AKRON Law: How Arnie Becker Saved the Soap Box Derby

It was a lawsuit that was quickly going downhill for the defendant. And when I say downhill, I mean downhill. But then defense counsel Arnie Becker flew in from Hollywood to save the day. And now the story of the lawsuit may soon be a major motion picture.

The lawsuit at issue is First Metro Corporation vs. All-American Soap Box Derby. The venue is Akron, Ohio, which for 75 years has been home of the All-American Soap Box Derby, a race in which hundreds of kids from across America zoom downhill in home-made cars.

The Soap Box Derby began in the midst of the Depression when toys were scarce and generally home-made. It was sort of a green version of NASCAR featuring home-made race cars that had no engines. Just four wheels, a wooden chassis, and a steering wheel. "Gentlemen, start your ... well, um ... wheels!"

I wasn't around during the Depression. I didn't arrive until 1952, but by the late 1950s I wanted to be in the Soap Box Derby. My dream to race in the Derby was inspired by watching reruns of The Little Rascals on TV. The Little Rascals were a gang, back in the days when gangs didn't kill people. Instead, these "gangstas" made people laugh. And they were also very creative. During one of my all-time favorite Little Rascals episodes, Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Darla and Froggy built a Soap Box Derby racer and won a big race that appeared to me to be the All-American Soap Box Derby in Akron. And after winning the race, Alfalfa sang a love song to Darla.

Inspired by the Little Rascals, I tried to build my own Soap Box Derby racer but it turned out to be an awful lot of trouble, so I finally gave up and just entered the Cub Scout Pinewood Derby instead. The Pinewood Derby was fun, but the cars were so little, only a flea could ride in them.

But while I never achieved my dream of zooming downhill at the All American Soap Box Derby, I remained a big fan of the event over the years. I even remember watching the race back in the 1960s when, so help me, it was telecast on a TV show called ABC's Wide World of Sports. Before the advent of ESPN, ABC's Wide World of Sports was the only sports program on TV other than the Major League Baseball Game of the Week (featuring play- by-play by Dizzy Dean and color commentary by Pee Wee Reese) or ABC's College Football Game of the Week (with play-by-play by Chris Schenkel and color commentary by Bud Wilkinson).

Unfortunately, over the years, I lost interest in the Soap Box Derby, and apparently a lot of other people did as well. My children are part of the "Wii" generation, as they constantly entertain themselves with virtual reality electronic games. Why go to the trouble of building a wooden car when you can sit in front of your laptop and play EA Sport's "Need for Speed Shift"? This is a virtual reality electronic game that lets you "get behind the wheel" and "race the fastest cars against the World's top three professional drivers!" (I don't think Alfalfa is one of them.)

And so, the All-American Soap Box Derby has received the yellow flag. It has lost participants and sponsors, and last November, it found itself in the Akron courthouse defending a lawsuit against a bank demanding repayment of two loans totaling $623,000. And the Derby couldn't pay.

But just when it seemed like this great American tradition was coming to an end, enter Arnie Becker. Yes, Arnie Becker, the sleazy defense lawyer from the 1980s TV series L.A. Law. In L.A. Law, Arnie Becker was sort of a combination of Perry Mason and Bill Clinton. He was a highly successful defense attorney with the firm of McKenzie & Brackman, but he also had an unfortunate habit of sleeping with his clients, or with opposing counsel, or his secretary, or his law clerk, or the judge, or the court reporter, or in some episodes, an entire jury.

A typical one-hour episode of L.A. Law went like this: In the first half hour, Arnie would win a multimillion dollar jury verdict. Then, after a brief commercial break, Arnie would spend the second half hour sleeping with the jury that gave him the big verdict. When Arnie wasn't flashing his briefs in either the courtroom or the bedroom, viewers of L.A. Law got to watch a long-running affair between a male and female partner of McKenzie & Brackman. I can't remember the male lawyer's name, but I definitely remember that the female lawyer was Susan Dey, an actress who nearly 40 years ago distinguished herself by starring in a television show called The Partridge Family.

Well, I'm sorry, folks, but I could never take Susan Dey seriously in her portrayal as a lawyer. Every time she appeared in a courtroom scene, I kept expecting her to lead the court and jury in singing a rousing chorus of "C'mon, Get Happy."

I kept hoping she would call David Cassidy as a witness so he could sing, "I Think I Love You!"

Or perhaps she would load up the entire McKenzie Brackman law firm in a paisley bus.

Arnie was played by Corbin Bernsen who is now a Hollywood director and the owner of his own film company. According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, Bernsen heard about the lawsuit against the Soap Box Derby, and was inspired to write a screenplay about a little boy who saves the Derby after a bank calls its loan. The movie, 25 Hill, is now being filmed on location in Akron. In the film, Bernsen plays a fireman who helps a little orphan boy build a soap box racer and go for the Derby championship! I also understand that Dick Cheney will play the role of the evil banker who tries to shut down the Derby.

25 Hill promises to be one of those feel-good sports movies like Miracle on Ice, Remember the Titans and Rocky, Rocky II, Rocky III and Rocky VII and The Godfather III Win Super Bowl XXVII.

I can't wait to see it. I just hope Arnie Becker doesn't try to sleep with the little orphan boy's mother.


Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.