By the Observer staff
WEST ORANGE A story published in the West Orange Times and West Orange Times & Observer’s first April Fools’ Day spoof edition was meant to be funny.
It didn’t turn out that way.
Jacqueline S. Ackerman, senior deputy chief legal officer for Moonbeam Capital Investments LLC, owner of the West Oaks Mall, sent a letter to the newspaper stating the spoof story, titled “Big-Screen Debut,” harmed the mall’s reputation and interfered with Moonbeam’s relationships with current and prospective tenants, as well as government agencies.
The front-page story reported that AMC Theatres planned to move its location at the West Oaks Mall in Ocoee to Winter Garden Village. The story jumped from page 1 to page 2 and finally to 4, which included a column from Executive Editor Michael Eng that revealed all content on pages 1 to 3 was not true. The theater is not moving.
By the afternoon of April 1, Ackerman emailed her letter to Publisher Dawn Willis, spelling out a series of demands, including retracting the story “via a banner on the front page of its next print edition” and on all social media accounts; removing it from the newspaper’s website; and stating the theater is remaining at the West Oaks Mall.
It also demanded the newspaper recall all print copies and publish full-page ads in other newspapers.
“If the paper fails to comply, the mall will take all legal actions it deems appropriate to protect its interests, including but not limited to suing the paper and its personnel for compensatory and punitive damages,” Ackerman wrote.
Local officials representing the West Oaks Mall declined to comment.
But Ryan Noonan, director of corporate communications for AMC Theatres, told the West Orange Times and Observer Monday night: “After explaining the joke to several worried guests throughout the day, we finally hung a sign reminding people they shouldn’t believe everything printed by the West Orange Times and Observer.”
Joking, Noonan added: “We’re thinking about leaving the sign in place.”
Evelyn Benton-Phelan, owner of Evelyn’s Creations at the Mall, was not amused. “I thought it was just the worst ever,” she said. “Everybody believed (the article) was true because we have so many tenants leaving.”
Throughout the day April 1, the paper made several changes on its digital platforms to clarify the story as a hoax. It added the words “April Fools’ Day” to the post and to the story on OrangeObserver.com. It also posted a clarification within the Facebook comments: “Just so everybody is clear: This is an April Fools’ spoof.” The paper removed the story from the website that evening.
Eng and Willis also offered to call any tenant or potential tenant on Moonbeam’s behalf to explain that the story was a spoof.
For the Observer Media Group Inc., owner of the West Orange Times and West Orange Times & Observer, the tradition of an April Fools’ Day edition dates back nearly 20 years, when its first paper, the Longboat Observer, published its first spoof stories. Since then, it has spread to all of the companies’ nine community newspapers throughout the state.
“The spoofs are intended to bring a little levity to our lives — to allow us and our readers a moment to step back and laugh at ourselves,” Eng said. “There never is any malicious intent regarding these stories. Specifically with the theater story, we felt there were clues that would alert readers to it being a hoax.”
The story included details such as the new theater being built on an existing parking lot with more parking on its roof; upgraded lighting that could be seen as far away as Disney; and a digital sound system that could be heard for a three-mile radius. It also included a quotation from a made-up company president named Frank N. Furter.
On Facebook, readers commented that the story was a hoax 10 minutes after it was posted.
Ocoee Mayor Rusty Johnson said he read the story but had not received any phone calls or inquiries about it.
Moonbeam Capital Investments purchased West Oaks Mall and its 33-acre site in November 2012 from Chicago’s General Growth Properties for about $16 million. The mall, built in 1996, lost several anchor stores, including Sears, Toys ‘R’ Us and Borders during the Great Recession.
Winter Garden Village at Fowler Groves, the 1.15 million-square-foot open-air shopping center, opened in 2007.
A year ago, Moonbeam unveiled plans and renderings for West Oaks Mall that could include a residential component, office space, retail and a hotel with a 50,000-square-foot conference center. Today, West Oaks Mall is anchored by Dillard’s, JCPenney and the theater.