Monday, November 30, 2020

Murder In the Stacks

Remembering Pratt's Star Turn On Homicide

[This post was originally written for the library's blog page.]

A pen, like love, is "A Many Splendored Thing"

The Enoch Pratt Central Library has enjoyed an impressive acting career, having played itself in a number of television and film appearances, from a 1961 supporting role in CBS’ popular television series Route 66 to a cameo in the 2017 Netflix mini-series The Keepers. But its greatest role was as the crime scene of a bizarre murder in the 1994 Season 2 finale of NBC’s Homicide: Life On the Street. That episode, “A Many Splendored Thing” - about a man with a pen fetish who shoots another man at the Central Library after arguing over a $1.49 pen - was based on a real-life killing that took place at a donut shop in Severna Park, MD on August 25, 1993. “A Many Splendored Thing” is available on the Homicide: Life On the Street - Seasons 1 & 2 DVD and may be checked out from Pratt through their Sidewalk Service or Books-by-Mail services.

Pratt Central stars in "Homicide" Season 2

“A Many Splendored Thing” was nominated for a 1994 Writers Guild of America Award for Best Screenplay of an Episodic Drama and The Baltimore Sun rated it one of the ten best episodes of the Baltimore-based series - based on the book by David Simon and executive-produced by Barry Levinson -  that ran for seven seasons from 1993-1999.

As in the board game Clue, the plot featured a “Mr. Boddy” discovered in the library - specifically, Pratt’s Social Science & History (SSH) Department - shot to death by a gun. There, detectives Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Steve Crocetti (Jon Polito) identify the victim as a Mr. Max Zintak, with Crocetti cracking, “Either it's murder or this library has a very strict overdue book policy.”

Mr. Boddy in the Library, permanently checked out

A number of past and present Pratt librarians remember the famous Homicide "shoot."

"I was there that day," says Special Collection's Davetta Parker, now in her 40th year at Pratt. "I remember them setting up downstairs in the stacks and working their way up to Wheeler Auditorium."

"My memories of that shoot are more a matter of what I did not see," recalls retired Pratt librarian Bob Burke, a former SSH Department head who in 1993 was working in the Sights & Sounds audiovisual department. "No Frank Pendleton down in the stacks, no sign of Munch in the photocopy room, no Gee slamming the door to Wheeler, not even Kay Howard or Tim Bayliss interviewing potential suspects in the staff lounge. But the one item of interest that I did see was a fully dressed, splayed-out dummy on the stage in Wheeler - definitely not something you would expect to see during a typical day at Central!"

"It was before my time at Pratt," John Damond, Manager of Pratt's Business, Science & Technology Department, adds. "But the one thing I remember about that episode was the detective interviewing the librarian and calling her 'Miss.' 'It's Mrs,' she replied, holding up her wedding ring. 'Everyone always assumes all librarians are old maids!' I thought that was funny."

Lewis and Crocetti interview Mrs. Newdow in the SSH Department

It is indeed a great scene. When detectives Lewis and Crocetti interview the librarian, Mrs. Newdow (Jane Beard), about the shooting, she explains that the suspect asked to borrow a pen from the victim and they had a friendly conversation (“I even had to tell them to shush once.”). But when the shooter offered to buy the pen from the victim, he refused, saying “It's just a $1.49 pen and it's the only one I have. You can buy one anywhere.” Then, according to Mrs. Newdow, “The man who shot the man who got shot took out a gun and he shot him. He just kept on firing. It was very noisy!”

SSH Librarian Mrs. Newdow: "I even had to tell them to shush!"

As the victim is wheeled past him on a gurney, an incredulous Lewis says, “There's gotta be more to this than a lousy five-and-dime ink pen.” Crocetti thinks not, recalling another local killing over a pair of sneakers. “Yeah, sneakers,” Lewis sighs. “Baltimore, home of the misdemeanor homicide.”

"There's gotta be more to this than a lousy five-and-dime ink pen!"

The killer is later identified as Mitchell Forman (Sal S. Kousaa), a former Spring Grove hospital patient. "Insane asylum," Lewis snorts, to which Crocetti replies, "You don't say insane anymore, Meldrick. You say mental health disorder...and you don't say asylum anymore, you say diagnostic center." Lewis dismissively concludes the discussion with a single word: "Nutcase!"

Lewis stands by his assessment after a visit to Forman's apartment, which is furnished from floor-to-ceiling with nothing but pens. But Lewis later comes to understand the pen fetishist's obsession when he talks him down from a rooftop suicide attempt by promising to write his life story. "What pen will you use?" Forman asks. "This one," Lewis replies, holding up his own prized gold pen, given to him by his dying grandmother. "Oh, very nice!" says a transfixed Forman, who then surrenders.

Lewis promises to write Forman's story with a good pen

But all that glitters in life isn't gold. In the episode's coda, Lewis, sensing the futility in being overly attached to material possessions, gives his coveted gold pen to detective Beau Felton (Daniel Baldwin). After all, as he earlier confided to Crocetti, "I love this pen, but not enough to die for it." Or, to kill for it.

"A Many Spendored Thing" is notable for a number of reasons besides its "Central casting" of Pratt Library.

  • This episode was the final appearance of Jon Polito as detective Steve Crocetti (1993-1994). 
Julianna Margulies as Linda

  • The episode featured guest appearances of future TV star Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife) and indie film darling Adrienne Shelly (The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, Waitress). Margulies plays Linda, the violin-playing waitress girlfriend of Stanley “The Big Man” Bolander (Ned Beatty), while Shelly portrays Tanya Quinn, the owner of The Leather Chain, a S&M fashion store that seems to be modeled after the old Leather Underground boutique on Read Street. At one point, detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), concerned about the risks Shelly takes in her S&M role playing, asks “If you know you could be killed, then why keep doing it?” The scene is eerily prescient, for the Homicide actress later became a homicide victim when she was strangled to death in her Greenwich Village apartment in 2006.

Kyle Secor and Andre Braugher interview Adrienne Shelly
  • Local connections abound in this episode and the series as a whole: the casting director was none other than Pat Moran, most famous for her work on John Waters’ films, The Wire and HBO’s Veep. Another John Waters regular, Vincent Peranio, was production designer. Both worked on Homicide for its entire series run. And filmmaker Mark Pellington (Arlington Road, The Mothman Prophecies, Henry Poole Is Here), son of legendary Baltimore Colts linebacker Bill Pellington, created the series' opening title sequence. The St. Paul’s School for Boys graduate is perhaps best known for his award-winning music video for Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” (1992) and his portrayal of an irate director in Jerry Maguire (1996).

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