeleton Set; $24

Fun Little Toys/Amazon

This skeleton set includes a skull, hands and arms, and legs and feet—plus five stakes to hold everything in place. Each “bone” and “joint” is flexible, allowing you to prop the skeleton into different frighteningly fun poses. Simply place the stakes into the bone socket and turn clockwise.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Outdoor Spider Web; $18

amenon/Amazon

This giant, ultra-stretchy spider web spans a whopping 23 feet. It also includes a 30-inch black spider, 20 pieces of fake spiders, one hook, and one nail. Its thick polyester rope—combined with the sturdy stakes—allows the spider web to stay in place all season long. Place the hook on a wall or tree, and expand the web using the stakes.

Buy it: Amazon

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Bat Boy Lives! An Oral History of Weekly World News

Popular Weekly World News cover monster Bat Boy.
Popular Weekly World News cover monster Bat Boy.
Courtesy of Weekly World News

In 2000, longtime Weekly World News editor Eddie Clontz discussed the legendary tabloid newspaper’s standard of journalistic ethics with The Philadelphia Inquirer. “We don’t sit around and make [stories] up,” Clontz said, "but if we get a story about a guy who thinks he is a vampire, we will take him at his word."

From 1979 to 2007, Weekly World News captured the attention of supermarket customers with its bombastic headlines about a world that seemed to mirror, but not quite reflect, our own. In this reality, Elvis was alive, alien visitors were common, weird science ruled, and a half-human, half-bat child named Bat Boy became a folk hero.

At the height of its popularity in the late 1980s, circulation reached 1.2 million copies per week. Headlines like “Bigfoot Kept Lumberjack as Love Slave” ruled its covers. A team of dedicated journalists filled its pages with satirical fiction. If fact happened to stumble its way inside, it would be adjusted to fit the paper’s mission statement. An undertaker arrested for selling body parts became “My Brain Is Missing!” A mild story from The Wall Street Journal about a small Australian town boasting of large earthworms became a histrionic, breathless tale of giant worms burrowing underground and creating ruptures in the ground that swallowed cattle whole.

As news outlets have increasingly become subject to controversy over what some label “fake news,” Weekly World News can lay a legitimate claim to having invented the genre. More than 40 years after it debuted, Mental Floss spoke with more than a dozen former editors, writers, and contributors about the paper’s origins, its process, and how it went on to influence the news satire of today, from The Onion to The Daily Show. Or, to borrow a cue from the paper: “Grifters Reveal How They Fooled World for Decades!”

I: The Paper Chase

Weekly World News was initially focused on celebrity gossip.Courtesy of Weekly World News

Generoso Pope Jr. could be considered the father of the modern supermarket tabloid newspaper. With the aid of a $25,000 down payment reportedly borrowed from the mob, Pope purchased The New York Evening Enquirer (which later became The National Enquirer) in 1952. The lurid paper specialized in tawdry headlines like “Starving Mom Eats Own Child” before softening its content to gain retail space at grocery stores in the 1970s.

When rival tabloid The Star went to a color format, Pope was forced to follow suit. That left him with an unused black-and-white printing press, which he saw as an opportunity to return to the bizarre news of the early Enquirer. In the summer of 1979, a small staff supervised by editor Phil Bunton, stationed inside the Enquirer offices in Lantana, Florida, began work on what would become Weekly World News.

Paul Kupperberg (Editor, 2004-2007): I remember the Enquirer from its grisly early days when I was a child. It was kind of a rag in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Stuff like “Boy Trapped in Old Fridge Eats Own Foot to Stay Alive.” It was kind of spooky to a little kid.

Sal Ivone (Managing Editor, 1981-1988): Pope was stuck with this black and white printing facility near Montana. He basically said, “OK, let me just publish another magazine.”

Barbara Grover (Editorial Assistant, 1981-1985): They had moved the color printing up to New York and told people at the publishing house he’d create a new newspaper in black and white so they could keep their jobs. I worked there as a clipper at first.

Iain Calder (Editor-in-Chief, The National Enquirer, 1973-1997): He could’ve gotten rid of it, but Gene was friendly with the family that ran it. He felt he couldn’t have them, plus a lot of other people printing it, not have jobs. So he and I sat down and kicked around all kinds of different things to do on black and white paper. Finally, he said, “Why don’t we do what Reader’s Digest did?” Reader’s Digest, when it started out, took the best stories from around the world and reprinted them. He said, “Why not just do the best stories, the really wacky stories?” So that’s what we did.

Joe Berger (Editor, 1981-2001): I went to work there in 1981, so almost from the beginning. I was a reporter for Newhouse News Service in Washington and covered the White House. Washington wasn’t like it is now, not quite as exciting. So every day, like most reporters, I scanned through job openings, and Weekly World News, which I had never heard of, had an ad in there. Gene Pope paid good money, at least twice as much as what I was making at the time in Washington.

Bob Lind (Writer, 1990-1998): We had brilliant journalists like Joe Berger and Jack Alexander. One came from The Washington Post, one was from The New York Times. Berger was a White House correspondent.

Calder: What we had as an advantage was that we pretty much owned the front end of supermarkets. The National Enquirer was one of the first to get into supermarkets, after TV Guide and a couple of [food] magazines. It cost a fortune, but that was one reason the Enquirer surged in circulation in the early 1970s to mid-1980s. Hundreds of millions of people would see it.

Berger: Pope was like the Godfather to the staff. He ruled with an iron fist. One day we wrote a story about Albuquerque and Pope insisted we spelled it wrong. We looked it up a number of times and were all sure we were right, but he insisted you spelled it another way, so we changed Albuquerque to the way he wanted it. No one argued with him. People were afraid to challenge him, so we ran the story with the name of the city spelled wrong.

Grover: Pope was a tough, no-nonsense guy, but he would do anything he could for people he liked. He got my neighbor a job at the Enquirer, and the neighbor later died from an infection. Pope gave his family $85,000 in cash to help out.

Calder: We got newspapers and magazines from all over the English-speaking world and brought in people to read the papers, piles of them, 8 feet high. They were the clippers. We would rewrite the stories.

Berger: About 80 percent of the stories were clipped from newspapers. We had three or four clippers who were surrounded by mountains of newspapers. We spent the day looking at newspapers throughout the world, clipping weird stories. About 50 percent were about people narrowly escaping death; someone falling off a cliff, or hanging off a tree branch for four days until they were rescued. We would write the story [and] put in a splashy headline. Most stories were very true and accurate.

Ivone: In 1981 and 1982, before Google, you’d go into the newsroom and piles of mailer containers full of newspapers would be there. You’d take a break every other day and clip stories from all over the world. We thought if we were fascinated, readers would be fascinated, and it proved to be correct.

The first issue of Weekly World News was released in October 1979 and sold a respectable 120,000 copies. Over the course of the next several years, however, it became clear that recycled weird news items held only limited appeal for readers. To hold the attention of buyers in the competitive supermarket sales space, Weekly World News would have to find another beat besides the celebrity gossip genre owned by its sister publication, The National Enquirer.

Berger: In the beginning, we were very careful about facts. And then several years later, we were writing about space aliens, Bigfoot, and Bat Boy.

Calder: It slowly morphed into that. It didn’t change overnight. The paper wasn’t able to get fantastic stories from clippings, and so it slowly used less and less stuff from other newspapers and became more about things from the minds of the editors.

Ivone: We kept a careful running tally on sales and noticed when we drifted away from celebrity stories and differentiated ourselves—went to bigger headlines and bolder stories—it worked.

Berger: It was all factual but kind of boring, and people weren’t buying it. So Pope kept hitting the editors hard to make it more and more exciting. No matter how they jazzed it up, he wasn’t happy. They didn’t want to lose their jobs, and he was the kind of guy where if you didn’t please him, you were gone. They were running for their lives and gradually had to come up with wilder and wilder stuff to please him. The only way to do it was to gradually add stories that weren’t true. That’s when stories about aliens and the weirder stuff, “Bigfoot Tried to Eat My Little Boy,” came up. It was a demand from the boss for more exciting stuff. There just wasn’t any way to adhere to the truth and give him what he wanted.

Ivone: We tiptoed into fiction. We’d exaggerate now and then, and then exaggerate more, as we went through newspapers and magazines. “This is a good story, it’s already covered, but what would make it more compelling? What would yield the most compelling headline?” That’s how we got into thinking about this imaginary world with recurring characters, like Bat Boy, Bigfoot, aliens, and all the rest.

Lind: We wrote these things straight, for people who wanted to believe these things. We wrote it like a news story. We wrote a lede with a dash in it, filled it in, and then had a money quote.

Ivone: It was an incremental process. We didn’t fight it. We were being rewarded by readers.

Lind: We didn’t make all of it up. A lot of them were true stories.

Ivone: We used “borrowed credibility.” On the left-hand side, there were stories people recognized, and then there were the more outlandish, mythical, urban legends on the right side. It was all juxtaposed with recognizable, legitimate stories to get readers to think about it. “This is true, this farmer in Idaho saying his wife ran away with Bigfoot.” It’s given a little bit of credibility, a platform to give people permission to believe it.

C. Michael Forsyth (Writer, 1996-2005): I used to read it in college and get a kick out of it. I sometimes got buffaloed into believing the stories.

II. Faking It

Headlines were crucial to enticing impulse buyers at the grocery store checkouts. Courtesy of Weekly World News

By most accounts, Weekly World News developed its voice when Eddie Clontz was named managing editor in 1981. Clontz pushed staff to increasingly delirious heights.

Ivone: Eddie was a certifiable genius. What Eddie did was create an atmosphere where we could explore those stories.

Lind: Eddie had an uncanny feel for what worked, what readers were looking for.

Dick Kulpa (Artist, 1987-2003): I came in with an ultrasound of my daughter. He said, “That’s a galaxy shaped like a human fetus.” That became our page one. He had a knack for this. He was a twisted genius, but a genius. Joe West was editor, Eddie managing editor, but Eddie had a big mouth and was very influential.

Calder: Eddie was the real key to the whole thing.

Berger: Eddie made Weekly World News what it is, with a lot of help. But it was his vision, his idea.

Lind: Eddie was loved and hated. I happened to love him.

Ivone: We were friends but we had disagreements. I liked the idea of the way he ran the newsroom. There were no meetings, just pitching. The proof is in the pudding. The product was very successful.

Lind: Eddie had native intelligence, an excellent feel for what people wanted to read. He knew balanced reporting was dull reporting.

Ivone: There was tension. I was the city mouse and he was the country mouse. I grew up in New York City.

Lind: It was interesting between him and Sal. Sal was very educated, cared about arts, knew literature, knew art, knew classical music. Eddie’s most memorable night in the theater was seeing Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School. Eddie had a fifth or sixth grade education. Sal would talk about great art, Eddie would say it’s a bunch of sh*t. Sal would say, “You wouldn’t know great art.” Eddie would say, “I see a security guard with a red rope, that’s great art.”

Ivone: Eddie had a great voice. He’d stand up on his desk. He had a big squirt gun. It was unlike any office in the country. It was regimented and run like a business, but it was relaxed. There were no meetings or suits or ties.

Charlie Neuschafer (Executive Editor, 1986 to 2002): I had at times a good relationship with Eddie, at times a little bumpy. He was a smart guy. We were a pretty animated bunch of people having a lot of fun and some occasional disagreements. Nothing that led to any harm.

Ivone: I felt he came off as a tough guy but so appreciative of staff. There was a duality to his personality. He was a tough guy to work for in many ways; not for me, but for other staff.

Berger: I won’t speak badly of Eddie. He was very mercurial. Eddie could be nice and could have temper tantrums. He could be smiling and laughing one minute and flying off the handle about something the next minute, like Pope. If he liked you, fine. If he didn’t, you were in trouble and never got a minute’s peace.

Grover: Eddie was an unusual, difficult human being. But Weekly World News required someone unusual. A real journalist couldn’t do that.

Berger: Joe West was appointed editor and was there for a while until he got fed up with Pope. He couldn’t stand it. He was kind of a fiery guy. He left, quit, stormed out. Eddie Clontz, who was then assistant editor, became editor-in-chief. Eddie was the editor-in-chief during most of the time Weekly World News enjoyed its greatest success in the late 1980s and into the 1990s.

Calder: Eddie worked for West but it was clear [Eddie] was the driving force. When West left, Eddie took over as editor and Sal became managing editor. He was a smart journalist and a good organizer. Eddie was a terrible organizer, but he came up with front page ideas.

Before long, Weekly World News submerged itself completely in the fantastic. While some readers were annoyed—one police department in Mobile, Alabama complained they had not captured a werewolf, as reported—almost everyone else was amused.

Derrik Lang (Writer, 2004): I think they were really looking for things to grab people’s attention that had a humorous element to them. And maybe have them be a little bit shocking.

Neuschafer: I did one about a renegade rooster on a rampage. The banner on that was “Cock-A-Doodle-Doom.”

Lind: My favorite story that I wrote was about Siamese twins where one was a good cop and one was a bad cop. And there was a bungling crook, a guy who writes a “give me money” note on his own check receipts. Whatever would be outlandish enough to get the attention of people. They want to believe in ghosts, space aliens.

Neuschafer: There was a baby born with a wooden leg. We did a lot of variations on that theme. Babies born with a tattoo, a mustache.

Kulpa: As soon as we read about Photoshop, we acquired it. Prior to that, photos were airbrushed. How could you do a half-dog, half-cat that looks real? We had visuals, but it was the stories that carried weight.

Neuschafer: We'd do something about the world’s heaviest cat, then another heavier cat would come along, which we’d spin off. We’d airbrush it to make for a really fat cat. Anything could be a spin-off.

Forsyth: We would have ongoing narratives. The serialization of some stories were great. There was one we did about a more obscure sea monster, the Lake Champlain monster up in one of the Great Lakes. We did a story that the creature set sail across the Atlantic on a mission to go toe-to-toe with Nessie. We built it up: He’s on the way, he gets there, and it turns out he went there to mate with Nessie. Then we followed up that they had a baby. Then we had a contest to name the baby.

Lind: Leskie Pinson did a column, "Around the World with Leskie Pinson," that was really a short story. One was about Leskie getting badly injured in Samoa when he was attacked by a boa constrictor. His ribs were broken. Now he's recovering. He’s getting thousands of get-well cards. Not a word of it was true.

Forsyth: Sometimes reporters took on a role in the story. We had a character named George Sanford who went and broke into Area 51. It was a serialized story. He vanished, and another reporter escaped, went missing, was somehow rescued.

Lind: We said we had a Weekly World News jet flying all over the world to get stories. There was no such jet.

Neuschafer: I did a rafting trip in Colorado, took pictures of ancient hieroglyphs on the canyon, brought it back, and wrote a story about how they were made by space aliens. It was anything you could come up with.

Forsyth: As a reader in college, I remember a story about a baby being born who spoke as soon as it came out of the womb. It said “Not again” and never spoke again. It was written with credibility and so it puts chills up your spine, but it’s also darkly funny.

Ideas weren’t solely a result of imagination. The staff of Weekly World News would hear from readers and even called up legitimate sources to help validate their fables.

Berger: I remember doing a story about a guy who had been on a diet and got so hungry that he spotted a little person on the street, thought he was a chicken, and took off with a hatchet down the street after him. I had to have a psychiatrist come in and explain how it was possible someone could starve themselves so much they became delusional. We had to have someone explain how that was possible.

Facts were often optional. Courtesy of Weekly World News

Neuschafer: There were times when we had sources and reporters who did phone work or were sometimes on assignment somewhere. For crime stories, someone calling a police department about a case. Some things were bizarre enough in life to report straight.

Forsyth: We would report those stories like any other reporter would. For crime stories, you'd get a quote from the district attorney, the sheriff. There was real reporting that went on.

Berger: If something was too difficult to believe, we’d come up with a quote from a baffled scientist who would provide a reason it might be true. We used to joke about the Academy of Baffled Scientists.

Lind: A lot of times, people would call or write with ideas. Someone claimed to have found a dinosaur somewhere and wrote a paper about it. I treated them with respect. I called them and said, “Tell me about this.” We took people’s word for it, even though we knew it was bullsh*t.

Forsyth: We would say we were from Weekly World News, but most people, though they may have seen it, it doesn’t register. It just sounds generic. If you approached it in a serious manner, people would speak to you. I spoke to scientists, university professors. People are all too eager, especially scientists, to tell you something they want the world to understand.

Berger: Our mantra was, "Never talk yourself out of a good story." If a lady called and said aliens ate her laundry, The New York Times might say, “Do you have evidence?” We’d say, “Oh, do you know if he liked jeans or frilly stuff best?”

Neuschafer: The National Enquirer would get sued and had some pretty well-publicized lawsuits, but we didn’t deal with celebrities. Space aliens really didn’t take anyone’s laundry. But there were still lawyers who read it. Everything had to be approved by a big law firm in Washington, D.C. We had to conform if they said to do something.

Forsyth: There were only a couple of times the paper got into legal trouble but it was mostly avoided. If we made up a story, we checked to make sure no one was in the city or in the world with that name. We’d make up names. The first part of the name would be Anglo-Saxon, and the second part would be Italian. The name wouldn’t even exist.

In experimenting with different stories, from alien abductions to prophecies, Weekly World News quickly learned which types of tales on the cover would move copies.

Berger: Sometimes there was one big splashy headline, then some ticker heads. If one didn’t grab them, something else would. It was important to keep circulation up. You’d hold your breath when the circulation figures came in. On a big day, you'd go to the boss and say, “Look how many copies we sold.” If you sold half that many, you might not be there next week. There was no real method to it, just keeping track of what sold and getting a feel for what would sell the next time around. If a story sold, we tried to find a way to revive it in a few weeks. We knew Bigfoot stories would sell if done right.

Kulpa: Sometimes we would do three versions. Three covers went into a focus group area. We would get numbers back on those, and the winner would become next week’s cover.

Ivone: We picked Roanoke, Virginia. It was a good bellwether. It was very much marketing, very much driven by data.

Kulpa: One thing that did well for the Enquirer and for us were predictions. In the 1980s, it was World War III. People were concerned and would grab predictions to see what the future holds. They were upbeat. Predictions imply there will be world a year from now.

Forsyth: For a while, prophecies were selling. Who could provide a prophecy? We did Unabomber’s prophecy, the Donner party prophecy.

Ivone: We always had covers with miracle cures of garlic, apple cider vinegar, but we also wanted alien abduction stories. There was always a blend. We never abandoned self-help stories. We were baffled by it, but they always did ok. They were good performers.

Kupperberg: Heaven and hell stuff was strong. Things discovered in the Titanic were also pretty good. And coming disasters, an apocalypse of some sort. Giant monsters.

Forsyth: I once did gay skeletons found in a Titanic life ring, which is—what the hell is that? That makes no sense. But I wrote it and people said it was actually quite touching. The sailors died in each other’s arms.

Calder: There were things you couldn’t do. Nothing like sex. If supermarkets say no, you’re out of business.

Ivone: We often found that people who bought tabloids bought two or three, like The Star or The Sun. We wanted to be the second buy.

III. The Madhouse

The staff of Weekly World News had to come up with compelling covers every week.Courtesy of Weekly World News

Departing from fact to create fiction, the staff of Weekly World News developed a kind of bullpen in their offices.

Neuschafer: It was an old-school kind of newsroom, cigarettes in ashtrays, manual typewriters banging away on desks, like a newsroom you’d see in movies in the 1940s, but it worked.

Forsyth: You walked into the Enquirer building and it would look somewhat like a real old-fashioned movie newsroom. It was just desk after desk, one gigantic open space. We’d hang out at the Hawaiian after work, a local motel/bar on the beach. It was a dream job, waking up in the morning, writing two long made-up stories and three to five filler stories, and then going to the beach after work.

Neuschafer: There was always a chance after work to get together, have a beer, and have more story ideas.

Berger: I remember [co-worker] Jack Alexander used to complain to me that he would go home at night and had been laughing so hard during the day that his face hurt. That’s the kind of atmosphere we had. People laughed all day, threw ideas around. People would throw out headlines for a story.

Forsyth: There was definitely a family feeling with a small staff. We had affection for the paper and for what we were doing.

Berger: It was like the atmosphere of a fifth grade class when the teacher leaves the room. Everyone was yelling, screaming, throwing things at each other, calling each other names in a humorous way. People with their feet on the desk.

Calder: The office was a big, big area, and one little corner was Weekly World News with very few employees. The Enquirer attitude was they thought it was entertaining. “What will they come up with next week?” The Enquirer offices were a very high-powered editorial space and had a blank front page to sell 4.5 million copies every single week.

Berger: Pope called us all into the conference room one day after we had gotten cubicles and it had changed the atmosphere. He said, “I don’t like the way things are going in the newsroom. When I stick my head out, I want to hear you guys yelling and screaming and laughing. If you guys aren’t having fun putting out the paper, readers won’t have fun.” The cubicles went and we went back to laughing and that fifth grade atmosphere. He was right about that.

Neuschafer: We sold a lot of papers and were always scratching our heads. The news was fake, or mostly so, but the ads were very real. Advertisers were paying good money to advertise in the paper.

Kulpa: Occasionally I would go to schools and give speeches. I would ask how many people read Weekly World News, and half the kids raised their hands. They were 12-year-olds. I was shocked. We had a college following, too.

Berger: It became satirical. We were playing to two different readers. There were people who read Weekly World News and enjoyed it as a humor and satire publication, and there were people who read Weekly World News and wanted to believe every word in there. In every story we gave the reader a chance to believe what they wanted to believe. We were walking a fine line. People believed in ghosts, aliens, Bigfoot. If they wanted to believe a space alien ate someone’s lawn mower, let them believe it.

Kulpa: Who the readership was is something we never got a handle on. I couldn’t tell you. A guy once asked me, “Where do you get those stories?” I pointed to my head and his jaw dropped. A lot of people wanted to believe those stories.

Neil McGinness (Editor-in-Chief, 2008-2018): I grew up with it, in college. I loved it, used to read it all the time. I would pore over every detail in the publication, the presentation, the headlines, the cleverness of it. It functioned like a portal into another reality, like ours, but portraying a world that was more fun, with aliens, zombies, Bigfoot, and sea creatures.

Kulpa: The Weekly World News philosophy was like what Stan Lee was to the original Marvel Comics. Both were grounded, both were believable. You read a comic and believed the Hulk could have actually existed through radioactivity. It gave it plausibility. Weekly World News did the same thing: You run a story, have an expert to debunk the story, print it with the story, and it gave it credibility.

Berger: With the weird stuff, we went from selling 100,000 copies to 1 million a week. There was no looking back. No one thought about sticking to the facts after that.

IV: Bat Boy Begins

Bat Boy stories proved immensely popular for the paper.Courtesy of Weekly World News

Under the gleefully demented leadership of Eddie Clontz, Weekly World News came into its own in the late 1980s. In order to keep readers coming back for more, it developed a number of stories that were serialized in nature. One of their biggest recurring hits began with a May 1988 headline that declared Elvis Presley, who had died of a heart attack on August 16, 1977, was still alive. In 2004, The Los Angeles Times declared that Clontz “gave birth to the Elvis-is-alive phenomenon.”

Ivone: The biggest seller was anything with Elvis. “Elvis is Alive” was an all-time bestseller.

Calder: The National Enquirer used to get the credit for that.

Ivone: All the credit for Elvis goes to Eddie. We would get books all the time. One book was about this idea Elvis faked his own death. We called the author, did a book review, put it on the front page, and trumpeted it as a news story.

Berger: Some lady in England had written a book claiming Elvis faked his own death and was still alive and hiding out somewhere. So the original “Elvis Is Alive” headline was about that lady’s book, which claimed he was in hiding, couldn’t stand publicity, and was out there roaming around in secret.

Ivone: People who loved Elvis, it was giving them some hope it might be true. Some genuinely said, “I saw Elvis.”

Berger: People started writing in. There were sightings around the country. Real sightings.

Lind: Elvis would appear in all kinds of places.

Berger: Anytime we could get an “Elvis Is Alive” story on the cover, we had to do that. A woman wrote in and claimed she spotted Elvis in a McDonald’s in Kalamazoo. That was good enough for us.

Calder: We’d say Elvis was still alive and run a picture of what Elvis would have looked like at that time. We’d get dozens of phone calls. If someone calls and says, “I saw Elvis,” you didn’t try to disprove the headline. If you’re an Elvis fan and see something about Elvis still being alive, how could it not grab your attention?

Forsyth: It started to get old. You’d have a waitress seeing him. I can’t remember one story, but it played on the fact that Elvis had a twin brother. After a while, things become self-parody. Elvis became “Ha-ha, this is a joke.” We wanted to give people a chance to believe in the story.

Berger: There was a lady somewhere in the south who claimed with a straight face she lived with Elvis for three or four years. He was her boyfriend. She told us the whole story of living with Elvis. She was very sincere.

Neuschafer: We used stand-ins for Elvis with a little bit of airbrushing. I was never Elvis, but I was used for a couple of other stories.

McGinness: In many instances, the stories contained journalistic sleights of hands or twists that really drove home the thematic element to the story. It wasn’t just that Elvis was spotted in a Burger King, but that the person at the counter was surprised he ordered a Double Whopper, or two Double Whoppers.

Weekly World News ran at least 57 “Elvis Is Alive” stories between 1988 and 1992. At one point, nationally syndicated humor columnist Dave Barry suggested to Clontz that the paper should report that Elvis had just died. “Elvis Dead at 58” was printed not long after.

As Elvis headlines began to wane, editors found a new protagonist. And unlike the King, he was birthed inside of the company’s offices. “Bat Child Found in West Virginia Cave,” which ran on June 23, 1992, introduced the world to Bat Boy, a 2-foot tall, 19-pound hybrid beast-child highly sought after by government officials.

Kulpa: Bat Boy was created by accident. I was asked to do a space alien baby and I did. The editor saw it and put it away, saving it. I did a number of versions, and six weeks later, the bat child was born. It went on page one and sold 975,000 copies—a great seller for us.

Lind: Dick Kulpa was a brilliant artist. He did a space alien with big ears and a mean look. Sal Ivone said, “Maybe he’s not a space alien. Maybe he’s half-human, half-bat.”

Kulpa: I see Bat Boy as more like the It’s Alive baby. He’s strangely vicious yet lovable.

Ivone: Dick Kulpa did a drawing with big ears, big eyes, and wanted to do it as an alien baby. I said, “I’m sick of alien stories. Can we do something different?” I sketched out an idea for a subterranean civilization, and someone who becomes a stranger in a strange land. The idea being, this would be a story that had legs. We could make it episodic. Those stories seemed to sell well.

Berger: Bat Boy was obviously a figment of someone’s imagination. Dick was doing some artwork, trying to come up with a picture of a space alien. He came up with a drawing of a guy with giant, pointy ears and big teeth. He looked and said, “Oh, we gotta do something with that,” and handed it over to a reporter. It might have been Eddie’s brother, Derek Clontz. Derek came up with the story of Bat Boy being found in a cave in West Virginia.

Calder: “Bat Boy Found in West Virginia Cave.” Who would think of that?

Ivone: After seeing the visual, I sketched out four or five talking points, but Derek Clontz gave it life. Like the idea he consumes 300 pounds of bugs a day. That made it compelling.

Kulpa: Look at the painting The Scream and you’ll see a connection.

Lind: We had to be careful. Anything that smacked of bestiality was kept out of the paper, but we didn’t go into how he was conceived. We just said he was found in a cave and built on the image.

Ivone: It had nothing to do with interspecies comingling. He was representative of a different civilization.

Kulpa: The comic book side of me said, “We need to develop the character,” but newspaper people didn’t understand what that meant.

Ivone: The first Bat Boy story did very well, and so we kept repeating it.

Kulpa: Kids love monsters, especially friendly monsters, hero monsters who will save the day for them. I see him as a staunch defender for the innocent, but he could also be one hell of an a**hole. You don’t offer candy to Bat Boy. There might be more than candy getting chewed up.

McGinness: Bat Boy is unique in that he’s not a heroic figure. He’s more of an antihero. You can draw parallels to Don Quixote in that you have a protagonist who isn’t a hero but fallible and subject to lapses in judgment. Like the time he stole a Mini-Cooper and led police on a chase.

Authorities often found it difficult to keep Bat Boy in custody.Courtesy of Weekly World News

Lind: He was found in a cave, he escaped, the FBI would catch him and hold him in some undisclosed location.

Berger: An FBI agent called the paper and asked us to retract it. They were getting so many calls demanding Bat Boy be released that their switchboard was being flooded. I think Eddie took the call.

Lind: One day Eddie gets a call from the FBI. Like, “Hey, we’re getting all these calls, knock it off." Eddie said, “We’ll never do it again.” As soon as the receiver hit the hook he turned around and said, “OK, Bat Boy escapes from the FBI ..."

Ivone: The FBI called me once, hysterical. It was because of a story about a Civil War orphan or a child suddenly appearing on a battlefield, and I guess the FBI felt we had given them a villainous role by having them take the child into custody. They said we were giving them a bad name and saying they don’t do those kinds of things. They didn’t seem to realize they were calling a funhouse. It had nothing to do with reality.

Forsyth: Characters take on a certain reality. Bat Boy became our mascot.

Kulpa: People fell in love with the image. It became the iconic image of Weekly World News.

Lang: They said, “Don’t pitch us Bat Boy stories. We take care of Bat Boy.” It was the crown jewel of Weekly World News.

Lind: We always featured him on the cover. We tried to put some time between stories. Every once in a while, we’d decide it was time for Bat Boy or time for Elvis.

Kupperberg: Most of us at this point who were coming from comic books understood how to use characters, how to spread them out over the run of a series. You don’t throw characters into every issue or it becomes boring. We knew how to juggle things. Someone would go, "Time for Bat Boy," or "Time for another devil visitation." You get a feel for things, parsing them out and not ruining them for readers.

Berger: We knew Bat Boy attracted readers, and we kept using him over and over again. If we could find a Bat Boy story that would put Bat Boy on the cover, it seemed to sell.

McGinness: The appearance was always somewhat masked. Every eyewitness account of Bat Boy was obscured. He was caught in fleeting glimpses. That let readers fill in the details.

Kulpa: The appeal of Bat Boy is the face, eyes, and mouth. There’s an emotion in that face. It connects. It’s sort of a "What am I doing here?" emotion, not an emotion of terror or horror. It’s the emotion of, "The f*ck is going on?" I think a lot of people have that emotion.

Joe Garden (Features Editor, The Onion, 1993-2012): It’s such an arresting graphic. It’s a compelling image of something like Nosferatu as a child. I still remember the cover splashing out on the newsstand. Any time they’d put him on the cover, this baby Nosferatu baring his fangs, it was really engaging.

Forsyth: In World War II, different fictional characters like Superman and Donald Duck were recruited for the war effort, so we did one where Bat Boy was recruited for the Marines. He could use his superior sense of hearing. Eventually he left the Marines to capture Saddam Hussein.

The success of Bat Boy eventually led to merchandising, a 1997 off-Broadway musical, and even talk of a feature film.

Neuschafer: There were Bat Boy T-shirts. We did Elvis Is Alive T-shirts, too.

Kulpa: We had an America Online site in the mid-1990s that I would create images for. One day I drew Bat Boy on a beer bottle. It was a Photoshop. I posted it, and lo and behold, someone paid a $10,000 license fee for Bat Boy Beer.

Ivone: There were always people who had developed movie scripts, but no one finished it off.

Kulpa: I discussed a Bat Boy movie with several people but got nowhere with anybody in terms of people running the show at the paper.

Lang: Everybody loves Bat Boy. It was basically an operatic tale. It was fitting that it was turned into an off-Broadway musical.

Kulpa: I posted a Bat Boy musical theme I composed. It was just an amateur thing. I posted it on the site and within four months we were hearing from a company who wanted to do a Bat Boy musical. I never saw it.

Lind: That was all out of my hands. Merchandising was a different department. I was glad when it became a musical, but I don’t think Kulpa got money for it. None of us did.

Kulpa: Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created Spider-Man, but you didn’t see that Dick Kulpa created Bat Boy because he was supposed to be a real character. It wasn’t until a 2007 Washington Post story that it was revealed. I warned staff for years that we were working in anonymity unless we do something about it. Of course, it never happened.

Forsyth: It was the most fun when you stuck to whatever reality we had established. He was a feral child raised in a cave. Then someone got stupid. Bat Boy running for president. No, I don’t think so.

Kulpa: I saw Bat Boy shaking hands with politicians. What a bunch of crap.

McGinness: I think the core appeal of Bat Boy is the notion that someday, somewhere, someone is going to find something. Something is going to appear that will shake everyone’s foundation and what we hold to be true.

Bob Greenberger (Writer, 2006-2007): It goes back to a fascination with sideshow attractions that P.T. Barnum celebrated. Maybe Bat Boy is real. Being found in a cave is just on the other side of plausible. Being from West Virginia, he’s one of ours, like Bigfoot.

Lind: I don’t know that the story ever ended. It probably ended with him still on the loose.

Berger: I don’t know why we didn’t do Bat Boy meets Elvis. Maybe it was too silly.

V: Alien Concepts

Politicians and aliens got along well in the pages of the paper.Courtesy of Weekly World News

Even with Elvis and Bat Boy dominating headlines, Weekly World News still kept up with the latest in an underserved area of reporting: politicians fraternizing with aliens, including P’lod, an extraterrestrial with a keen interest in human politics. Eventually, the real Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush were photographed reading the paper.

Lind: Obviously space aliens were a great favorite for us.

Lang: All of the alien stories really fascinated me as a reader. Aliens in the Senate. Hillary Clinton having an affair with an alien.

Forsyth: Some of them got a lot of attention, like Bill Clinton catching Hillary with a space alien. P’lod endorsed Clinton.

Berger: I remember we had a story about Hillary adopting a space alien baby. We ran Hillary on the cover carrying a space alien baby. That sold. We had a picture of Bill meeting an alien called P’lod, who was hanging out in Washington. Every once in a while, we’d Photoshop them shaking hands. Those covers sold.

Garden: The Clinton alien covers are the covers I remember the most after Bat Boy. There were these pale aliens reaching out to Bill Clinton and him with a welcoming face.

Berger: We got a really irate letter from a woman who insisted that was not Hillary holding the baby, that Hillary was not a nice, warm-hearted lady who would adopt a space alien baby. The reader was perfectly willing to believe it was an alien baby, just not that Hillary was holding it.

Calder: Eddie decided that we wanted to say several senators were aliens from outer space. So they went to seven senators and asked if it would be ok. Six of the seven went along with it and even gave interviews. They obviously knew it was tongue-in-cheek.

Berger: The senators as space aliens took a lot of work. The first story was that five senators were aliens, and we later found a few more, and it became 12. I had worked in Washington, and things were a lot less divisive at the time, a lot more relaxed. We called senators, talking to their press aides, making sure they knew who we were. We said, "We understand Senator Nunn and his colleagues are extraterrestrials, space aliens who have come to Earth to help us out, and we wanted to know if he was ready to confess to that." Some slammed down the phone, but we called enough of them, and pretty soon we had some aides laughing. We got several callbacks. “Yeah, Senator Nunn admits he was a space alien.” They would even give us quotes. Once we had a couple who admitted to it, then it was quite easy to call others. “Well, we got Senator [Orrin] Hatch, Senator Nunn, Senator [J. Bennett] Johnston, they already confessed, would Senator so-and-so like to fess up?” It’s not nearly as hard as we expected to get written statements admitting they were aliens.

Kulpa: The senators played along. George H.W. Bush, we’re told, hung a picture of him with space aliens in the Oval Office.

Berger: It was not hard to get George H.W. Bush to cooperate to run a picture with him with an alien. We even got Janet Reno to cooperate. If people knew what Weekly World News was and liked it, they weren’t afraid of it.

The Clintons meeting aliens was not the paper’s only contribution to politics. From 1979 to 1987, staff writer Rafael Klinger wrote a column as conservative pundit “Ed Anger,” an alter ego that was later adopted by other writers following Klinger's departure. (Klinger sued for trademark infringement and unfair trade practices in 1989, arguing the paper had no right to continue the column without him. A jury found in the paper’s favor in 1994.)

Forsyth: Ed Anger’s voice was so strong. He was so ahead of his time, before Rush Limbaugh in terms of being an out-there, over-the-top right-wing firebrand.

Berger: Ed Anger was a column written every week and created by Rafe Klinger, who worked on staff. Rafe began writing, from a liberal point-of-view, as a stark-raving mad conservative. He started out his column telling us how mad he is, pig-biting mad, madder than Batman with a run in his tights. We had other columnists, but Ed Anger was the prize, the column that got the most responses.

Kulpa: People would ask, 'Do you know Ed Anger?' I looked at it, though it was a bit rough, and I was not that impressed. Ed Anger was more like an internet rant, but he was highly popular. I heard he got boxes of mail.

Calder: Rafe was quite brilliant at what he did. Put it this way: It was so outrageous, it made other journalists in the office laugh.

Garden: I remember picking the paper up and reading it with my friend Jeff. The thing we liked most was Ed Anger, the absurd right-wing columnist. I think I have a book of his called Let’s Pave the Rainforests. He would just make absurd claims, take absurd stances, and carry them to their logical end. It would start with how mad he was, madder than Daniel Boone with a musket, madder than a computer nerd with a busted mouse. He probably had a big influence on a column I did for The Onion, Jim Anchower. He was not a political character, but I stuck to the idea. The column had sort of the same template. “Hola Amigos, long time since I rapped at ya,” blah, blah, then some reason for why he hadn’t written a column in so long.

McGinness: If you look at a character like Ed Anger, in terms of a cultural touch point, Ed is significant. He really was the prototypical blueprint for the narrow-minded, right-wing, bigoted commentator. It was almost like a playbook. He hated vegetarians, loathed the French, endorsed capital punishment. He wanted to turn high school bleachers into mass electric chairs. Some of what he trafficked in became very real.

VI. Reduced Circulation

Weekly World News took the occasional detour into gruesome tabloid journalism. Courtesy of Weekly World News

While Weekly World News earned a place in popular culture in the late 1980s with fictional headlines—there was even a 1986 movie directed by singer David Byrne, True Stories, loosely inspired by the paper—there were some very real forays into controversy. In February 1989, the paper published three photos depicting serial killer Ted Bundy’s corpse after his execution. It was a rare departure into real-life morbidity. It also sold a record 1.5 million copies, outpacing the legendary “Elvis Is Alive” headline.

Ivone: Eddie pushed the envelope at times. I’m not sure why. There were a couple of stories I thought we shouldn’t have run. A lot of fans were kids.

Kulpa: Bundy came from the top. Iain Calder wanted to run it. Someone took a photo and sold it. I remember the discussions we had. I heard Eddie and others discussing it, that the paper met with so-and-so. It was not Eddie’s decision. It was above him.

Lind: I’m not sure if the photos were real or Photoshopped.

Neuschafer: We worked late to get that in the paper. They were very real pictures. People who had taken the pictures had offered them to The National Enquirer, but the Enquirer decided it was too harsh for them, so Weekly World News bought them.

Calder: I can’t believe that. The Enquirer never would have run it. We would have been thrown out of supermarkets in the Bible Belt. I doubt it ever happened. It did not get to my level. I would’ve laughed at it.

Berger: I’m surprised Iain doesn’t remember. Somehow, I don’t know how, Weekly World News was able to get photos smuggled out, photos taken by someone in the prison system, shortly after Bundy’s autopsy. There was a full-page photo of the body. It was a little shocking to us. People were holding their breath about the controversy over it. We weren’t sure if it was a good idea or not.

Kulpa: We put it in a double-page spread and ran it on the cover, but we split the edition. On the East Coast we put the photo of Ted on a slab, and on the West Coast, we put that human footprints had been found on the moon. The sell-through for human prints was bigger than Bundy on the slab, which surprised us.

Berger: This was a time when Bundy was in the news and was a very evil, cold-hearted person who murdered a lot of women. There was a lot of hatred for Ted Bundy. It was a like a picture of a monster. At the time, not many people were opposed to the notion that Bundy was dead. There wasn’t much of a protest against executing Ted Bundy.

The Bundy story wasn’t the only major milestone of 1989 for the paper. With Generoso Pope Jr. having passed away in 1988, his largest assets—The National Enquirer and Weekly World News—were sold off for a total of $413 million to Boston Ventures and Macfadden Holdings, which was later renamed American Media. It would be the beginning of several shifts for the paper.

A short-lived 1996 USA Network television series hosted by broadcaster Edwin Newman failed to find an audience; the paper was moved a second time in 1999 when Evercore Capital Partners purchased American Media and named David Pecker as chairman. Eddie Clontz left the following year. (Clontz died in 2004.) For many staffers, his departure was the end of Weekly World News as they had known it.

Forsyth: Initially it was good. We were told Pecker was a big fan and loved the publication. Then Eddie was promoted to something else, and from that point on, there was a series of editors. All of them tried their best, but the paper went through seven editors in a few years.

Calder: Eddie was still the genius behind it, and when the new people came over, around 1999, 2000, he was retired by then. Without Clontz around, circulation went down dramatically.

Kulpa: By 1995, 1996, we were starting to get into some wilder stories, like “Woman Gives Birth to Human Eyeball.”

Calder: When Eddie died, the heart and soul went out of it.

Neuschafer: By that point, the paper had changed. It was not as much fun. After Pope died, the paper got sold, got sold again, and with each sale, the emphasis on making money became paramount.

Berger: When Peter Callahan and his crew took over, the owner after Pope and before Pecker, they told us, pound for pound, we were the most profitable publication in their history.

Forsyth: For some reason someone decided we should only do true stories, and it killed circulation. Then it swung the other way, where the higher-ups decided they wanted completely silly stories that no one would think were real. That’s not a good formula, either. We were torn between two directions that took it off the essential formula, and the circulation really went down catastrophically.

Berger: They hired comedy writers to come in, and it just got silly. There was a comic strip. The whole paper was ridiculous, and it went from a circulation of 1 million to below 100,000.

Kupperberg: We were looking at sales around 100,000 a week when we first started, and by the time they pulled the plug, it was well under 65,000 copies a week. We were just trying to hang on at this point. Part of the strategy, which I didn’t think was all that successful, was putting part of the budget into the online equivalent, making videos. But the website didn’t do well.

Forsyth: I think around maybe 1999 or so, I started telecommuting, which was a new thing for them. They had never tried it before. It seemed amazing at the time. I was in North Dakota making up these stories and sending them over the internet. It worked so well they brought in freelancers, and then the paper began to depend more on freelancers. At a certain point, they were laying people off. I was laid off in 2005, and they shut down in 2007.

Berger: It went belly up when it became too silly to believe. For some reason, it was difficult for people to grasp the tone of what we were doing.

Kulpa: Everything was grounded. But over the years, it lost ground. After 2003, it basically turned into a comic book.

Kupperberg: The Onion had a strong online presence even then and was starting to take hold.

Greenberger: Competition suddenly showed up in the form of The Onion. We didn’t have the tools or corporate support to grow. They had the better online presence.

Berger: There are only so many checkout slots available. The Enquirer devised the idea of selling it there, and it worked so well that other publications like People, Cosmopolitan, and a million others wanted to sell theirs at the checkout stand, too. Weekly World News got squeezed out in a way. Stores would use the ones that could pay them the most. Cosmopolitan could afford to give them more than Weekly World News could.

Kulpa: Humor has got to resonate with the reader. There has to be a reason behind it. Something like Mad magazine touched a nerve. It was anti-establishment. It was what kids wanted to read in school and couldn’t. Trying to replicate that is not easy. In the 1990s, in the Clinton years before 9/11, nothing was going on. There were no wars, no controversy. People were profiting. People were happy.

VII: Bat to the Future

Weekly World News lives on.Courtesy of Weekly World News

The end—or at least a version of it—came for Weekly World News in 2007, when American Media made the August 27 issue its last. In 2008, the brand was acquired by investors including Neil McGinness, a former National Lampoon executive who kept Bat Boy busy online and maintained a sense of mischief. (In 2010, a story about the Los Angeles Police Department purchasing 10,000 jetpacks was picked up as a legitimate report by Fox and Friends.) In 2018, McGinness exited the editor-in-chief role; Weekly World News writer Greg D'Alessandro stepped in. The website is active and D'Alessandro has plans for the brand in other forms of media. And while both readers and journalists struggle with the concept of “fake news,” Weekly World News alumni see its legacy as something more.

Lind: We invented fake news. But ours was harmless.

Ivone: We didn’t really set out to be a news parody. We set out to be true to ourselves, creating this alternate universe, a place to believe the unbelievable. Humor was a secondary thing. We started with wild headlines and humor came along with the package.

Kulpa: With fake news, we showed the world how, and sorry to say, people learned from that. People believe that the truth is not so important as what they want to be the truth.

Ivone: Something like “Baby Born with Angel Wings,” in one sense that’s funny, but a baby born with angel wings, that’s also maybe inspiring. It confirms something readers may believe.

Lang: In the time we’re living in, it’s almost kind of quaint to look back and the main outlet for fake news was Weekly World News, which was clearly outlandish and crazy. Now the line is much blurrier between what’s real and what’s fake.

Garden: They treated everything seriously. There were some intimations, [but] it was bullsh*t. They wouldn’t outright tip their hand. That’s what The Onion did, which was write incredulous things with a serious tone of voice with a serious news angle. It’s a lot funnier that way.

Lind: I think The Onion is the most brilliant American satire ever, and they liked us. Some of our writers were in touch with theirs.

Neuschafer: Around 1988, a couple of young guys from Madison, Wisconsin, came in and wanted to see how we ran the paper. Then they went and started The Onion.

Garden: It did what The Onion did, which was play everything straight. Ed Anger was a satire of conservative right-wing thinking. "Dear Dottie" was kind of the same, a satire of no-nonsense advice columnists like Ann Landers. They were poking fun at all the other media conventions at the time. Maybe they have political beliefs they were trying to advance, but more than anything, they were trying to amuse themselves.

Kulpa: People think Weekly World News was funny. It was in a sense, but it wasn’t meant to be funny.

Lind: When I think of Weekly World News, I don’t think of it as having any lasting impact on culture. The impact at the time was minimal. Most people treated it like fiction. It made people laugh. Unfortunately, some people it scared to death. If the story was that the world will end on April 14, people believed it, and it scared the sh*t out of them, but they kind of enjoyed the fear. Television kind of took it over. Basically, Unsolved Mysteries took over for what the paper was doing.

Forsyth: I think it invented the format of made-up news before it was popular. I think it’s something that has influenced a lot of people; people put references to it into shows like The X-Files and Supernatural. It was kind of how it was for people who grew up with The Twilight Zone, Mad magazine, or National Lampoon. I think it was an influence on creative people. I hope that’s how it’s remembered and not just as fake news as it’s brought up today.

McGinness: I wouldn’t underplay the significance of the impact Weekly World News had to a generation of Americans. It was like alternative radio, something counter-culture.

Berger: I met some of the most talented people I’ve ever known there. We tried to be as harmless and as entertaining as possible. We were very dedicated to doing our job and doing it the right way.

Kupperberg: It was just ridiculous enough if you were of that frame of mind, you could believe a lot of what we printed. I had a neighbor at the time whose parents would often come visit. His father was not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but he was a nice guy. When he learned I worked at Weekly World News, he was very excited because he and his wife went to 7-Eleven and picked up all the publications. The National Enquirer, Weekly World News, The Globe. He asked me, “Where do you get these stories from?” The unofficial thing at the paper was to maintain the fiction at all times, so I said that we had sources. Then my wife nudged me and I said, “We make it all up." He was disappointed.

McGinness: My vision in 2008 was to create The Huffington Post for otherworldly news, and continue what we could do with American Media. We did some publishing, book compilations, the creation of a whole online site, and made digital archives available to the public.

Greg D’Alessandro (CEO, Editor-in-Chief, 2018 to Present): It never really went away. We’re working on a half-hour sitcom, a podcast, and a Bat Boy film. The sitcom would be more about the reporters, like The Office.

Calder: I still remember the front covers. I’m 80 years old now, and it still brings a smile, and so does Eddie Clontz.

Kupperberg: The fact that we were able to sit around and make up a new world every week was an amazing thing. And they paid us for it.

Berger: People called us a sleazy supermarket tabloid and in a way we were, but we were not embarrassed by what we were doing. We were having the time of our lives, making good money, and enjoying ourselves.

Ivone: A lady once called us and said her toaster was talking to her. I said, “Put the toaster on the phone.” We took it seriously,

Kupperberg: That’s what Weekly World News is about. Put the toaster on the phone.