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Oral History: 30 Years Ago, Geraldo Rivera Opened Al Capone's Vault

For gangland aficionados, it was almost as good as the Super Bowl. On April 21, 1986, nearly 30 million viewers tuned in to The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults, a live primetime excavation hosted by Geraldo Rivera that promised to dig deep into the catacombs of the criminal’s hotel hideout on Chicago’s South Side. For two hours, Rivera shouted over power tools, ignited dynamite, took target practice with a submachine gun, and teased the possibility of finding money, weapons, or the decayed corpses of Capone’s rivals.

For Rivera, it represented an opportunity to rekindle a career that had stalled following a highly-publicized departure from ABC after 15 years with the network. “I knew everyone in the news business would be watching,” he tells mental_floss. “And as the evening wore on, I had more and more of a sinking feeling.”

To celebrate (or bemoan) the program’s 30th anniversary, Rivera and producers recall the dangers, obstacles, and insanity of broadcasting an urban archeological dig on live television. If Capone’s alleged bunker held any secrets, they wouldn’t come easily. 

I. TELEVISION, CHICAGO-STYLE

MyAlCaponeMuseum via YouTube

In the late 1970s, producers John Joslyn and Doug Llewelyn (The People’s Court) formed The Westgate Group, a production company based out of Los Angeles. At the same time the two were actively searching for programming ideas, Joslyn got wind of a discovery by mafia historians Harold Rubin and Thomas Bangs: Capone’s old haunt, the Lexington Hotel on Michigan Avenue, had a concrete wall in the basement that might contain some of the late mob kingpin’s possessions.  

John Joslyn (Producer): I happened to read an article in the newspaper about the Lexington Hotel and how the owner believed there was a vault in the basement. I sat down with Doug, my partner, and said, “Doug, what do you think about this?” He thought it was a big concept. We ran it by a pal of ours in New York who was in ad sales, and he goes, “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.” He fell on the floor. He told us we had to do it.

Allan Grafman (Then-Vice President, Tribune Entertainment): It landed on the desk of the president of Tribune, Sheldon Cooper. We were only a few years old at the time and had syndicated shows, but doing something live was unheard of. I met with Westgate and thought this could really be something.

Sheldon Cooper (Then-President, Tribune Entertainment): We were generating content for our stations, and to sell across the country. It was really for stations that couldn’t afford original content on their own.

Joslyn: ABC said, “You don’t know what’s inside?” No. NBC said, “We gotta know what’s inside.” I told them no. They would not go on the air without it, but we weren’t going to do that.

Grafman: It was way too out there for the big networks.

Peter Marino (Then-Vice President, Program Development, Tribune Entertainment): John went on to tell me about the rumored tunnels that went under Michigan Avenue from the Lexington Hotel to the Metropole Hotel, directly across Michigan Avenue. John mentioned not only the tunnels but a hidden staircase and three cement vaults. The center vault … had electrical cables protruding from the top of the vault. Why would there be electrical cables? Were they to light up a wine cellar? Were bodies buried in the vault?

Joslyn: Tribune stepped up. It was a big commitment, to do a live show and not know what’s in the vault.

Cooper: Al Capone was known internationally. You go to Europe and say “Al Capone,” and they make a pistol with their finger.

Grafman: I sold it worldwide, to 20 different countries.

Clark Morehouse (Then-Executive Vice President, Sales, Tribune Entertainment): The year before, a company called TPE did a live special and tried to raise a vault out of the Andrea Doria from World War II. They didn’t find a whole lot, but they did a 22 rating, which was very nice, so we were coming on the heels of that.

Donald Hacker (Then-Executive Vice President, Tribune Entertainment): Peter and Allan had this crazy idea of doing this as a live event, which was interesting. The hotel itself was being renovated for a female job training school by the Sunbow Foundation.

Joslyn: It was a nonprofit women’s group that trained women in low-income neighborhoods.  

Hacker: They had found secret passages. So I thought, yeah, this could be intriguing. This was long before the History Channel or the Discovery Channel, but it was in that vein.

In 1985, Tribune agreed to finance a $900,000 production by Westgate that would consist of a live breaching of the vault peppered with documentary-style footage that would tell the story of Capone’s rise and fall in the criminal underworld. Initially, the choice of a host seemed obvious.

Cooper: Joslyn was telling me they were planning on talking to Robert Stack. [Stack had portrayed Capone’s nemesis, Eliot Ness, on the 1959-1963 television series The Untouchables.] I said, that’s not a bad idea, but I really think we need someone who can walk and talk at the same time.  

Hacker: We felt we had to have someone who could handle a live event, someone who came from news.

Marino: Having seen Robert Stack attempt to host a morning TV talk show, I felt we needed someone who could do it without cue cards, a real reporter. Sheldon suggested Mike Wallace. A terrific idea, but I doubted CBS would allow their 60 Minutes star to appear on our syndicated special.    

Cooper: I said, “Well, there’s this guy who just got fired from ABC, but he won them a whole bunch of awards.”

Morehouse: Bringing in Geraldo was a real outside of the box thing, but it turned out to be genius.

Joslyn: Shelly was adamant about it.

Morehouse: Geraldo had done a story about Willowbrook, about mentally challenged kids being abused on Staten Island, that catapulted him into the ABC thing. [The piece won Rivera a Peabody Award in 1972.]

Cooper: Then there was some kind of quarrel over something that would be on the air in 10 seconds today. [Rivera stood up for a colleague, Sylvia Chase, who had a 20/20 story about Marilyn Monroe’s alleged affairs with John and Robert Kennedy withheld from broadcast.]

Morehouse: It was a hard fall from grace.

Cooper: He was so down over losing his job at ABC that he just wanted to get away from everybody. 

Hacker: I vividly remember calling his agent and describing what we were going to do and having him say, “Hell, no.”

Cooper: I told him to forget them. He’s out of work and somewhere in the world. Go talk to him directly.

Hacker: He had taken his sailboat out and was somewhere in the Panama Canal. I think we met in Marina del Rey.

Geraldo Rivera (Host): My agent got in touch and said he had an offer but that he didn’t think I’d be interested. I asked how much. He said $25,000. I told him, “Get $50,000 and I’ll do it.”  

Joslyn: We overnighted him all of the research we had done. He called the next day and said, “OK, deal.”

Rivera: It’s a two-hour show, so we’ll do an hour documentary, and whatever happens with the vault, happens.

II. A DIRTY JOB

Westgate had roughly four months to complete pre-production on the special before it aired. In addition to getting proper permits from Chicago and permission from Sunbow, there was a concentrated effort to get some idea of the origins of the “vault”—a 125-foot long concrete wall that began in the Lexington’s basement and stretched out underneath Michigan Avenue's sidewalk.

Joslyn: It wasn’t a safe with a tumbler. It was a large concrete mass.

Tim Samuelson (Cultural Historian, City of Chicago): What started this whole thing was the fact someone had found a sidewalk vault under the Lexington. It was common practice in the late 19th century to build out underneath a sidewalk and have doorways leading to the space. Businesses could have storage, load packages, that kind of thing. They’d start to leak and get sealed up with brick, concrete, then filled up with gravel and sealed over. I have a feeling someone heard “vault” and it took on a whole new definition.

Cooper: I remember getting a call from the business manager at Tribune Tower saying people were worried the street might fall in and people would be hurt or killed. Then it was concern over fires. We took it very seriously.

Grafman: It was a boarded-up mess of a building. I think [Sunbow] was around to make sure we didn’t blow it up.

Morehouse: I remember we took a bus trip down there on the coldest day of the year in Chicago. There was this whole story about an underground railroad running whiskey and other contraband.

Samuelson: The lore comes up all the time. The gangs of the time were really low-tech people. They weren’t digging tunnels.

Joslyn: Construction came to me one day and said, “We’re going to have to lower a baby bulldozer down there.” They took the tires off to make it fit. People do not realize the work involved.

Morehouse: They had done X-rays from the street level and on all sides, and the results were inconclusive.

Joslyn: We had ground-penetrating radar not to see what was in it, but to find parameters, to see which direction to go in.

Rivera: We had sonar, we had vibrations, we had the sort of technology available for pregnant women back in those days.

Hacker: [Westgate] had sonar and all this stuff to look at the area, which was quite big. We were reasonably sure something was in there, but we didn’t know what it was.

Joslyn: We got calls from Capone’s family wanting to see what was inside. We told them no. We weren’t going to do it that way.  

Samuelson: They asked me to come down and what I did from the very start was say, “Look, I hate to tell you this, but this is a Chicago sidewalk vault. I don’t think there’s anything in there at all.”

Joslyn: I don’t remember exactly what Tim said, but there was marble tile in the basement area. You don’t fill in holes with one-inch marble. I saw it first-hand.

Rivera: We discerned there was a hollow chamber, but we couldn’t see what might be in it.

Cooper: They were doing interviews with relatives, or people that had been alive at the time, and the thinking was that it might be hiding money, cars, bodies, whatever. It got more exciting the more they talked to people.

Samuelson: They were the ultimate optimists.

Rivera: I was reasonably sure we would find either guns or money or dead bodies. I was pretty confident something was in there.

Cooper: Geraldo was a believer. I was never a believer or a non-believer. I just believed we had a good television show.

Samuelson: They called me once and said, “We found a torture chamber!” I go over there and it was a fuse box.

While construction crews worked to prepare the site for a television broadcast, producers kept busy fleshing out the taped portions of the show; Tribune's ad sales department tried to convince independent stations they had a winner.

Samuelson: They actually brought in Irene Hughes, who was at the time the biggest psychic in America next to Jeane Dixon. She was going to try to pick up the spirit of Capone in the building. We go to the basement, she walks toward the middle of the wall, and says, “Capone is behind it in a garden under glass, laughing, laughing, laughing.” Now, I had researched the hell out of that building. I told her there had been nothing there but a yard. Fifteen years later, the city found some old real estate atlases. What was in the middle of the Lexington? A greenhouse. Honest to god.  

Grafman: Tribune was one of the most honored, most respected media companies in America, and there were times we couldn’t believe they were letting us do this.

Morehouse: Some of the advertisers were nervous about content. About 40 percent of it was pre-taped, which allowed advertisers to pre-screen it. We had General Mills, Budweiser; 24 spots at $100,000 per spot. That’s $2.4 million, less the ad agency commission. We took it to the television convention that January and everyone got into it. We sold all the commercial time.

Hacker: We had to go to each TV station in each market to clear out a primetime spot.

Morehouse: It was like nothing you had ever seen. We had a Model T, models dressed as flappers, and a couple of guys with submachine guns. We played it to the hilt.

Samuelson: I remember sitting with Doug Llewelyn, and he said, “You know, Tim, I know you think otherwise, but I really think we’re going to find something.”

Grafman: Half of it was the excitement of what we were doing, and half of it was dread.

III. LIVE

At 7 p.m. central time on April 21, 1986, Tribune syndicated The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults to more than 180 domestic stations. An enthusiastic Rivera stood in front of the Lexington promising an adventure akin to excavating Tut’s tomb.

Rivera: I recall a producer giving me a pep talk. “Get out there and nail this on-camera open.” Live programming is controllable in a studio. This was like stepping off the ledge of a building.

Morehouse: We had forensic examiners in case there were bodies.

Cooper: Everyone had come to see this. Not just here, but from overseas, press from all over the world.

Samuelson: There was a guy there who was selling homemade T-shirts, “I was at Capone’s vault.” But they were used and had sweat stains on them.

Joslyn: We were going to blow up one part of it on live television with dynamite. To get a permit to light dynamite in Chicago? We didn’t get permission until 4 p.m. that day.

Samuelson: I remember early before the show, Geraldo had split the back of his pants. I don’t think they had an extra pair, so they were going around looking for safety pins.

Grafman: We got lucky with the time slot. The week before, Reagan had bombed Libya.

Joslyn: We had concerns about security. Once Geraldo came off the street and went into the building, we padlocked the doors. No one was getting in or out.

Samuelson: There were three of us lined up side-by-side upstairs. Me, because I knew the building and could identify stuff, the coroner, and somebody from the IRS in case they found money.

Joslyn: The IRS had a lien if there was money inside. [After his death in 1947, Capone still owed over $800,000 in unpaid taxes.]

Joslyn: We pulled down the first concrete wall and went, “Oh, god. More dirt.”

Samuelson: I looked at the layers, the broken-up sidewalk on the bottom and the slag from the steel mills on top and said, “Sorry, it’s all over.” I see Doug go over to Geraldo, point to me, shrug his shoulders, and then Geraldo sits on a milk crate and puts his hands over his face.

Joslyn: We found some bottles.

Rivera: We were finding nothing but trivial things.

Samuelson: He pulls out some old bottles and says, “Samuelson, you know old bottles, right? Come identify these.” They were two little cheap liquor bottles with an Illinois tax stamp of 1948. Probably from workmen who drank their lunch.

Morehouse: It was just a bunch of s***.

Samuelson: They were going to break down a retaining wall with a huge water main on the other side. If they had broken the pipe, it would’ve flooded the basement instantly. Everybody would have died.  

Joslyn: No. That was before the show. It flooded about 4 feet.

With time running out on the two-hour broadcast and nothing but dirt remaining, Rivera blew an air horn and called off the workers. “We didn’t find the hollow spaces we were led to believe were in there,” he told viewers. “Sorry.”

Joslyn: He called it. “OK, guys, we tried.”

Morehouse: Geraldo played it like a Stradivarius.

Rivera: It was an old building. I do not recall fearing it would collapse on my head. I was much more engaged emotionally with finding something. Later, I maybe would’ve liked for it to fall on my head.

Joslyn: There was a little confusion when the show ended. We had an extra 90 seconds, so Geraldo sang. He padded it. It was total improv.

Grafman: I think he felt his career was over.

Cooper: He was destroyed when the show ended.

Rivera: All of the construction guys went and got drunk with me.

Hacker: Geraldo was very depressed he didn’t find anything. My take on it was, it was a great adventure. People had fun. It was a great two-hour movie with a bad ending.

Grafman: Twenty of us went to a place on the South Side, some honky-tonk, and had a drink or two. Some had three or five. I don’t even know if we went to bed.

Cooper: It was one of the saddest evenings you ever saw. Everybody was downtrodden.

Grafman: We thought, "Oh, well, that’s quite a way to go out." I don’t want to say we were fearing for our jobs, but we were fearing for our jobs. Until the ratings came in.

IV. MADE MEN

Following the anticlimactic conclusion, Rivera and the producers of Capone’s Vaults went their separate, inebriated ways. While the press had a field day—“the Windy City was never windier,” according to the company’s own Chicago Tribune—the public held a different view.   

Morehouse: The next morning the teletype machine is cranking out the overnight ratings. It did a 35 share in New York, a 70 share in Chicago.

Cooper: In those days, ratings came over these big machines rattling off the ticker tape in a glass booth.

Grafman: We thought it would do a 20. It did a 35 [share, the percentage of all televisions tuned into the show]. It was an enormous, colossal success. Nationally, we out-performed the network—The Cosby Show, Family Ties. I got the ratings and slid them under Geraldo's hotel room door.

Cooper: To this day, no entertainment program in syndication has ever gotten a higher rating in Chicago, ever.

Grafman: We set a record for a live syndicated special. We did a home video deal.

Morehouse: Some executives accused me of under-selling it. We guaranteed a 25 share and got more, so there was money left on the table.

Joslyn: Now you do a 2.9 share in New York and it’s great. The world’s changed.

Cooper: The show played later on the West Coast and that was amazing. Even though the news was out, it still got phenomenal ratings.

Rivera: I knew if we found anything, I’d be the toast of the town. I also knew if we didn’t, I’d be widely ridiculed.

Joslyn: We actually kept digging for three or four days after, just to finish the job.

Grafman: We did keep digging, but it was like after you bury a body, just throwing dirt on it.

The Lexington never did get renovated: It was demolished in 1995. Despite Rivera’s fear the special would prove problematic for his career, the opposite happened. In fall 1986, Tribune announced a deal for a daily talk show featuring the broadcaster.

Grafman: We developed a lot of other live specials with Geraldo.  

Morehouse: I think we did five. We did one on missing and exploited children that got an 18 share in 1987 or 1988, and another one on the mafia.

Hacker: We did do other things, but we didn’t open anything.

Grafman: We joked there was nothing in the vault, but inside we found Geraldo’s talk show. We had an 11-year run with that.

Marino: I still hear people say it was a great show with a bad ending. They always say, “It’s too bad that there was nothing in the vault.” My reply is that there was a 50 share in that vault and the special led to a dozen other Geraldo primetime specials, a daytime Geraldo talk show that ran for years, and it certainly led to the reality television craze which continues to this day.

Morehouse: About four weeks into the show, some skinheads got into a fight and broke his nose.

Cooper: That was typical Geraldo. But his ratings were very good.

Joslyn: I remember one morning before the show, we were down in that basement, and it was sub-zero. There was a three-legged cat, a little tiny thing all of three months old. A researcher adopted him. She named him Capone.

All images courtesy of Geraldo.com unless otherwise credited.

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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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