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Chapter 1: Billy Wilkerson

William Richard "Billy" Wilkerson, 1939

Photo Credit: Wilkerson Family Archives

William Richard Wilkerson - better known as "Billy" - was born in Nashville, TN in 1890.  As a young man, he left home and headed for Philadelphia to study medicine, but when his father died suddenly in 1912 with massive gambling debts, Wilkerson was forced to give up his studies and head home to find work to support both himself and his mother.

Over the course of the next several years, Wilkerson made the move into the film industry where he held several roles.  He wrote, produced & directed short films for a small production company; he ran a small "Nickelodeon" theater in New Jersey; he handled sales, marketing & distribution for 2 major companies (including Universal Pictures); and he wrote ads & reviews for "Film Daily", a New York-based trade paper.

He moved to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a filmmaker & owning his own movie studio, even going as far as producing a movie, "Help Yourself", which he eventually brought back to New York & shopped around to the major film studios.

 

While waiting for one of the studios to pick up his movie, Wilkerson needed to make money...and to do that, he jumped into a totally different industry.

 

He opened a Speakeasy.

1920's Speakeasy

Photo Credit: Legends of America website

It was the era of prohibition & Wilkerson wanted to take advantage of what he believed was an opportunity in the market; as opposed to the opium dens & bordellos where speakeasies were operating, he wanted to open his establishments in high-end neighbourhoods to attract high-end clientelle.

With the help of New York Mayor, Jimmy Walker, Wilkerson went on to run six extremely profitable establishments.  It was also during his time running these speakeasies that Wilkerson discovered - like his father - he loved to gamble.  And as quickly as he was making money, he was losing it playing cards inside his own speakeasies.

After a series of police raids and finding himself on law enforcement's radar, Wilkerson walked away from the business and set about his plan of launching "Wilkerson Studios."

Unfortunately, after screening his film for every major studio, they all passed on it.  Wilkerson's dreams of running his own studio turned to thoughts of revenge and he wanted a way to get back at the people who'd ruined his vision.

His new plan?  To create the first daily trade paper for the Hollywood movie industry.  From his time working on "Film Daily", Wilkerson knew that such a paper could have big effects on the industry.  One bad review could destroy a studio and he felt this was his way to exact his vengeance.

Billy Wilkerson and the staff of The Hollywood Reporter

Photo Credit: Wilkerson Family Archives

On September 3, 1930 Billy Wilkerson published the first edition of "The Hollywood Reporter", which would go on to be the most influential trade publication in the film industry.  Known as an aggressive reporter, Wilkerson often clashed with studio heads and pressured them to advertise in the paper with threats of bad reviews.

Once the Hollywood Reporter was well established, Wilkerson decided he wanted to branch out into a new business: he wanted to own and run nightclubs - but not just ANY nightclubs...he wanted to focus on the hard-partying Hollywood set he'd become close with.  And he wanted the clubs to be upscale & exclusive.

Cafe Trocadero, as it appeared shortly after opening in 1934

Photo Credit: Hollywood Historic Photos

In January 1934, Wilkerson opened the Cafe Trocadero, where A-Listers would come to see and be seen.  But there was more to "the Troc" than just glitz and glamour...there was a whiff of danger hanging over both the club and its owner.

The Troc was home to a secret back room, where Wilkerson could indulge in his gambling habit by playing high-stakes poker with Samuel Goldwyn and other movie moguls.  It was also at the Troc where Billy gained the friendship & protection of gangsters Johnny Roselli & Tony Cornero.

Ciro's on Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, 1940.  Entrance (left) and interior (right).

Photo Credit: MartinTurnbull.wordpress.com

In January of 1940 - after a "suspicious" fire destroyed the Trocadero's kitchen - Wilkerson opened his new club, Ciro's.  Working with famous designers George Vernon Russell and Tom Douglas, Wilkerson was once again taking aim at the Hollywood elite with features like phone jacks at every table - so important calls would never be missed - and a spotlight to light up the entrance whenever a star entered the club.

And of course there was a hidden gambling parlour, installed at the urging of Wilkerson's gangster pal, Johnny Roselli.  But Roselli wasn't the only mob regular at Ciro's.

The legendary Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel who was a friend, fan & future business partner of Billy's also frequented the club.