The Fall of R. K. O.
by Kit Gainer

In the twenty first century the laying of a corner-stone is regarded as having only sentimental value. But in times gone the performance of the foundation ritual, involving the slaughter of a human offering was considered far more important than the workmanship of the building because the spirits - owners of the soil are extremely jealous and if not continually appeased they will destroy you and wipe out your puny treasures.

Cole and Robertson exported motion pictures for the cheapie studios on Gower Street, but had no sound stages or lot to create their own movies. Rather than paying other producers for movies Cole and Robertson bought 13 and one-half acres of the adjacent southwestern section of the Hollywood Cemetery and expanded their facility over top of it. Four buildings and three production stages were slapped up behind a grand, tomb-like facade, while their cameras churned out their own worthless melodramas, pitiful comedies, and Z-grade westerns for export or to be palmed off on hick-town theaters.

Despite the fact that Robertson-Cole now produced, exported and distributed motion pictures, R.C. Studios was a failure due to the poor quality of their work and the studio had to be reorganized and its name changed to Film Booking Offices of America. For the next four years, FBO stayed solvent by distributing the racier French and Italian one-reelers.

Meanwhile, Cover Girl Virginia Rapp was buried in the bisected cemetery. Virginia was 25 years old and engaged to Producer/Director Henry "Pathe" Lehrman. Her dark eyes, full lips, silky ebony hair, lush body and vibrant personality made her one of Fox studios' rising stars. Virginia received an offer to appear as the leading lady in a new Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle comedy. "Fatty", Paramount's biggest star, topped the scale at 266 pounds. His clowning earned him more than ten thousand dollars a day. Fatty liked dope, liquor, group sex...and Virginia Rapp. He was accustomed to paying over a thousand dollars for a single evening of debauchery.

Celebrating his new three million dollar contract with Paramount, Fatty rented out the twelfth floor of the swanky Saint Francis Hotel in San Francisco. He piled his toadies, and a bevy of show girls, into the cortege led by his brand new $25,000 custom-built Pierce Arrow, and set off up the coast. Fatty was sweet-talking Virginia Rapp with each passing mile...

Evening fell at the St. Francis Hotel. Fatty's saturnella spilled over to the adjacent floors as the revelers downed "bathtub gin" screw drivers. The evening grew very late, and the party became frenzied and out of control. Around three in the morning, Fatty Arbuckle latched onto the boozy Virginia Rapp and pulled her into the bedroom of suite 1221.

Crashing noises and shrieks of terror were heard over the din of the party's ragtime radio tunes. The dancing stopped. "Fatty" emerged from the room about four minutes later, clad in torn and semen-soaked pajamas. He held out Virginia's crushed hat in his hands and chuckled to his lackies: "Take that bitch out of here, she makes too much noise." Virginia screamed in agony, her blatter ruptured by a liquor bottle Arbuckle had sodomized her with. Arbuckle sneered back to the hemorrhaging Virginia: "Shut up or I'll throw you out the god-damned window".

When the horrified party-goers entered the room, they found Virginia lying naked and bloody on a bed smashed to splinters. The rest of the room's expensive French furniture littered the floor, smashed into pieces and scattered around her. Trying to dress Virginia, they discovered her garments had been ripped to shreds! The starlet was wrapped in a blanket, rushed past the then "passed out" Arbuckle, and brought frantically to the Pine Street Hospital.

Virginia slipped into a coma and died. Arbuckle was arrested and charged with rape and murder. Fatty's vast fortune was spent on a team of high-powered attorneys who dragged Virginia's name through the mud and impeached the witnesses as drunkards. Arbuckle was never convicted. But the public was not forgiving. Arbuckle's career was over for good. He died, penniless and hated, nine years later.

The Arbuckle affair had a chilling effect on box office receipts across America. Rumors began to circulate that Robertson-Cole, aka FBO Studios, would be raised and returned to the cemetery. But in 1926, FBO was purchased by Joseph Kennedy, and Robertson and Cole faded into ignoble obscurity.

Kennedy already owned dozens of east coast movie joints and planned to take over theaters across the nation. With the aquisition of FBO, Kennedy now produced, exported, distributed and exhibited motion pictures. A master of insider trading, Joe Kennedy made his first million by age 35. But with Prohibition, the Kennedy organization began smuggling "good hard liquor" to the East and West Coasts. With FBO as a shell, Kennedy was Hollywood's fine liquor connection, turning his "hooch" business into a multi-million dollar empire. Under Kennedy, FBO continued to pump the same clap trap as always, but now it was force-fed to audiences via Joe's vertical movie house monopoly.

Meanwhile, the truncated cemetery claimed two more of Hollywood's royalty. Known as "the girl who was too beautiful", buxom Barbara La Marr, a cutie from Richmond Virginia, stood five feet four inches tall and weighed 124 pounds. Her glowing skin, pouting lips and melancholy blue-green eyes made her an instant sensation. After her debut in "The Three Musketeers," carloads of fan letters and proposals of marriage poured in... Director Paul Bern attempted suicide when she turned down his marriage proposal.

There are many demands placed on a movie queen. She must arrive at the set before dawn and spend two hours in hair, make-up and wardrobe to be ready for the cameras at first light. Filming lasts from dawn to dusk in heat, cold and rain, and she must be able to laugh, cry, or "be sexy" on cue. At the end of the day, she must prepare the next day's performance, often after a long and tedious drive back to her flat. Her co-workers become her family because there is no time to spend with anyone outside the set--the work is too exhausting. Finally, every actress knows the public is fickle, and her current role may be her last. If a starlet is too tired, sick or upset to perform, there are doctors who will ensure they are able to perform...

During her sensational three-year career, Barbara La Marr's life spun wildly out of control. She became addicted to amphetamines and slept only two hours a night. Exhausted, she used cocaine as a "pick-me-up" and to recapture her natural glow for the cameras. Unable to sleep, she jumped into the bottle. Despite her beauty and charm, she was labeled a "pass around party girl". Divorced six times in three years, Barbara had a nervous breakdown and lost a lot of weight. Barbara La Marr died at age 26. Her doctors blamed it on over-dieting. Before she was interred in the Hollywood Cemetery, her funeral was mobbed by 25,000 fans, causing a riot on Hollywood Blvd.

When Rudolph Valentino died of blood poisoning in 1926, the rumour mill started working overtime! Some claimed he was poisoned, others shot, still others claimed he died of syphilis. Even before his death, the yellow press savaged Valentino. While every woman yearned for one night of pleasure with the well-hung sex god, muckrakers attacked his sexuality. "Any guy that good-looking has to be queer"...or so the line went.

Valentino's death caused a wave of suicides on both sides of the Atlantic. Interred less than 100 yards from FBO in a borrowed crypt, a monumental tomb was promised to be built, but construction on the Valentino tomb never commenced, due to bickering over who would inherit his estate. Valentino was left to rot in the borrowed vault.

Gloria Swanson, on her return from filming "Madame Sans-Gene" in France, was America's "bad-girl sweetheart". Paramount (FBO's next-door neighbor) arranged an ovation for the Sex Goddess to celebrate her marriage to a French Marquis, and to welcome her back to America. Kennedy, FBO's new owner, far from his wife and kids, first met the femme-fatale at this lush celebration. Hypnotized by Swanson's vampire charms and transfixed with lust, Kennedy agreed to finance Gloria Swanson Productions. Joe and Gloria became lovers as the shrieks of 100,000 ovationers echoed off the crypts of the neighboring cemetery .

Money flowed as freely as Kennedy's booze, while the adulterers coupled in their Hollywood Hills love nest. Meanwhile, two Eastern European street scrappers, the Warner brothers, defied the pundits who dismissed the 'squawkies' as a fad, by releasing The Jazz Singer. The era of sound motion pictures had arrived with a bang! Packing theaters across the country, The Jazz Singer established the Warners as major players, boosting them out of the two-bit status they had shared with FBO.

Enter Erich von Stroheim... "The Swamp", Gloria Swanson Production's first picture, was directed by the erratic Von Stroheim. Previous FBO production's costs rarely topped 75K. But, once Kennedy had returned to his wife on the East coast, costs soared! Unsupervised, Von Stroheim exposed miles of celluloid, filming lavish, deviant sex, liquor and dope orgies he hosted on the set. The footage of these wild scenes was reserved for Stroheim's private screenings--only the director and his cronies were allowed.

Improvising as he went, Von Stroheim spun a tale of a convent girl imprisoned by a demented queen, only to eventually inherit her chain of South-African whorehouses. Swanson was forced to participate in faux sapphoistic whipping and torture scenes, while Stroheim directed the action and the cameras whirred. The debauchery escalated and the bills mounted, while Joe and Gloria bickered over the phone. Swanson, jilted by Kennedy and having turned down a million dollar contract to make this debacle, was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Kennedy's marriage was on the rocks because of his West Coast sexual escapades with Swanson.

Kennedy finally returned to Hollywood and attempted to salvage the $800,000 he had sunk into "The Swamp." Von Stroheim was fired. Previously considered a genius, his career was over for good. The great Von Stroheim ended his days on earth eking out a living playing character roles.

"The Swamp" was renamed as "Queen Kelly" and given an abrupt and arbitrary ending. The truncated debacle was unshowable in America and served as filler in third-world venues. Gloria and Joe's romance fizzled. Two expensive money losers later, Joe walked out leaving Swanson with the bill.

The Lights Of New York, Warner's all-talkie, blew the roof off box-offices nationwide, prompting the need for installation of sound equipment in studios and movie houses throughout the country. The silent era was dead... another expensive proposition for FBO. Enter David Sarnoff, President of RCA. Sarnoff saw the money to be made from "talkie equipment", but he needed an "in" inside Hollywood. He found his entree with FBO. The studio was "reborn" as RKO... Kennedy, stinging from his series of defeats--both sexual and financial--sold RCA substantial interest in FBO's movie production division. The new RKO films would use RCA's Photophone sound technology. Photophone would be available to theater-owners and independent producers... for a price.

As the twenties fizzled, the high price of converting to sound bankrupted most of the independent movie companies and home-town theaters. Early in '29, Joe Kennedy began to liquidate his Wall Street investments. He was well-aware that, by October, the bottom would drop out of the stock market. He turned the situation to his advantage by selling short and offering what he knew were worthless futures to millions of gullible buyers. Kennedy celebrated while other less savvy investors hurled themselves out of skyscraper windows. As America entered the Great Depression, Kennedy, with his knack for fishing in troubled waters, set about monopolizing the exhibition of motion pictures.

With RCA money in hand, the Kennedy organization hatched a scheme to widen his movie house monopoly to the entire West Coast. The Orpheum chain was bought up at a fire-sale price. One man blocked Kennedy's path to total West Coast domination: Alex Pantages, and his chain of Pantages movie palaces. Pantages, a native of Greece, panned gold in the Klondike. With the proceeds, he purchased a thread-bare Seattle, Washington theater in 1902. He worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Eventually, he saved enough money to build or buy sixty movie palaces across the west coast. He used his hard-won chain of theatres to showcase hit movies and the best musical-comedy acts. But by 1929, Alex Pantages was broke and trying to hold onto his dream.

On the steamy afternoon of August 9, 1929, the screaming 17-year-old Eunice Pringle ran into the mezzanine of Pantages' L.A. flagship movie house. Holding her torn dress over her hickey-marked breasts, with her panties ripped and hanging around one ankle, Eunice cried to the crowd that Alex Pantages had torn apart her dress, bit and gauged her breasts, dragged her into a broom closet and raped her.

Old man Pantages' broken English made him look guilty. He was quickly tried and condemned by the L.A. press as a child rapist and alien menace. Eunice was hailed "as the sweetest 17-year-old since Clara Bow: a full blown all-American beauty." Meanwhile, Kennedy, bought up 10 per cent of the old man's theaters for ten cents on the dollar, and the entire Proctor chain of theaters in New York and New Jersey for a song. Next, the barracuda moved in to foreclose on 500 acres of farmland in the San Fernando Valley where he constructed a massive movie ranch. Finally, he dropped another half million installing sound equipment at the FBO movie lot. Depression weary, frightened and hungry radio listeners were hypnotized by xenophobic radio announcers who quoted Spengler and denounced all Greeks as Iying sub-human monsters. In Los Angeles, there were rumours of impending fire bombings and lynchings.

No one wanted to hear the frail old Greek's explanation. According to Pantages, he "knew" Eunice. A high-school dropout, vaudeville "wanna-be" from Garden Grove, California, Eunice had auditioned her suggestive acrobatic act a number of weeks earlier, but was not hired. Further, Eunice must have bought a ticket, secretly made her way upstairs to his office, removed her panties, tore her clothes and screamed rape as part of a frame up (or shakedown) involving higher powers."

Enter the fledgling defense lawyer, Jerry Geisler. Eunice, despite her ample breasts, dancers' legs, shapely hips and curvaceous buttocks, dressed in a girlish frock. She sported flat schoolgirl shoes, and her hair was pristinely tied back in a childish bow--she looked like a 12-year-old moppet when she mounted the witness stand of Los Angeles Superior Court. She proceeded to describe in graphic detail how she had been brutally molested and raped by Pantages. She alleged this occurred during an interview, in which Pantages had solicited lewd acts from her in exchange for booking her dance act.

Pantages was found guilty and sentenced to prison for the rest of his life, but Geisler knew the verdict could be overturned. His defense of Pantages had been brilliant. He had all but discredited Eunice and her wholesome veneer by forcing her to appear in the same tight low cut dress, spiked heels and flapper hairdo she had worn when she was allegedly overpowered and raped by a man old enough to be her grandfather. Jerry Geisler knew her type and figured Pantages was telling the truth. She had "raped herself."

Little Eunice had an agent, sharpie Nick Dunaev. Geisler knew his type as well: Tinsel Town grifter and pimp, preying on stage struck young girls. Nick Dunaev wasn't stupid and had no criminal record. Geisler began doing more leg work. He needed proof that Eunice was a liar and a slut. At the Moonbeam Glen Bungalow Court he found it. The Manager of the Moonbeam was an old woman, devout Christian, busy body, and avid reader of the tabloid press. She was unwilling to help a despoiler of youth like Pantages, even if he was innocent. Geisler quoted the bible: Deuteronomy, the Sermon on the Mount, and Judges with the skill of a true legal genius. Then he let the old woman talk. Yes, Nick Dunaev and Eunice Pringle had been shacked up at the Moonbeam. Yes, the pair shared the same bed. Yes, she had noted strange late night goings on.

Meanwhile, RKO's first talkie was a hit. It seemed the graveyard curse had finally lifted off the bustling lot. Visions of a massive media conglomerate that would dwarf that of William Randolph Hearst danced in the heads of both Sarnoff and Kennedy. Kennedy dreamed of the oval office in Washington for himself. Sarnoff hoped to rule the entertainment industry by combining radio, movies, vaudeville, and the new medium, "experimental television," into a vast information super-conductor.

RKO was the darling of Wall Street. Between 1929 and 1930, RKO acquired 33 million dollars in new equipment and movie palaces at depression level prices, including Pathe Studios, makers of the most popular news reels. The new "Sarnoff/Kennedy" leviathan signed contracts with a galaxy of stars who would perform both on screen and at the brand new Manhattan Radio City Music Hall, while RCA radios chimed out the company slogan: "It's RKO-Let's Go!"

The frail old Greek, Pantages sat pale and stooped in the courtroom at his retrial, flanked by his wife, with whom he had built his entertainment empire.His handsome adult son and daughter stood by him--both had helped shepherd his company through the first trial, the stock market crash and the continous onslaught of jackals that had closed in following their father's arrest. When Eunice Pringle mounted the witness stand at the new trail, she looked like a shopworn thirty-year-old. Sloppily dressed, dark circles under her puffy eyes--her once pretty complexion now putty-like and gray.

Nevertheless, she tried to reprise her hit role as the virginal victim, but on cross-examination, her story fell apart. Yes, she could do a full split. She was a dancer, wasn't she. The defense pounded home the fact that a big, athletic girl like Pringle, an acrobat capable of doing a full split, could have gotten away from a frail little man like Pantages. Cat calls and hoots of laughter broke out as Consular Giesler and his assistant acted out Pringle's description of the alleged attack for the court, demonstrating it would have been physically impossible for Pringle's story to have taken place in the narrow confines of the broom closet.

When Pringle's former building manager took the stand and began telling the story of her Moonbeam escapades, Eunice's jaw hit the floor. The court ruled that the testimony of Eunice Pringle "was so improbable as to question it's credulity, and that it had been improper to exclude evidence about Pringle's character" and sexual activities at the first trial. Years later, Eunice confessed while she lay dying that she had lied about everything and that the whole frame-up had been masterminded by Joe Kennedy. Acquitted, Alex Pantages was greeted by a brass band celebration on his release.

Back at RKO, the mood was not as happy. By 1932, the studio teetered on the verge of collapse. Its pictures were worse than ever, despite the expensive contracts and vast acquisitions of the previous year. Its last network of movie palaces stood empty as the American public rebelled against its tired stream of prosaic losers. The company's stock tumbled from a high of 50 dollars a share to less then 2 dollars a share and massive layoffs followed.

The jewel in the crown, Pathe studios, was closed. The lot was used as a rental yard. The RKO theaters that weren't boarded up were sustained by B-grade vaudeville acts and girlie shows. RKO's two top production executives fled the company, leaving David Selznick in charge of any future productions. Selznick promised to mend RKO's ways and make a better grade of motion Picture. Kennedy, seeing the upheaval caused by the great depression, believed in the new world order. Centralized government would control the capital assets and means of production rather than industrialists. He had always yearned to be president. So he packed his bags and jumped on the FDR bandwagon. Roosevelt reluctantly accepted Kennedy's money and support.

FDR was elected and Kennedy angled him for a cabinet post. Kennedy was appointed chairman of the new security and exchange commission, (a non cabinet post) where the master of insider trading managed to plug the loop holes for others he had so skillfully used to his advantage. After 18 months, the astonished press was forced to praise the fine job Kennedy had done and apologize for comparing him to a "wolf in a hen house."

Kennedy was next appointed to the maritime commission and used his post to ballyhoo himself to the press. By 1938, he was considered among the five most likely men to replace Roosevelt. Drunk with his new found popularity, he pressured Roosevelt for an appointment as Ambassador to Great Britain. Happy to be rid of the tenacious nouveau-riche upstart, Roosevelt made the appointment.

Kennedy, his three nubile offspring in tow, used his new post as a series of press opportunities. Joe Jr., Jack and their sister Kick were photogenic and well-spoken. The Golden Trio became the darlings of the press and London's social elite. Kennedy dreamed and schemed and counted the days until crippled old man Roosevelt would give up the ghost.

Meanwhile, in Germany, a foursome gathered together to hatch a scheme of their own: a paper-hanger, a chicken farmer, a mad man, and a club foot were up to no good. Austria and Czechoslovakia collapsed under the Nazi onslaught in a matter of hours while Joe Kennedy stood in awe of the gleaming new jack-booted army that had risen from the ashes of Weimar. Appeasement was the watch word of the day. In Joe Kennedy it found no greater ally. Kennedy thought war would be bad for the economy and Nazis were a bulwark against communism. Joe ignored his staff when they gave him first hand accounts of Jews brutalized by SS Thugs. He "didn't know the extent of what was going on, and was not interested in finding out."

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. World War II had begun. In a matter of weeks, all of Europe sank beneath a veil of Nazi tyranny and England's skies swarmed with Nazi dive bombers. Kennedy was convinced of Nazi supremacy and that Roosevelt was conspiring to get America involved on the losing side of World War II. Joe returned state-side to warn every one of the impending doom unless we made friends with the Nazis. Shortly after his return to America, he confided to the Boston Globe that. in his opinion, democracy was finished in Britain and maybe in the USA as well. Kennedy was labeled a coward and fool, and was suspected of being a Nazi sympathizer and traitor to boot. Joe's political career was over for good.

The final curse placed on Joe Kennedy is almost too terrible for words. Much of what Joe did might be forgiven as the actions of a street smart, boot-strapper scrapping his way through the cut-throat free market place. Joe wanted to make a place for his children. In the end, his stockpiled money was worthless, as he watched helpless while his kids were struck down, one after another.

During World War II, Kennedy's favorite son, Joe Jr., enlisted as a naval aviator. He served one tour of duty and was scheduled to return home. Perhaps to help clear the Kennedy name, young Joe volunteered for one last special mission. On that mission, Joe Jr's explosive-laden aircraft burst into flames and he was killed only days before old Joe expected him to return home to America Kick, Kennedy's favorite daughter, was killed en-route to meet Joe in an airplane Joe chartered for her and her lover because he wanted to meet his future son-in-law.

After Joe Jr's death, Joe Sr. invested his money and hopes in his second son, Jack. Jack was a war hero, and shared few of the old man's values. JFK moved up the political ladder to the office of the Presidency of the United States, an office Joe had always coveted. Then Old Joe Kennedy suffered a stroke that left him completely paralyzed. For the final eight years of his life, Joe was a mute observer. Watching on television as Jack was assassinated in Dallas, some claim by Joe's underworld associates. Watching on television as Bobby was gunned down at the Hollywood Ambassador Hotel less than three miles from the Cemetery and RKO. At the time of Joe's death, five of his nine children had died violent horrible deaths and a sixth had received a labotomy.

In the twenty first century the laying of a corner-stone is regarded as having only sentimental value. But in times gone the performance of the foundation ritual, involving the slaughter of a human offering was considered far more important than the workmanship of the building because the spirits - owners of the soil are extremely jealous and if not continually appeased they will destroy you and wipe out your puny treasures. Cover Page Index