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The Case of the Missing Encyclopedia Brown Movie

A lot of numbers came up repeatedly in the life of Donald J. Sobol. The author’s most famous creation, amateur sleuth Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, was forever 10 years old, with each of his books containing 10 short mystery stories. Brown charged only 25 cents for his detective services; Sobol got $25,000 for the film, television, and licensing rights to the character in 1979.

But while Brown never accounted for inflation, always charging a quarter throughout the nearly 50 years Sobol wrote the books, the $25,000 was a different story. “My father was not a businessman,” his son, John Sobol, told The New York Times after the author passed away in 2012. “His contribution was sort of inversely proportional to his financial compensation.”

The ancillary rights holder, a former immigration lawyer named Howard David Deutsch, had plans to capitalize on the immense popularity of the character, who was often referred to as “Sherlock in sneakers." Despite his best attempts, hardly anything materialized.  

That was due in large part to Sobol's growing unhappiness with the deal, which led the author to sue to get his boy detective back. It would become the only Encyclopedia Brown case with the character’s name listed as a defendant.

 

Penguin

Sobol didn’t always want to be a writer. Born in 1924, he had his sights set on playing professional baseball. After graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio, he tried out for the Cincinnati Reds but didn’t make the cut. When World War II heated up, Sobol marched into the Pacific as a battalion engineer.

Deposited back in his native New York in 1946, Sobol began a newspaper career, first as a copyboy for the New York Sun and then as a syndicated columnist for the Associated Press. His Two-Minute Mysteries were brief bits of fiction with a solution that appeared upside-down or on another page of the paper, whodunits written with enough brevity to finish at the breakfast table.

Sobol was certainly capable of more substantial work: He had published an adult romance set in medieval times in 1957 and was eager to explore the book market further. The Mysteries, which began in 1959 and lasted nine years, had a format that Sobol thought would lend itself to juvenile fiction. In 1962, he decided to tackle an anthology of short stories with a juvenile detective. Wanting to get across the idea that the boy was intelligent, he first settled on a nickname—“Encyclopedia”—before fleshing out the rest of the formula.

In Idaville, Fla. (named after Sobol’s mother, Ida), Encyclopedia Brown became a child prodigy who could rattle off obscure facts at a moment’s notice. His father, the chief of police, frequently consults with him on cases that are proving difficult for his detectives. In subsequent chapters, Brown usually heads off into the neighborhood to sort out plots involving stolen goods or vandalism. His Watson is Sally Kimball, a pretty classmate who doubles as his bodyguard. She’s able to fend off Bugs Meany, the town bully, with a well-placed right hook. (Sobol, perhaps ahead of his time in the feminist movement, gifted Sally with creditable boxing skills.)

Sobol finished the first book in just two weeks. It was a kind of interactive fiction, with readers able to pick up on clues in the stories that led to a reasonable conclusion. If they were stuck, they could turn to the end of the book for the solution in much the same way Sobol’s newspaper readers flipped the page upside-down.

He circulated the manuscript among 26 publishing houses, all of which turned him down. Finally, Thomas Nelson and Sons was receptive. They offered a contract that eventually stretched to 13 agreements in total by 1976. The first book, Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective, performed well, and Sobol eventually settled into what would become the routine of his writing life: one or two books a year, all bestsellers.

The Dutton publishing company acquired Sobol’s agreement in 1978, which granted them the right to negotiate ancillary opportunities like video games, coloring books, and screenplays. It was through this agreement that Dutton entered into a deal with producer and lawyer Howard David Deutsch. Sobol would later argue Dutton had no right to make a deal without consulting him, but at the time, all parties seemed content with Deutsch handing over $25,000 for the ability to take Encyclopedia Brown into other media.

In time, the Encyclopedia Brown series would grow to more than seven million copies in print in North America alone; it was translated into 12 languages. In Hollywood, that kind of brand awareness was invaluable, and Deutsch had no shortage of suitors. In 1981, Warner Bros. began negotiations to have Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn star in a feature film adaptation. (Whether they would have played his parents or have Chase portray a grown-up detective is unclear.)

At some point, Warner backed out of the deal, leading Deutsch to file a breach of contract suit against the studio. It wasn't the first time Encyclopedia was listed in court documents, though: Sobol had filed a $20 million lawsuit of his own against Deutsch and his Encyclopedia Brown Productions shingle in 1983, contesting Deutsch's claims over the character.

While Deutsch and Sobol tried to reach some kind of resolution, the rights to Brown were still in considerable demand. Both Johnny Carson and Aaron Spelling were looking to secure an agreement to bring the character to television; Hanna-Barbera was interested in animating him. Deutsch had what amounted to a Harry Potter-level property, but the ongoing litigation with Sobol made closing a deal difficult.

Finally, Deutsch reached a deal with HBO in 1988. The network that put Fraggle Rock on the map was interested in expanding their children’s entertainment brand and ordered a live-action Encyclopedia Brown special that led into a recurring series. Producers filmed the pilot in Provo, Utah, and the episodes were well-received.

Deutsch then did something unexpected. After just six episodes, he insisted on breaking away from the network, which puzzled them. “The idea of a producer taking his show off the air that was successful, that was so good, and so far ahead of its time that it made my career is [mind-boggling]," show co-producer Ned Kandel told The New York Times in 2005.

By way of explanation, Deutsch later sued HBO, claiming they had failed to properly publicize the series, and maintaining that they had exhibited the pilot outside of a contractually-ordered two-year window. The court ruled in Deutsch’s favor.  

Deutsch and Sobol were eventually able to settle their own dispute, though the court records are sealed. With newfound freedom to pursue a feature film, Deutsch spoke with Anthony Hopkins, who considered directing. In 2005, Deutsch put together a package in conjunction with Ridley Scott and sent it off to studios in the hopes of inciting a bidding war. But before an agreement could be reached, Deutsch withdrew the package. Encyclopedia Brown had been foiled once more, this time by French hair stylists.

When Deutsch began shopping the property to studios, it became known that he had been convicted of immigration fraud in 2000. According to The New York Times, Deutsch was accused of identifying French hair stylists as executives in order to obtain visas for them: their salon company was looking to expand into the New York market, but to do so quickly, they misrepresented the stylists as high-level managers. Deutsch was sentenced to three years in prison, served 14 months, and was disbarred from practicing law.  

Sources told the Times that it made the situation more “complicated” but that no studios backed out as a result of the discovery, which Deutsch said he had never made a secret of and held no relevance to any potential deal.

That was the last anyone had heard of an Encyclopedia Brown film until 2013, when word got around that Deutsch and partner Ray Lee (The LEGO Movie) were nearing an agreement with Warner Bros. The project has yet to move forward.

By some estimates, 50 million copies of the book series have been sold since it debuted in 1963. They rewarded a reader’s attention and intellect—the puzzles were not easy to solve—and imparted values without preaching, something Sobol actively worked to avoid. Whether Brown finds his way into theaters at some point was probably immaterial to the author, who only wanted to sharpen the problem-solving and observational skills of his readers.

And Encyclopedia Brown's generations' worth of fans certainly do pay close attention. In 1990, Sobol had gotten a fact wrong in one of the books, and numerous kids wrote in to make sure it would be corrected in future editions. They had learned a lot from their kid detective hero.

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Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
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The Pom-Pom Hit: When Texas Was Struck By a Cheerleader Mom's Murder Plot
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock

On a January morning in 1991, Wanda Holloway was faced with a decision: Realizing that she couldn't afford two murders, the 36-year-old married mother of two had to decide whether to order the killing of her rival, Verna Heath, or Verna’s 13-year-old daughter, Amber.

It was a toss-up as to who presented the bigger problem to Holloway. Amber was an eighth-grader who had the talent and poise to consistently knock out Holloway’s daughter, Shanna, from a spot on their school’s cheerleading squad in Channelview, Texas; yet Verna was the one who pushed Amber, getting her into gymnastics and even being so bold as to let Amber try out for the junior high cheerleading squad before she had even formally enrolled in school.

Killing Amber would guarantee Shanna a berth to cheerleading stardom. But there was a problem: Holloway's ex-brother-in-law, Terry Harper—whom she enlisted to help her carry out her plan—said the man he knew who would accept the assignment wanted $5000 to kill a minor. Bumping off Verna would be a comparatively reasonable $2500.

In a perfect world, $7500 would get rid of them both, but Holloway simply didn’t have the money. So she decided it would be Verna. In addition to being cheaper, she figured Amber would be so devastated by her mother’s death that she couldn’t possibly get through cheerleader tryouts that March.

On January 28th, after dropping Shanna off at church, Wanda met with Harper to give him her diamond earrings as a down payment. Within a matter of days, she would make national headlines as the mother who would do anything for her daughter. Even if it meant life in prison.

 
 

A suburb of Houston, Holloway's hometown of Channelview, Texas sits in a state where football fields are considered holy ground and small town players are revered for their athletic prowess. Boys were expected to suit up if they wanted social status; girls could obtain a measure of popularity along the sidelines as cheerleaders. In both cases, the fitness and discipline required could help provide a foundation for a transition out of adolescence.

As a young woman, Wanda Holloway wanted to join that clique. Her father, a conservative Baptist, vetoed the idea. The costumes were too revealing, he said, too sexualized. Reporters would later seize on this detail and use it to craft a kind of super-villain origin story for Holloway—a woman who was determined to see her own daughter succeed where she hadn’t.

Holloway remained in Channelview and, in 1972, married railroad warehouse employee Tony Harper. They had two children: Shane in 1973 and Shanna in 1977. She divorced Harper in 1980, remarrying twice and retaining custody of the kids.

As Shanna grew older and grade school activities increased, Holloway was determined that her daughter would enjoy some of the opportunities her own father had denied her. She urged Shanna to try out for the seventh-grade cheerleading squad; though Shanna didn’t feel as passionately about the team as her mother did, she tried her best but didn’t make the cut as three girls were vying for two open slots. It was apparently vexing to Holloway that one of the girls who made the team didn’t even attend Alice Johnson Junior High during tryouts: She was still transitioning from a private school. That student was Amber Heath.

Amber and Shanna had purportedly been friends, even having sleepovers at each other’s homes. But Holloway perceived both Amber and her ambitious mother, Verna, as obstacles to Shanna’s progress in cheerleading. Verna had printed flyers and handed out candy during that seventh-grade coup. The next year, Holloway decided to make an offensive move and passed out rulers and pencils that urged Shanna’s classmates to vote her into the squad: “Vote for Shanna Harper for Cheerleader.”

The vice principal intervened, saying such campaigning was against school rules. (Verna's flyers had somehow skirted any penalty.) When Holloway ignored him, parents of other cheerleader candidates—Verna included—held a meeting and voted to disqualify Shanna from being in the running. Shanna was now 0-2, and Verna had made it personal.

As tryouts loomed for ninth grade in 1991, Holloway decided she couldn’t take any more chances with the Heaths. She approached Terry Harper, her first husband’s brother, the one man she knew with some slightly delinquent criminal tendencies. Harper had been arrested a few times on misdemeanor charges. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, he didn’t travel in the kinds of circles where he might know any hitmen. But Holloway seemed convinced that Harper had the connections to make Verna and Amber go away.

Harper would later tell police that he brushed off Holloway’s solicitations but she was persistent. Realizing she was serious, he went to the sheriff’s department, where officers expressed the same initial skepticism. Murder-for-hires didn’t happen in Channelview. When Harper insisted, they wired him with a microphone so he could continue his dialogue with Holloway.

In six separate recorded conversations, Harper found Holloway hard to pin down when it came to an explicit admission of her desire to have Verna murdered.

“You want her dead?” Harper asked.

“I don’t care what you do with her,” Holloway replied. “You can keep her in Cuba for 15 years. I want her gone.”

Semantics aside, Holloway’s intent was clear. Days after she handed over her down payment to Harper for the (fictional) assassin, police arrested Holloway for solicitation of capital murder. Investigators would later remark that Holloway seemed unfazed by the charge.

Out on bail, she told Shanna what she was facing: a potential verdict of life in prison. Although Shanna knew her mother wanted desperately to see her on the team—much more than Shanna herself cared to—she had no idea the rivalry with Verna had escalated to potential homicide. And despite the wishes of her biological father, Shanna remained at Alice Johnson High, avoiding eye contact with Amber Heath practically every day.

 
 

Holloway was arraigned in February 1991, and pled not guilty. Her defense was that the plot had been cooked up by her ex-husband, Tony Harper, and his brother in order for Tony to secure custody of their kids. Her desire to see Verna “gone,” she argued, was simply a joke.

The jury wasn’t laughing. In September 1991, it took them just two and a half hours to find Holloway guilty and sentence her to 15 years in prison—“poetic justice,” as one juror later put it, for wishing Verna would be exiled to Cuba for the same length of time.

Poetic or not, Holloway didn’t do 15 years—or even 15 months. She was granted a new trial in November of that year and the verdict was overturned on appeal in 1996 after it was discovered one of the jurors had been on probation for a drug possession charge and shouldn’t have been serving. Rather than fund another trial, Harris County prosecutors allowed Holloway a plea bargain where she received 10 years but ultimately served only six months in a work camp pulling weeds before being released on probation.

The last time a journalist caught up with Shanna was in 2012, when the then-34-year-old teacher discussed raising her own two children and having an infamous mother with a reporter from People. Living in Humble, Texas, she said she still saw Wanda on a regular basis, although the two rarely discussed the murder plot. Shanna asked about it back in 2010. Holloway called the entire incident a “mistake” and said that she was “sorry.”

When Wanda's future as a free woman was still up in the air, Alice Johnson High went ahead with cheerleader tryouts on March 22, 1991. Amber appeared and made the cut. Shanna did not. She was too distraught to show up.

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GunsNRosesVEVO via YouTube
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When 'November Rain' Excited, Confused Rock Fans
GunsNRosesVEVO via YouTube
GunsNRosesVEVO via YouTube

Slash had no idea what it was about. Axl Rose insisted it be based on a short story. At roughly nine minutes, it stretched the patience of MTV’s viewers. For these reasons—or maybe in spite of them—the music video for the Guns N’ Roses hit “November Rain” remains one of the most infamous, impenetrable rock operas of all time.

“November Rain” was a single from the group’s Use Your Illusion I album. Released in 1991, it broke into the Billboard top 10 and immediately entered music trivia lore as the longest song to make that list. Rose had started writing it in 1983, with an original running time of more than 20 minutes.

For the video, which was released in February of 1992, the group hired director Andy Morahan, who had supervised two previous G N' R efforts: Don’t Cry and You Could Be Mine. Rose also enlisted friend and writer Del James to allow them to loosely adapt one of his short stories, “Without You,” about a singer haunted by the death of his girlfriend. Model Stephanie Seymour, Rose’s girlfriend at the time, played the bride.

The crew respected the band’s wishes for an increasingly epic approach to their videos by going on location to shoot a wedding ceremony between Rose and Seymour at a makeshift church in a New Mexico desert—fabricating it cost $150,000—and arranging for a concert shoot with 1500 extras; Slash’s guitar solo was covered with swooping helicopter shots.

Speaking with authors Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks, Morahan described the indulgent nature of the era: “You’ve got five cameras, cranes, helicopter, this big crew.” He recalled one observer asking him, “Is this the whole video? ‘No, it’s about 27 seconds of it.’” (The video cost a then-record $1.5 million.)

Though Seymour’s character appears to be elated at the reception, the video implies she commits suicide shortly after.  


The couple in happier times.

GunsNRoses VEVO via YouTube

Or not. No one really seems to know what happened. “To tell you the truth, I have no idea," Slash told The Huffington Post in 2014. It was a concept. The song itself is pretty self-explanatory, but the video is so complex ... I knew there was a wedding in there somewhere and I was not into the concept of the wedding." Morahan said he has "no idea" why Seymour was shot in a casket with half her face obscured by a mirror.

While the spot wasn’t heaped with MTV Video Music Awards praise (though it did win one, for Best Cinematography, and earn a nomination for Best Art Direction), it has aged well. By the end of 1992, viewers had voted it their favorite video of the year. Morahan, James, and Rose were even asked to collaborate on an episode of HBO’s Tales From the Crypt.

That didn’t come to pass. But even today, November Rain stands as one of the most-played music videos of the 20th century on YouTube, with more than 940 million views. Watch it enough, and maybe it’ll begin to make sense.

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