The Harvey Weinstein drama keeps going from bad to worse. Hollywood is no stranger to scandal, but its first stab at damage control, almost a century ago, was a total flop.
Tinsel Town had huge PR headaches in 1922. That February, actor and director William Desmond Taylor was murdered. Suspects included some of Hollywood's biggest names. (To this day, the killer hasn't been identified.)
Then there was Mabel Normand, a big box office draw whose personal life was a trainwreck. She was implicated in Taylor's death and her worsening cocaine addiction was notorious.
But the biggest scandal of all (pun intended) was Fatty Arbuckle. The 300-pound comedian was known for his drinking and partying. But nobody was laughing when a young starlet died after being raped at a drunken sex party in September 1921.
Arbuckle was charged with manslaughter, generating nasty headlines and salacious gossip (his obesity had made her bladder burst; he raped her with a soda bottle; etc.) His 1922 trial revealed damning insights into Hollywood's decadent lifestyle. Though Arbuckle was acquitted three times, his career was ruined and movie moguls feared he'd take their infant industry down with him.
Then the thing moviemakers fear above all else happened: Ticket sales dropped in 1922. The handwriting was on the wall. The industry had to clean up its act — fast.
So Hollywood responded by doing what it does best: putting on a show. Not just any show, but the biggest, loudest, flashiest of all: a World's Fair. Hosting one had done wonders for Chicago in 1893, St. Louis in 1904, and San Francisco in 1915. They'd even made money. This one would showcase the family-friendly New Hollywood.
Organizers decided to wrap their production in the American flag. They tried tying it to the Boston Tea Party's 150th anniversary. But as one historian noted, that event "couldn't be tortured into even the vaguest relevance to California, let alone to Los Angeles."
The answer was the 100th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine (when President James Monroe announced America wouldn't tolerate foreign powers interfering in the Western Hemisphere.) Problem solved.
With great pomp and fanfare, it was announced that the American Historical Revue and Motion Picture Exposition would be held in Los Angeles from July 2 through Aug. 6, 1923.
It was like waving as the Titanic set sail, because this World's Fair was doomed from the beginning.
Sponsors wanted the U.S. Mint to make a special commemorative half-dollar as a promotional gimmick. But given Hollywood's sinking popularity, Congress was reluctant to embrace it. So money was generously sprinkled around Capitol Hill and voila! The 1923 Monroe Doctrine Centennial Half Dollar was approved. Some 274,077 coins were struck and sold for $1 each, with the government getting half and organizers keeping the other fifty cents to cover exposition expenses. (Think of it as a government-sponsored fundraiser.) But only 27,000 were sold. The remaining 447,000 were dumped into general circulation, infuriating folks who'd paid a buck for theirs.
Worse still, the public didn't go to the fair. Different historically themed live shows were featured nightly, such as "Montezuma and the Fall of the Aztecs." But nobody cared about the Aztecs. Or history, for that matter. Fairgoers were more interested in seeing movie stars in the flesh.
Planners hadn't done their marketing homework, either. They'd projected 1 million attendees. Barely 300,000 people showed up.
Organizers had one last ace in the hole. President Warren G. Harding was scheduled to visit on Aug. 6. That, they confidently believed, would create a spike in visitation.
And it might have, if Harding hadn't died suddenly on Aug. 2. The last hope of the fair's success died with him.
In a final insult, the American Historical Revue and Motion Picture Exposition lost money.
Hollywood eventually climbed out of its funk. But the 1923 World's Fair had nothing to do with it.
The moral of this story: If you want to improve your image, throwing a gaudy pat on the back isn't the way to do it.
J. Mark Powell (@JMarkPowell) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former broadcast journalist and government communicator. His weekly offbeat look at our forgotten past, "Holy Cow! History," can be read at jmarkpowell.com.
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