There are some stories that just refuse to go away. Take the tale of the infamous Rooster Cogburne, for example. Nearly a century ago, the adventures of Jack Skidpane and his feisty sidekick, J.D. Wilkes, kept readers enthralled. The tales of the Mississippi Delta and the American Wild West proved so popular that they were turned into a series of novels and short stories. One of these, Castaway in the Catskills, was such an instant success that the publishers quickly found themselves inundated with orders. By the early 1920s, the series had sold over a million copies and been translated into several languages. This is not an isolated incident. The simple fact is that there is currently a popular culture fascination with stories of ineptitude, misfortune, and ill-fated encounters, and the tales of Rooster Cogburne and company seem to fit the bill.
Now, nearly a century after its publication, we have the incredible story of Rooster Cogburne’s misadventures living in Hollywood. You see, in 1919, Rooster Cogburne was one of the first to realize the commercial potential of the medium and was among the first to set up shop in Hollywood. With the help of his equally ambitious and conniving wife, Daisy, he founded the Sunset Strip Movie Theater, which opened its doors in the fall of that year and presented films every week until its sale and subsequent demolition in 1926. Rooster’s star rose rapidly and in 1923 he was elected to the California State Legislature. In 1924, he was named Sheriff of Los Angeles County and served in that capacity for a little over a year before returning to the sheriff’s department in a less exalted capacity. At the time of his death in 1940, he was one of the wealthiest and most successful men in Hollywood, if not the entire world. With the help of a bodyguard and a chauffeur, the infamous and much-reviled Rooster Cogburne now has a mansion in the Hollywood Hills where he can throw his legendary parties and hold court with other legendary Hollywood figures, such as Barbara Hutton and H.H. Holmes. For a glimpse into the mind of this unique gentleman, let us turn to the pages of American Weekly, which were inspired by the success of Castaway in the Catskills and which chronicled the misadventures and wacky schemes of the colorful Mr. Cogburne, or, as he preferred to be known, “The Senator from Southwest Missouri.”
The Senator from Southwest Missouri
It was a cold December night in Los Angeles, California, when the light finally went on for Rooster Cogburne. The gala opening of the Sunset Strip Movie Theater had been a smashing success, and, as expected, the man from Missouri was besieged by media representatives and Hollywood celebrities. Unfortunately, after a few too many cocktails, the crowd at the after-party began to thin out, and the Senator, ever the businessman, decided it might be time to call it a night. It had been a long day, and he was due back at his mansion in the Hollywood Hills in order to prepare for his next lavish entertaining event, the grand opening of the new Senatorial swimming pool. As he was leaving the party, he was approached by a reporter from the Daily News. The weary journalist, seeking an interview with the reclusive movie star, desperately needed a last-minute quote for his story. Frustrated that no one from the press seemed willing to speak with him, Cogburne, overcome with frustration and possibly fatigue, snapped. “What the hell would I need to say? I’m not going to make any more statements. I’m going home,” he said, abruptly turning around and leaving the party. As a last resort, the weary newspaperman called the Sheriff’s department, which informed him that Mr. Cogburne was legally required to give his consent for any interview. At this point, the journalist, seeing no other choice, decided to make the most of what meager bits of information he could garner and rushed to print a hurriedly cobbled-together story about Mr. Cogburne and the opening of the Sunset Strip Movie Theater.
Needless to say, the final version of the article wasn’t quite as lurid or colorful as the journalist’s original screed. Nonetheless, it was a devastating indictment, not only of Rooster Cogburne and the Sunset Strip Movie Theater but also of the whole film industry. In the article, the Senator from Missouri is described as a “retarded brother with a harebrained scheme to put a cinema in the middle of the Sunset Strip.” According to the piece, the theater itself was a flop, closing after only a few months, and Cogburne was facing financial ruin. In order to save face, the Senator from Missouri, who apparently had a thing for the opposite sex, married a young Hollywood socialite and began an affair with her that lasted for the rest of his life. The marriage ended in divorce, and the cheating scandal that followed was headline news for weeks. It was during this period that Rooster Cogburne began to take a liking to fast cars and expensive whiskey, vices which continued throughout his career and which finally got him arrested and convicted of felony automobile theft and served time in jail. After his release, he settled in West Hollywood, where he spent the rest of his days drinking and carousing, rarely seen without a cigar in hand.
The Biggest Loser
Although the Rooster Cogburne saga was supposed to be the focus of American Weekly, the newspapermen behind the story were not satisfied with their portrayal of the charismatic Mr. Cogburne. Despite the apparent flop of the Sunset Strip Movie Theater and the subsequent scandal that surrounded it, the reporters and editors from American Weekly were determined to tell the stories of several of their other subjects, including the notorious H.H. Holmes, the infamous “Phantom” Palmer, and, of course, Mr. Cogburne’s arch rival, William Harrison Holmes, aka “The Biggest Loser.” For whatever reason, the staff at American Weekly seemed particularly enamored with the life and times of William Harrison Holmes, a.k.a. “The Biggest Loser,” and spent several months of 1924 chronicling his exploits. For a flavor of the Biggest Loser, one need only examine the newspaper’s “Bazar” section. Here, readers can find everything from lurid snippets about famous personalities and scandals to in-depth articles about the newest hairstyle and skincare regimens. In one such article, the editors of American Weekly even give a full-blown medical description of rheumatoid arthritis and explain in great detail how the disease affects the human body. The result was an in-depth and utterly bizarre account of Mr. Holmes’s life, which, as stated, focused on his weight loss regimen. While writing about Mr. Holmes’s adventures and conquests, the reporters often relied on anonymous sources and were not above printing false information in their stories. All of this did wonders for sales.
There are several more interesting sidelights to Castaway in the Catskills that deserve a mention. For instance, the series was not only well-received but was responsible for increasing the popularity of “B” Westerns and helping to establish several major stars, among them Tom Mix and H.B. Warner. Warner in particular would go on to have an immensely successful career in Hollywood, producing and directing many of the “B” Westerns that were so popular in the early 20th century. This is not an isolated incident. The early film industry was rife with brothers who often used their position of power to help and protect each other. This brotherly bond would continue in later years, as executives, studio heads, and even actors banded together to protect and promote their shared interests. In the pages of American Weekly, one encounters a who’s who of Hollywood, including directors James Cruze, John Gilmore, and Cliff Edwards; actors Tom Mix, Fred Scott, and Jack Diamond; and production designers Gilbert H. King and Richard P. Ryan. In an age when fame can seem so fleeting, these men’s legacies live on through the work of today’s Hollywood talent.