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On this Day in Movie History March 18, 1954 RKO Studios Sold to Howard Hughes

On this day, March 18, 1954 RKO Pictures was sold to become the first motion picture studio to be owned by an individual. That person was none other than Howard Hughes. The selling price? $23,489,478

RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) Pictures, an American film production and distribution company, was one of the Big Five studios of Hollywood's Golden Age. The business was formed after the Keith-Albee-Orpheum (KAO) theater chains and Joseph P. Kennedy's Film Booking Offices of America (FBO) studio were brought together under the control of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in October 1928. RCA chief David Sarnoff engineered the merger to create a market for the company's sound-on-film technology, RCA Photophone. By the mid-1940s, the studio was under the control of investor Floyd Odlum.

The studio produced two of the most famous films in motion picture history: King Kong and Citizen Kane. RKO was also long celebrated for its cycle of musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the mid- to late 1930s. RKO was where actors Katharine Hepburn and, later, Robert Mitchum had their first major successes and Cary Grant was a mainstay for years. The work of producer Val Lewton's low-budget horror unit and RKO's many ventures into the field now known as film noir have been acclaimed, largely after the fact, by film critics and historians.

In 1948 maverick industrialist Howard Hughes took over RKO. It was during Hughes's tenure RKO suffered its worst years since the early 1930s. Within weeks of taking over, Hughes had dismissed three-fourths of the work force; production was virtually shut down for six months as conservative Hughes shelved or canceled several of the "message pictures" once backed. The production-distribution end of the RKO business, now deep in the red, would never make a profit again.

Under the consent decree he signed, Hughes agreed to dissolve the old parent company, Radio-Keith-Orpheum Corp., and split RKO's production-distribution business and its exhibition chain into two entirely separate corporations—RKO Pictures Corp. and RKO Theatres Corp.—with the obligation to promptly sell off one or the other. (Bischoff would be the last man to hold the job under Hughes.)

"RKO's contract list is down to three actors and 127 lawyers", quipped Dick Powell.

Looking to forestall the impending legal imbroglio, in early 1954 Hughes offered to buy out all of RKO's other stockholders. Convinced that the studio was sinking, Walt Disney ended his arrangement with RKO and set up his own distribution firm, Buena Vista Pictures.

By the end of the year, at a cost of $23.5 million, Hughes had gained near-total control of RKO Pictures, becoming the first virtual sole owner of a studio since Hollywood's pioneer days. Floyd Odlum reemerged to block Hughes from acquiring the 95 percent ownership of RKO stock he needed to write off the company's losses against his earnings elsewhere. In July 1955, with negotiations between the two at a stalemate, Hughes turned around and sold RKO pictures to the General Tire and Rubber Company for $25 million.

For Hughes, this was the effective end of a quarter-century's involvement in the movie business, a period historian Betty Lasky describes as a "systematic seven-year rape."

The original RKO Pictures ceased production in 1957 and was effectively dissolved two years later. In 1981, broadcaster RKO General, the corporate heir, revived it as a production subsidiary, RKO Pictures Inc. In 1989, this business with its few remaining assets, the trademarks and remake rights to many classic RKO films, was sold to new owners, who now operate the small independent company RKO Pictures LLC.

1911 - Smiley (Lester Alvin) Burnette (actor: Western Double Features, Gene Autry Matinee Double Features, Dick Tracy: The Original Serial, King of the Cowboys, Springtime in the Rockies, Silver Spurs; died Feb 16, 1967)

1926 - Peter Graves (Aurness) (actor: Mission Impossible, The Winds of War, Airplane, Airplane 2, Stalag 17, The President's Plane is Missing, The Night of the Hunter; brother of actor James Arness; died Mar 14, 2010)

1938 - Shashi Kapoor (actor: Gulliver's Travels, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Heat and Dust, The Householder)

1943 - Kevin Dobson (actor: Kojak, Knots Landing, Shannon, Dirty Work, Code of Honor, Midway)

1950 - Brad Dourif (actor: Phoenix, Color of Night, Wild Palms, Final Judgement, Jungle Fever, Body Parts, Mississippi Burning, Blue Velvet, Dune, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Studs Lonigan.)

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