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Unsolved Mysteries: More Than Just a Creepy Theme Song

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Unsolved Mysteries was ahead of its time. It was one of the first reality television shows, and it was also interactive - viewers had the chance to call in with tips to help solve real-life mysteries. The show introduced host Robert Stack to a whole new generation of fans, caused more than one sleepless night with its creepy theme song, helped put lots of crooks behind bars, and reunited about 100 “Lost Loves” that had been disconnected by fate and time. So come along as we dig a little deeper and try to uncover the true story behind Unsolved Mysteries.

A History of Mystery

Most people remember long-time host Robert Stack walking through the fog, often illuminated by a car's headlights, armed with his signature trench coat and unmistakable raspy voice. But Stack was not the only person to ever host the show. In fact, he wasn't even the first.

The first host of Unsolved Mysteries was none other than Raymond Burr, star of the classic TV series Perry Mason. The first episode was only slated to be a one-hour special broadcast on NBC on January 20, 1987. But because it was such a huge hit, the network ordered additional specials. When Burr demanded too much money to return, the producers tapped Karl Marlden, a well-known film and television actor, whose role as a grizzled police lieutenant on the popular 1970s show, The Streets of San Francisco, helped solidify UM's crime-solving theme. After two more specials in 1987, Malden also asked for a bigger paycheck, and he was replaced by another TV cop, Robert Stack, who played Elliott Ness on The Untouchables. Stack's authoritative voice and stern demeanor became synonymous with the show, and to many people, it came to define his career.

But even Stack shared the stage during his tenure. From 1995-1997, Keely Shaye Smith, who would later marry James Bond (Pierce Brosnan), became an on-air correspondent for the show. After it was canceled, CBS picked it up in 1997. They added Virginia Madsen (pictured with Stack), future Oscar nominee for her role in Sideways, as a co-host to try to boost ratings. However, the show was canceled again in 1999, only to be resurrected by The Lifetime Network in 2001, this time with Stack as the lone host. He remained the voice of Unsolved Mysteries until it was once again canceled in 2002.

Stack passed away in 2003 at the age of 84, so when the show was brought back again in 2008 by SPIKE TV, Dennis Farina — best-known for playing mobsters and police officers in films like Get Shorty and Out of Sight — was brought on board. With Farina in tow, Unsolved Mysteries has is part of the Lifetime Network's daily afternoon line-up, proving that you just can't keep a good show down. These new episodes are little more than re-cut segments from the Stack-era with new voice overs and updated information on the cases shown.

That Song

For many fans, the theme song was either their favorite or the most terrifying part of the show. The music was composed and performed by Michael Boyd and Gary Remal Malkin, who also wrote the score for the 1984 classic cheese film, Breakin', which introduced much of America to breakdancing. The theme song won back-to-back American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) Film and Television Music Awards for Top TV Series in both 1992 and 1993. If you'd like to relive the memories (or maybe prevent yourself from falling asleep tonight), check out the theme song on YouTube:

Before They Were Stars

One of the highlights of Unsolved Mysteries was the dramatic reenactments. Many people wonder if any of the actors involved were ever wrongfully accused of being the actual wanted fugitive. While there's no evidence this ever happened, that doesn't mean the actors never got noticed. In fact, a handful of people who appeared on the show went on to bigger and better things.

One such actress is Stephnie Weir, who played a nondescript resident at a hotel in a May 1992 episode. In 2000, Weir joined MADtv and stayed there for six seasons, becoming one of the longest-running members of the cast. Another funny lady, Cheryl Hines, who would later star as Larry David's wife on Curb Your Enthusiasm, played a nurse in a 1997 episode. Fans of Lost will recognize a familiar face if they catch the 1991 segment on the murder of Su-Ya Kim. A friend of the victim's husband is played by Daniel Dae Kim, the actor that played Jin on the island, and is currently co-starring on the reboot of Hawaii Five-O. Perhaps the biggest name to have been featured on UM, though, is heartthrob Matthew McConaughey. McConaughey appeared in a 1992 episode as Larry Dickens, a man murdered in cold blood by Edward Howard Bell in 1978. As a precursor to the rest of his career (and personal life for that matter), McConaughey runs around with his shirt unbuttoned in the recreation. (Skip to 3:30 below.)

Not-So-Unsolved Mysteries

According to the official Unsolved Mysteries website, 47% of the wanted fugitive cases featured on the show have been solved thanks to tips reported by viewers. During that time, some pretty amazing stories have centered around the show and its successes.

The first case closed thanks to Unsolved Mysteries was the apprehension of Robert Weeks. Weeks was suspected of murdering three women, including his wife Patricia, and had become a fugitive before a solid case could be made against him. The night his segment aired, the woman Weeks was currently dating while living under an assumed name, called the 800 number to report him. The next day, Weeks was picked up and later convicted of all three murders.
Cheryl Holland holds the record for the shortest time from her television debut until her capture. Holland was accused of killing her aunt and uncle in Tennessee, and stealing money from them to partially pay off her debt to drug dealers. After the segment appeared on TV, she was arrested in Texas just 45 minutes later thanks to a viewer who called into the show.
Jerry Strickland and Missy Mundy were wanted for armed robbery, kidnapping and murder when their segment aired in February 1988. They watched the episode they were featured on at home—Unsolved Mysteries was one of Jerry's favorite shows. Afterwards, the couple went over to a friend's house and waited patiently until the police tracked them down the next morning.
Louis Carlucci has the honor of having been featured on the show twice. The first time was because he was on the run for committing fraud. After he got caught thanks to viewer tips, he jumped bail and disappeared again. UM ran another segment a year later and, once again, thanks to viewer tips, he was apprehended shortly afterwards.
A friend told Alexander Graham he was featured on America's Most Wanted earlier that night. When Graham confirmed that Most Wanted hadn't even been on, he figured the person was just fooling around. The next morning, he went into work as usual, but the federal authorities were waiting for him. Graham, whose real name was Gregory Barker, was wanted in connection with as many as 16 murders. A woman at the office building where he worked recognized him from the episode of Unsolved Mysteries (not America's Most Wanted) that she'd watched the night before, and called-into the show.
Perhaps the most astonishing story on Unsolved Mysteries was their 150th solved case – the case of Tony Miller. Miller had been eating at a restaurant with friends in Toledo, OH, in December 1983. Moments after they left, a man entered the restaurant and robbed it at gunpoint, then, during his escape, shot and wounded a police officer. The employees fingered Miller as the crook and the prosecution found a witness who said he saw a man who looked like Miller leaving the scene. A month later, police arrested another man, Joseph Clark, for an unrelated crime, who confessed to the robbery. But when pressed for details, he recanted his story. Instead, Miller was arrested, tried, and sentenced to serve 20 - 40 years in prison for the crime.

Eight years later, Miller was featured on Final Appeal: From the Files of Unsolved Mysteries, a spin-off attempt that lasted only six episodes in 1992. The short-lived show, also hosted by Stack, focused on people who claimed to have been wrongly convicted. Among the audience watching that night was the witness for the prosecution who said he saw Miller running from the scene. During the program, mug shots of Miller and Clark were shown side-by-side, giving the witness the first opportunity he'd ever had to see the two men together. He called the 800 number to say that his testimony had been wrong – the man he saw running away that night was actually Joseph Clark. Because the witness had changed his story, Tony Miller was released from jail just a few weeks later – almost nine years after he was convicted of a crime he didn't commit.
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What were some of your favorite memories of Unsolved Mysteries?? Did the theme music keep you awake at night? Did you ever call into the show with a hot tip? Tell us about it in the comments below!


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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.