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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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#TBT
Thin Ice: The Bizarre Boxing Career of Tonya Harding
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Al Bello/Getty Images

In 2004, the Chicago Tribune asked Tonya Harding about the strangest business offer she had received after her skating career came to an abrupt end in the mid-1990s. “I guess to skate topless,” she answered. In 1994, the two-time former Olympian became infamous for her ex-husband’s attempt to break the leg of rival Nancy Kerrigan. Although Harding denied any knowledge of or involvement in the plan—which ended with Kerrigan suffering a bruised leg and Harding being banned from the U.S. Figure Skating organization, ending her competitive pursuits—she became a running punchline in the media for her attempts to exploit that notoriety. There was a sex tape (which her equally disgraced former husband, Jeff Gillooly, taped on their wedding night), offers to wrestle professionally, attempts to launch careers in both music and acting, and other means of paying bills.

Though she did not accept the offer to perform semi-nude, she did embark on a new career that many observers found just as lurid and sensational: For a two-year period, Tonya Harding was a professional boxer.

Tonya Harding rises from the canvas during a boxing match
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Following the attack on Kerrigan and the subsequent police investigation, Harding pled guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution, received three years’ probation, and was levied a $160,000 fine. (Gillooly and his conspirators served time.) Ostracized from skating and with limited opportunities, Harding first tried to enter the music scene with her band, the Golden Blades.

When that didn’t work—they were booed off stage in Portland, Oregon, Harding’s hometown—she disappeared from the public eye, offering skating lessons in Oregon before resurfacing on a March 2002 Fox network broadcast titled Celebrity Boxing. Using heavily padded gloves and outsized headgear, performers like Vanilla Ice and Todd Bridges pummeled one another on the undercard. In the main event, Harding used her physicality to batter and bruise Paula Jones, the woman who had accused then-president Bill Clinton of sexual harassment.

This was apparently the boost of confidence Harding needed. “I thought it was fun knocking somebody else on their butt,” she told the Tribune. Boxing, she said, could be an opportunity to embrace her self-appointed title as “America’s Bad Girl.”

Harding looked up a boxing promoter in Portland named Paul Brown and signed a four-year contract that would pay her between $10,000 and $15,000 per bout. The 5-foot, 1-inch Harding quickly grew in stature, moving to 123 pounds from her 105-pound skating weight. Following her win against Jones, Brown booked her a fight against up-and-coming boxer Samantha Browning in a four-round bout in Los Angeles in February 2003. The fight was said to be sloppy, with both women displaying their limited experience. Ultimately, Browning won a split decision.

Harding rebounded that spring, winning three fights in a row. Against Emily Gosa in Lincoln City, Oregon, she was roundly booed upon entering the arena. “The entire fight barely rose above the level of a drunken street brawl,” The Independent reported.

Of course, few spectators were there to see Harding put on a boxing clinic. They wanted to watch a vilified sports figure suffer some kind of public retribution for her role in the attack on Kerrigan. Following her brief winning streak, Harding was pummeled by Melissa Yanas in August 2003, losing barely a minute into the first round of a fight that took place in the parking lot of a Dallas strip club. In June 2004, she was stopped a second time against 22-year-old nursing student Amy Johnson; the Edmonton, Alberta, crowd cheered as Harding was left bloodied. Harding later told the press that Johnson, a native Canuck, had been given 26 seconds to get up after Harding knocked her down when the rules mandated only 10, which she saw as a display of national favoritism.

Harding had good reason to be upset. The Johnson fight was pivotal, as a win could have meant a fight on pay-per-view against Serbian-born boxer Jelena Mrdjenovich for a $600,000 purse. That bout never materialized.

Tonya Harding signs head shots on a table
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There was more than just lack of experience working against Harding in her newfound career. Having been a longtime smoker, she suffered from asthma. The condition plagued her skating career; in boxing, where lapses in cardiovascular conditioning can get you hurt, it became a serious problem. Although Harding competed again—this time emerging victorious in a fight against pro wrestler Brittany Drake in an exhibition bout in Essington, Pennsylvania, in January 2005—it would end up being her last contest. Suffering from pneumonia and struggling with weight gain caused by corticosteroids prescribed for treatment, she halted her training.

In an epilogue fit for Harding’s frequently bizarre escapades, there was remote potential for one last bout. In 2011, dot-com entrepreneur Alki David offered Harding $100,000 to step back into the ring, with another $100,000 going to her proposed opponent. Had it happened, it probably would have gone down as one of the biggest sideshows of the past century. Unfortunately for Harding, Nancy Kerrigan never responded to the offer.

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Pop Culture
10 Adorable Facts About Cabbage Patch Kids
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Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Although there have been other toy crazes throughout the 20th century, none have inspired the frenzy that met the 1983 debut of the Cabbage Patch Kids. Mass-produced yet all slightly unique—each was computer-sorted to have a distinctive combination of hair, freckles, and expressions—the dolls were in such high demand that shoppers risked bodily injury to try and grab one: In 1983, a Wall Street Journal editorial asserted that more Americans were worried about obtaining a Kid than the possibility of nuclear annihilation at the height of the Cold War. Check out 10 facts behind this dimpled phenomenon.

1. THEY WERE ORIGINALLY CALLED “LITTLE PEOPLE.”

When Appalachian artist Xavier Roberts began handcrafting a line of soft-sculpture babies in Georgia in 1977, he referred to them as Little People and created an elaborate marketing plan around their distribution. Gift shops and other retailers would never “sell” the creations—instead, they were to be “adopted.” Roberts also corrected anyone who referred to them as “dolls,” preferring to call them “babies” or “kids.” The fantasy worked, and Roberts sold well over 200,000 of his Little People before signing a deal to mass-produce them in partnership with toymaker Coleco in 1982. Under the direction of advertising agent Roger Schlaifer, they were rebranded as Cabbage Patch Kids after the stock explanation parents sometimes use to describe reproduction—that kids come from “the cabbage patch.”

2. PEOPLE GOT TRAMPLED TRYING TO BUY THEM.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact appeal of the Cabbage Patch Kids, which were perceived by some as homely. Some psychologists interviewed at the time believed that the adoption fantasy appealed to children who were looking to be caregivers themselves, while others pointed to the idea that parents could “prove” their worth by securing a Kid for their offspring. Whatever the case, the 1983 holiday shopping season drove consumers into a frenzy. Stores receiving small quantities of the Kids saw shoppers stampede into stores, suffering broken bones, being trampled, and even attempting to bribe employees into reserving them before they hit the sales floor. One manager resorted to wielding a baseball bat as a form of crowd control.

3. XAVIER ROBERTS MADE ONE KID CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD.

As president of Original Appalachian Artworks (OAA), the company incorporated to produce the dolls in 1978, the colorful Roberts enjoyed perpetuating the fantasy of the Kids as actual personalities. One of his earlier creations, Otis Lee, was named Chairman of the Board and frequently traveled with Roberts, rarely leaving his side.

4. ONE DESPERATE PARENT FLEW TO LONDON TO GRAB A KID.

A vintage photo of a child receiving a Cabbage Patch Kid
Dennis Harper, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Frustrated with the lack of supply in North America, a Kansas City mailman named Ed Pennington flew to London during the 1983 season in order to pick up a Kid for his daughter, Leana. (In England, demand wasn’t quite as strong and few had to risk bodily injury to secure one.) Pennington bought five of the Kids and gave four of them away to charity.

5. COLECO HAD TO PULL ITS ADVERTISING.

With demand for the Kids prompting violence, Coleco was chastised by consumer advocates for a form of “false advertising,” running television commercials that attracted consumers when they knew they would be unable to produce enough supply. James Picken, the consumer affairs commissioner in Nassau County, New York, complained the ads amounted to “harassing small children.” The company soon backed off on their ad campaign, pulling TV spots. It was hardly a problem, though: The furor over the Kids brought them headlines—and free advertising—virtually around the clock.

6. ADOPTION GROUPS WEREN’T BIG FANS.

A child examines two Cabbage Patch Kid toys
alamosbasement, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The marketing for the Kids, which involved an “oath” to treat them with care along with a birth certificate and adoption papers, spoke to adolescent consumers but didn’t find support in the actual adoption community. Feeling the toy trivialized actual adoptive parents and their kids, adoption groups spoke out against the idea, fearing it would prompt children to believe people could be “bought.”

7. THERE WAS AN EASY WAY TO SMELL A FAKE.

With any consumer product sensation comes a parade of counterfeit merchandise, and the Kids were no exception. Consumer advocate groups pointed out that bogus Cabbage Patch items possessed an oily smell due to the industrial rags they had been stuffed with. Thought to be highly flammable, consumers were told to avoid Kids that reeked of kerosene.  

8. THEY SUED THE GARBAGE PAIL KIDS.

A Cabbage Patch Kid sits on top of a dumpster
Al Pavangkanan, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Roberts and OAA didn’t find a lot to laugh about when Topps released their line of Garbage Pail Kids trading cards in 1985. Featuring the same rounded heads and cute expressions as the Cabbage Patch Kids, OAA charged that the booger-infested cards were infringing on their copyright. After a court battle, Topps agreed to alter the design of their cards.

9. ONE MODEL HAD TO BE RECALLED FOR EATING THEIR OWNERS' HAIR.

Cabbage Patch mania was on full display through 1984, when Coleco sold 20 million of the toys before demand finally began to wane. In an effort to bolster sales later in the decade, new Cabbage Patch licensee Mattel released Snack Time Kids, which were intended to gobble up fake French fries. Instead, the mechanism could bite down on their owner’s long hair and automatically begin chewing. After complaints—and one 911 call for a child in Connecticut unable to free herself from the Kid’s maw—Mattel offered refunds and withdrew the toy from stores.

10. THEY INSPIRED A MORBID URBAN LEGEND.

A set of Cabbage Patch Kids wearing hats
lisaclarke, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Cabbage Patch Kids that had suffered indignities like dog maulings, sibling amputations, or other misadventures could potentially be repaired by doll hospitals. But one morbid rumor sprang up in newspapers: if your Kid was beyond repair, Coleco would issue the toy a death certificate.  

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