Dear Straight Dope: I have always been a fan of old films and love to read about the old days of movies, the studio system, etc. I have often seen the name of a famous movie studio in Hollywood called “R.K.O.” I have never seen the name not abbreviated and have often wondered what “R.K.O.” stood for. I hope you will help me with this question I have wondered about for years. Why isn’t your column available in the New Orleans Times-Picayune? Kim Marshall
SDStaff Ken replies:
Kim, it gladdens ol’ Cecil’s black heart that his wisdom is not wasted. Still, if you enjoyed “Return of The Straight Dope”, you’ll find that Cecil’s newest compendium of intelligence “The Straight Dope Tells All”, is now available at better bookstores.
As to RKO, it’s a tale of Hollywood power brokers, fierce competition, and cinema history wrapped up in a 3 letter abbreviation. The letters stand for: Radio – Keith – Orpheum. Still mystified? Read on.
A long time ago (actually, in 1928) the Radio Corporation of America (you probably know them as RCA) developed a new sound-on-film technology for the breakthrough “talkies” just starting to be produced in Hollywood. Problem was, the existing major film companies had decided to go with the competing system developed by Western Electric. RCA’s boss, David Sarnoff, wasn’t going to let that stop him. Being the Ted Turner of his day, he decided if the existing movie studios don’t want to use his wonderful sound system, well, then he’d start his own movie company. He bought the Film Booking Office movie studio, which at that time was a small-time operation, and the Keith-Albee-Orpheum theater chain, which had fallen on hard times (basically, they were a vaudeville organization, and vaudeville was deader than the dodo in 1928). I quote here from The Encyclopedia of Hollywood:
“With these two strokes [the purchase of FBO and Keith-Albee-Orpheum], RCA, using its Phonofilm system, built a major film company in 1928 that was prepared to capitalize on the talkie revolution.” In fact, an eagle-eyed reader such as yourself has probably seen the radio tower logo used in many of the early RKO films.
During its 25 years in film production RKO produced many memorable films, including the Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire musicals, the early pictures of Katharine Hepburn, and most famous of all, Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane.” But the company always struggled financially. It was bought by Howard Hughes in 1948 and ceased film production in 1953.
As to why the New Orleans Times-Picayune doesn’t carry the Straight Dope, some mysteries are too complex for even Cecil to fathom. As far as we know, Cecil is a man of the Times, and as Picayune as anyone on the planet, as Little Ed can attest.
SDStaff Ken, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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