Forty years ago this month, a political prankster named Steve Conliff tossed a banana cream pie at Gov. Jim Rhodes during the opening of the Ohio State Fair. Columbus Monthly gathered some of those involved to reminisce about one of the craziest episodes of political theater the city has ever seen.
Steve Conliff didn't score a direct hit when he threw a banana cream pie at Jim Rhodes in August 1977. The airborne pastry merely grazed the side of the Ohio governor's face as he ceremoniously opened his beloved Ohio State Fair. From Conliff's point of view, however, accuracy wasn't essential. The real goal was to sow chaos, get attention and embarrass Rhodes, the scourge of progressives like Conliff. The pieing of Rhodes was more Marx Brothers than Mao. A band of merry pranksters kept up the pastry-related hijinks as prosecutors sought to convict Conliff of assaulting the governor, citing banana cream as a weapon. It was a one-of-a-kind legal, political and culinary drama, like a Law & Order episode directed by Mel Brooks (who, incidentally, was recruited by Conliff's lawyers to testify during the trial).
To mark the 40th anniversary of the confection confrontation as another Ohio State Fair is set to open, Columbus Monthly spoke with some of the characters involved. Though both Rhodes and Conliff are long dead, others were more than willing to share their stories. The result is this oral history of pie, pot, free speech, hair dye, shrewd legal maneuvering and pastry-inspired political theater. Dig in.
The Return of Big Jim
In 1974, Jim Rhodes regained the governor's office in a narrow victory over Democratic incumbent John Gilligan. The triumph occurred despite the Kent State University tragedy four years earlier that had tarnished Rhodes' reputation.
Tom Diemer, Associated Press reporter:
I came back to Ohio with the understanding that Gilligan was the heavy favorite in this campaign, that he had a successful four years, that Rhodes was still very much tainted by the Kent State shootings … and that he was old. But it was funny; when I started talking to people on the street, not so much my friends but people in Columbus particularly, I didn't find that at all. Although the smart money remained on Gilligan, I was going, “What's going on here? What am I missing? If I were a Gilligan person, I wouldn't feel comfortable.”
Fred Mills, Rhodes aide: It's well documented [Rhodes] conceded [on election night] and went to bed. They woke him up at like 6 in the morning and said, “You better get to work. You're the governor.”
Steve Abbott, editor of the Columbus Free Press underground newspaper: It seemed like a repudiation of the seriousness of what happened at Kent State, particularly [by] younger people who had been appalled and angered by the violence of the National Guard. They looked at that and said, “The people who control things, including voters, really don't care what happened. They think it was legitimate. They think if young people or people challenging the system get out of line, you can kill them.”
A Man with a Plan
After moving to Columbus around 1970, writer and political activist Steve Conliff emerged as one of the local leaders of the Youth International Party—better known as the Yippies—the counter culture's master political pranksters and mischief-makers.
Abbott: I knew him from about late 1970. He was editing a small underground paper called Purple Berries, and I was one of the founding members of the Free Press, so there was that overlap there.
Suzan Bird-Conliff, wife of Steve Conliff: He was selling Purple Berries, and he would come by E.G. Leather on Pearl Alley trying to get ads. It was one of the old hippie shops. I worked there at the time, so I would sit on the porch and talk to him, and we got to know each other fairly well just sitting and chatting.
Abbott: In journalism, historically, columnists have created alter egos who they supposedly interview but who speak for them. Finley Peter Dunne did Mr. Dooley. Mike Royko did Slats Grobnik. And William Raspberry always had the taxicab driver in Washington. Conliff had someone called Zorba the Freak—incredibly funny, incredibly well-written pieces that combine satire and commentary.
Bird-Conliff: [Steve] was skinny and about 5'10.” He slumped because he always wrote over his typewriter, so everybody thought of him as being tiny. He wasn't when he stood up straight. There wasn't a lot of physical presence, but there was a lot of personality presence. You knew when he was around.
Abbott: A lot of us, we were kind of hippies, but we kind of moved over and became political hippies, which is what a lot of people who were Yippies considered themselves. The Yippies were a party in the literal sense of it, not the political sense of it. They were activists, but their idea was, “We're going to have a good time.” The best way to confront authority is to pull its pants down in front of a crowd.
Gary “Froggy” Smith, friend and fellow Yippie: They lived off the OSU campus when I met them. That's when we planned the pieing. I still have a visual of sitting on the porch swing with three or four other people smoking pot and talking about how we were going to do it.
A Fair to Remember
On Aug. 16, 1977, Conliff, Smith and another accomplice showed up at the opening of the Ohio State Fair, armed with banana cream pies. They hoped to embarrass the governor at his favorite event and remind people of the Kent State tragedy and a controversial proposal to build a gymnasium on the shooting site.
Barbara Terzian, Conliff's attorney: It was [Rhodes'] favorite day of the year, and people knew that about him. That's why it was chosen. You knew where he'd be at a particular time.
Steve Conliff*: When they opened the gates after the ribbon-cutting ceremony, I handed my ticket to the woman at the gate and was one of the first people inside. … It was no more than a few minutes before I spotted and joined the circle of reporters interviewing Rhodes just inside the gate. (* “Blacklisted News,” a 1983 compendium of Yippie writings)
Craig Zimpher, Rhodes aide: I saw somebody come toward [Rhodes] and throw something or push something. … I realized they'd hit him in the face with something. I think more of it grazed off of him than actually hit him, but still it hit him in the face, in the eye.
Conliff*: I squeezed in between two reporters, scooped the pie out of my paper bag and tossed it over the reporters' heads like a very soft, one-handed basketball jump shot.
Fred Gittes, Conliff's attorney: What happened is the pie [glanced off of Rhodes and] hit a reporter and then the rest of it fell to the ground. There was a little puppy there that was eating it up.
Dale Huffman, Dayton Daily News reporter:
It struck [Rhodes] on the shoulder, the bulk of it hitting my chest. The governor grabbed at me and pulled me to the ground with him. “Keep down,” he said. Bodyguards moved in, shoved reporters around the governor to the ground and whisked Rhodes away behind the Ohio State All Youth Choir to a waiting automobile. “I'm fine, just fine,” Rhodes said as he was hustled away. (Dayton Daily News, Aug. 16, 1977)
Conliff*: Only as the Highway Patrol was handcuffing me, as I lay belly-down on the asphalt, did I think to yell: “Remember Kent State! Move the gym!”
Tom Rice, Ohio State Highway Patrol: That was my very first day of being in charge of the State Highway Patrol at the Ohio State Fair. Immediately after [Rhodes] got hit with the pie, I thought, “Oh God, there's my career.” It's funny now, but it wasn't funny then.
Bird-Conliff: Elvis Presley died on the same day. Steve always grumbled about it. “He stole my thunder. I would have been on the front page of the New York Times.”
The People vs. the Pieman
Facing up to six months in jail on a misdemeanor assault charge, Conliff milked his newfound celebrity for all the attention he could get. He hosted a “smoke-in”—complete with music and “free pot”—on the Statehouse lawn, launched a quixotic Republican primary challenge against the governor and stayed in the headlines with various pie-related theatrics, including public “pie-ins” in which Conliff and others were pelted with pies in an attempt to illustrate their harmlessness. Newly appointed Columbus City Prosecutor Ron O'Brien, now the longest-serving Franklin County prosecutor in history, led the city's case, while two young liberal attorneys—life and law partners Fred Gittes and Barbara Terzian—defended Conliff. Overseeing the trial was Municipal Court Judge James Pearson.
O'Brien: It was determined, probably before I even got down to the city, that Mr. Conliff wasn't interested in a plea because he wanted the soapbox that the trial might provide. Secondly, I think he—and Fred [Gittes] for that matter—thought it was improperly charged as an assault. Their view all along was, “If we intended to cause harm, we wouldn't have been using a banana cream pie.”
Terzian: The First Amendment covers more than speech in terms of protected political activity—flag burning, draft-card burning. So Fred argued … in this particular case, it was just an extension of [Conliff's] First Amendment rights so [the case] should be dismissed on constitutional grounds. Well, of course, the judge said no.
Pearson, during a January 1978 court hearing on the free-speech motion: I want to commend you for being able to present that motion with a straight face—that took courage. (New York Times, Jan. 26, 1978)
O'Brien: What we relied on in arguing the case was that some of the pie had gotten into [Rhodes'] eye, and it had caused some stinging to his eye, and he had to go see the eye doctor later that day and have the eye treated for a foreign substance having entered it.
Conliff*: I set a world's record by getting hit with 26 pies on all three local TV stations that evening before the trial. Judge James Pearson waxed furious over this attempt to “influence the jurors.”
Bird-Conliff: He was wearing an old suit of Gov. Rhodes that was given to him by Rhodes' one-time chauffeur. [The suit] was huge on Steve. You could've put three people in it of Steve's size, but he wore it, and they pied him.
Smith: Actually, he did get hurt. One of the tins cut his lip, and [he] was bleeding. He managed to keep that hidden from the photographers.
Terzian: One of the things we did was we thought, “Well, maybe we could get a pie expert.” … I mean, how could you have this main thread of comedic slapstick in United States history and elsewhere if it's causing serious physical harm?
Gittes: I called [slapstick TV comedian] Soupy Sales. … I learned in the process that he's a pretty reactionary, conservative guy.
Terzian: Then we thought of Mel Brooks.
Gittes: I called Mel, the only one who really took it seriously and actually called me back. … He said, “Wow, this is something. I'd really love to, but I can't.” He had a conflict. He was doing movies or something. … I realized we needed to find another avenue. And that's when I came up with the experiment.
Bird-Conliff: They had this pie-in. They would ask people to come and agree to be pied. It was at Garcia's Restaurant on High Street. They had little old ladies. They got little kids, and they had people just come in and pie them.
Terzian: We had a physicist, we had a psychiatrist, and we had an M.D. The psychiatrist examined every person afterwards to see whether they'd been traumatized by it or how did they feel about it. The M.D. checked their faces and their eyes: How do you feel? Is there anything bothering you? The judge did not allow the psychiatrist to take the stand because the statute didn't talk about any kind of emotional distress. But he did allow the physicist and the doctor.
Stephen Pinsky, Ohio State physicist and experiment director: We talked a lot about all the details of it: Banana cream pie is not uniform. It has bananas inside. Would the bananas be more damaging? What about the crust? You can imagine the conversations got pretty silly as you sort of delve into this as a real science experiment.
Ian Boyland, experiment participant: I was like 8 or 9. I didn't really know what was going on. But there was this thing where they had foil pans that they put cream in, and you were going to get hit in the face with a pie. I'm like, “Yes, sign me up.”
Pinsky: Fred was very clear that you had to keep it together. It would not help the case if we did not take this seriously. So on the stand, I think we all took it seriously. When we were away and we were in the hallway and stuff like that, the meetings were kind of over the top.
Boyland: I knew it was something serious for my parents, but how serious can you take having a pie thrown at you? It seemed like, “Wow, adults really find stupid things to get upset about.”
The Governor Under Oath
Rhodes testified twice: first during a deposition, originally conceived as an alternative to a trial appearance, and then again during the trial when his schedule opened up.
O'Brien: We went up to the Highway Patrol Academy up there at 17th Avenue at the fairgrounds and took the governor's deposition.
Rice: I'm in charge of the academy, so we made the library look as much like a courtroom as possible. The judge was in his robe, and he was in place in the library. All of a sudden we look out the front toward 17th Avenue, and here's a gaggle of hippies walking across the grass towards the academy carrying pies.
Gittes: Tom Rice, as I later learned, was at the door. I said, “We're here for the deposition,” introduced myself and Barb and said, “[Conliff] is a candidate for governor against Rhodes, who I know has bodyguards here, so we're bringing our bodyguards.”
Rice: I said, “Very good, Mr. Gittes. The judge is in the library, and he's ready for you to come in, but you're not coming in with your pies.”
Gittes: The judge said, “You don't get bodyguards. They don't get in here. Those pies are not coming in.” So I grab one of the pies, and I turn to the judge, and I said, “This is evidence, judge. We have to have this pie.” He didn't know what to do. I opened it. “Look, it's a banana cream, and there is going to be testimony about this, so we're entitled to have this.” He said, “OK, you can bring one pie in.”
Terzian: So I'm taking Rhodes through what happened. “Did he miss any [state fair] events [that day]?” “I did not miss a single event.” He was not going to let Conliff think that he had spoiled his opening day of the fair in any way whatsoever.
Gittes: The hard part of the trial for me, and I'm being honest, is I was dying to cross-examine the governor.
Terzian: There was a tactical decision made by Steve that I should be the one to cross-examine Rhodes. The physical juxtaposition made more sense. I could be more aggressive. I wouldn't be bullying him. I'm 5' 2”, and I was very small, slim.
Terzian: We were both inexperienced. The difference between us at the time would be that Fred would have loved to have done [the cross examination], where I was nervous about it.
Gittes: Then she heard him lie, and it was all over.
Terzian: Ron [O'Brien] is doing the direct examination, and [Rhodes] said he was staggered by the blow. His eye was hurt, and he had to lay down and miss two or three events. We had him under oath [saying at the deposition], “Didn't miss a single event, didn't bother me at all.” I go, “Did he just say what I think he said?” I was like, “Is it my turn yet?”
Bird-Conliff: He confessed he wore hair dye. [Terzian] said, “Is it possible that some of the hair dye got in your eye? Maybe you sweated it into your eye or something?”
Terzian: We had actually gotten an anonymous call saying he dyes his hair.
After a little more than three hours of deliberation, a jury of four men and four women acquitted Conliff of assault.
Gittes: The courtroom went into pandemonium. People were cheering and excited. Suzie was crying. She was really worried about [Steve] being in jail for a long time.
O'Brien: I can't say that I was surprised by the verdict.
Judge Pearson also had to rule on a disorderly conduct charge that, as an offense without a potential jail sentence, was not part of the jury's verdict.
Bird-Conliff: I think the judge had forgotten about [the disorderly conduct sentence]. Steve goes, “Judge, hey, judge, don't you want your ounce of flesh?” Wrong thing to say.
Terzian: Pearson then calls the court back to order and says, “As a defendant, you may not hold me in respect, but you must hold this court in respect. The defendant said, “Are you ready for your pound of flesh?” And Conliff went, “No, I said ounce of flesh.” And that's when [Pearson] held him in contempt.
Bird-Conliff: I backhanded [Steve] in the stomach. I was like, “No, keep your mouth shut.” But he had to open his mouth.
Conliff*: I figured I had to get punished somehow to avoid activating right-wing terrorists.
Gittes: [Pearson] sentences him to 10 days and has him taken away immediately. Of course, I'm frustrated. We won this case. Nobody thought we could win it. And Steve does this? … So he is put in the hoosegow, and we realize we've got to come up with the money to bail him out.
Terzian: There are no ATMs. There's no way to get cash on the weekend. You either have it in your pocket or you don't.
Terzian: It happened to be the weekend of ComFest. I think [Columbus lawyer] Jerry Friedman took the stage and said, “The good news is the jury just acquitted Steve Conliff. The bad news is we have to raise X hundreds of dollars to get him out of jail.”
Gittes: Within minutes, we had the couple thousand or whatever it was, and then came back Downtown and bailed him out.
The Pie that Binds
Rhodes died in 2001 from heart failure and complications from an infection, while Conliff died five years later from lung cancer. Their shared moment of pastry-inspired political theater is largely forgotten except by aging hippies, State Fair aficionados and political junkies. A 2014 biography of Rhodes devoted two sentences to the incident.
O'Brien: It's just a funny footnote in history.
Terzian: It was, on a very small level, a comeuppance.
Rice: I look back at it with a lot of humor: Fred Gittes leading his little band across the yard to the academy—it was such a funny sight. I can see it in my mind's eye today like it was yesterday.
Bird-Conliff: [Steve] got drinks bought for him by a couple of guys who were golf buddies of Rhodes. They thought it was hysterical. I mean, most people thought it was funny. It didn't seem threatening. The atmosphere was different then. Now, there's so much worry about terrorists and worry about somebody physically attacking somebody.
Terzian: The whole story is very much a part of its times.
Bird-Conliff: To this day, I still can't take the whole thing seriously. I mean, it was a banana cream pie. If Rhodes had just doubled over laughing and said, “Missed me.” or something like that, that probably would've been the story.