A paper tale
With a passion for 'pictures' and a larger-than-life persona, The Reporter's founding publisher and editor-in-chief, William R. Wilkerson, gave life to an industry institution.
From the very beginning, the paper had spunk. It had attitude. It had its own certain style, from the slang it used to the art deco design touches on its pages.
The Hollywood Reporter, the first Hollywood-based daily trade newspaper covering the entertainment industry, launched on Sept. 3, 1930.
Brash, opinionated, gossipy, breezily written in a rat-a-tat Damon Runyon style, the paper was single-minded in its dedication to delivering "today's film news today," as its original masthead slogan promised.
That the paper has endured is largely a testament to the mettle of its founder, William R. Wilkerson, one of old Hollywood's most colorful, debonaire and controversial characters.
Better known as Billy, or W.R. Wilkerson, as he bylined his daily front-page editorial column Tradeviews, the impeccably dressed, immaculately groomed, born showman and inveterate gambler reigned as The Reporter's publisher and editor-in-chief for more than 30 years as his beloved "picture" business transformed into the global engine of art and commerce that it is today.
"We want to know how it hits you," Wilkerson asked readers in his first Tradeviews column, in which he promised to give them "all the news each day of the week. Not Hollywood chatter, but news of the entire industry."
The Reporter arrived just in time to capture the period and the personalities that endure as Hollywood legends -- from power brokers such as Harry Cohn, Carl Laemmle (younger and elder, or "Junior" and "Uncle Carl" as they were known in Reporter headlines), Louis B. Mayer, Joseph Schenck, David O. Selznick, Irving Thalberg, Jack L. Warner, Darryl Zanuck and Adolph Zukor to indelible stars such as James Cagney, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn, Myrna Loy and William Powell.
The paper had a verve and jargon all its own. Studios were referred to as "the plant." Directors would sign on to "megaphone" a picture. When executives or producers were hastily shown the door at a studio, the paper would euphemistically observe that so-and-so "took it at a trot" as they left the lot.
Wilkerson gave the paper a distinct point of view -- his. There were no bylines to be found other than his and a handful of other columnists. Edith Gwynn, the second of his six wives, helped Wilkerson launch the paper and penned the well-read Rambling Reporter column that usually graced Page 2. Frank Pope helped Wilkerson shepherd the editorial coverage as managing editor from the paper's inception through its first decade.
The Reporter actually came out six days a week for most of its first decade. For a short period (late 1931-early 1932), the paper published on Saturdays but not Mondays. By mid-1932, it went Monday-Saturday until June 1940, when it reverted to its present Monday-Friday schedule.
Day in and day out, Wilkerson used his Tradeviews perch to rail for and against any number of issues and individuals. He bridled at the suggestion that The Reporter's editorial coverage could be bought by advertising in the paper ("film news without fear or favor," he vowed to provide in a Jan. 26, 1932, house ad addressing the issue). He also wasn't shy about using the paper to instruct the studios how they could best market their products.
As far as Wilkerson was concerned, there were few problems facing the industry that could not be solved if the studios and the creative talent would only focus more on delivering "BETTER QUALITY PICTURES" (Wilkerson frequently turned to capitals for emphasis).
Later, during the blacklist era of the late 1940s and '50s, Wilkerson used his platform to promote his anti-Communist views. His crusade was fueled by his belief that "Commies" were a pernicious threat to the health of the industry and that "reds" had to be drummed out of the showbiz workforce, at any cost, as he explained in his column.
In his prime, Wilkerson was not only kingpin of The Reporter but also an enormously successful restaurateur and nightclub owner whose start-ups included the Cafe Trocadero and Ciro's, two key establishments that seeded what would become Hollywood's Sunset Strip.
Behind his public persona as a suave, sophisticated businessman, however, the undercurrent of Wilkerson's life, for most of his 72 years, was gambling, according to "The Man Who Invented Las Vegas," a biography of Wilkerson published in 2000 by his son, W.R. Wilkerson III.
When he would blow The Reporter's payroll at the track or at cards, Wilkerson often went to friends such as 20th Century Fox chief Joe Schenck or Howard Hughes for five-figure loans, in the form of prepaid advertising in The Reporter.
After the state of California clamped down on floating casinos and other gambling haunts in the late 1930s, Wilkerson had the vision in the immediate post-World War II era of building a ritzy resort playground in the desert with his original plans for Las Vegas' Flamingo hotel.
Wilkerson had worked in and around New York's film business and nightclub scene for 15 years before he conceived the notion to pack up his wife and mother and drive cross-country to launch The Reporter, according to accounts of Wilkerson's early years in "Vegas" and "The Hollywood Reporter: The Golden Years," published in 1984 by his widow, Tichi Wilkerson Kassel, and Marcia Borie.
Less than a year after Wilkerson arrived in Los Angeles -- and less than a year after the great stock market crash of October 1929 -- the first issue of The Reporter was pieced together in a three-room office at 1606 N. Highland Ave., between Sunset and Hollywood boulevards.
At the time, filmdom's major players, like the rest of the country, were heading into their worst financial years ever as world markets absorbed the shock of Black Tuesday. Moreover, the film industry already was grappling with massive upheaval, from the technological revolution of talking pictures to labor strife to merger mania among the majors. (Fox, Paramount and Warner Bros. Pictures, in particular, were the subject of constant merger and buyout rumors in The Reporter's earliest pages.) On top of all that, the federal government and the Hays Office were fighting the industry in their efforts to mandate everything from Hollywood salaries to the degree of passion displayed in love scenes.
As the majors saw their bottom lines battered, the linchpins of the filmmaking process -- actors, writers and directors -- were growing tired of relying on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to represent their interests.
Actors and writers soon began leaving the Academy in droves to form their own guilds. AMPAS already was overwhelmed by political battles with the Hays Office and the new Franklin D. Roosevelt administration's National Recovery Act and its efforts to impose industrywide salary caps and other limits. And as all of this was going on, relations between studios and exhibitors were changing dramatically. Independent theater owners pushed for the innovation of the double feature -- a concept most studios, and Wilkerson, initially hated -- and they fought tooth and nail the studios' push to demand a guaranteed percentage of their receipts as a standard deal point.
So much activity on so many fronts gave the fledgling paper plenty to write about. Wilkerson frequently noted in print that FDR had a copy of The Reporter airmailed to the White House every day.
"The Reporter was a town crier that got everybody on the same page. That's probably why it was so successful so quickly in the middle of the depression," Eyman says. "For (moguls) who were essentially competitive at best and at worst outright antagonistic to one another, The Reporter was a great communications tool to read about what the other guy was doing."
But filmdom's potentates didn't see it that way at first. The last thing they wanted was an aggressive, independent news source reporting the nitty-gritty details, like how much Loy was demanding for her next picture.
Initially, the moguls -- including MGM's Mayer, Columbia's Cohn and Paramount's Zukor -- convened to figure out a way to dispose of what they viewed as an irritant. The legend, whether tall or true, goes that every day at noon, the head of publicity at Fox would have stacks of the paper burned outside his office so that he could watch the wisps of smoke curl up past his window.
The Reporter was banned on some of the biggest lots in town, but to no avail, as evidenced in a cheeky Page 1 item from Oct. 8, 1930. The new hometown newspaper became a must-read overnight for the notoriously insular film colony. Wilkerson had this fertile playing field all to himself as the only daily source of film news until Daily Variety arrived in September 1933.
From the start, The Reporter covered the minutia of show business through its trademark one- and two-sentence "squibs." The sea of items crammed onto each page would even include details of a starlet's vacation plans, like this representative item on Constance Bennett from Oct. 21, 1932: The Reporter tracked the trans-Atlantic jaunts of moguls, like this Page 1 item on Universal chief Laemmle's itinerary from the Sept. 14, 1933, issue.
One famous bit of Reporter lore, retold in "Lion," has it that Mayer made Wilkerson conduct a test of the paper's reach by printing a favorable item about Gable, who was a then-budding leading man on the Metro lot. Wilkerson did, and within a few weeks, he was able to bring the MGM boss a thick stack of clips from other magazines and newspapers that had picked up the insider buzz about Gable's hot prospects as a new favorite of Mayer's.
By 1936, The Reporter had moved to posh new offices at 6715 Sunset Blvd. Initially, the building housed a men's haberdashery and barber shop on the ground floor, but they never took off as businesses. The barber chairs were soon moved out, and the newspaper's operations got more breathing room in a space designed for a decidedly different type of work. The paper prospered as the industry grew, particularly with the blossoming of network radio and the growth of the market for popular music, live and recorded.
In the late 1940s, after tangling with Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel and giving up on his quest to build the Flamingo in Las Vegas, Wilkerson embraced the anti-Communist fervor that flared right after World War II. Through The Reporter, Wilkerson became one of the forces that fanned the flames of the red scare as it pertained to the entertainment industry.
In his Sept. 16, 1947, Tradeviews column, one month before the House Un-American Activities Committee held its historic hearings, Wilkerson blamed the "Soviet-dominated" unions for the strikes and labor strife that were then plaguing the industry.
"Motion pictures could go to the front and highlight a great activity by blasting all the 'Commies' out of the picture business," Wilkerson wrote. "The resultant publicity might arouse others and eventually might get our government into action."
Fifteen years later, in his obituary in The Reporter, Wilkerson was lauded for having "named names, pseudonyms and card numbers," and he was credited with "being chiefly responsible for preventing communists from becoming entrenched in Hollywood production."
In his professional life, Wilkerson could be cavalier about his business ventures and decide to sell or buy on a whim. But for all of his high-stakes gambling, he never let go of The Reporter.
Wilkerson penned his Tradeviews column, albeit with less regularity, until about 18 months before he died at his Bel-Air home on Sept. 2, 1962, of a coronary occlusion. Two days later, The Reporter's obituary for its founder appeared at the bottom of Page 1, and a tribute column ran where Wilkerson's Tradeviews had long resided.
"Perhaps the best tribute that can be paid to Billy Wilkerson is that he was not only the keenest-minded but also the most independent and courageous publisher this industry has ever had," then-editor Don Carle Gillette wrote in his tribute. "On the foundation built by his enterprise and daring, The Hollywood Reporter long will continue as a monument to him."
Wilkerson's widow, Tichi Wilkerson Kassel, took over The Hollywood Reporter after his death, remaining its owner and publisher until it was purchased by BPI Communications in 1988. Robert J. Dowling was appointed president of The Reporter following the sale. In May 1991, he assumed the title of editor-in-chief and publisher, while Kassel became publisher emerita. Dutch media conglomerate VNU acquired BPI in 1994. Kassel died at age 77 in March 2004. Dowling retired from the helm at the end of 2005, and was succeeded by Tony L. Uphoff as publisher.
In June of 2006, VNU was purchased by Valcon Acquisition, a consortium of private equity firms. In October 2006, John Kilcullen was
named publisher. The VNU company name was changed to The Nielsen Co. and the division publishing The Hollywood Reporter is now
Nielsen Business Media. In March 2008, Eric Mika was named vp and publisher.