Every company has its embarrassing secrets. We all know how Domino's used to make all their pizza dough out of military surplus Semtex, or how UPS was a male striptease act that got insanely out of hand. But it turns out some of our most famous corporations have even weirder backstories than that.
MGM is arguably the most storied movie studio of all time, producing epic films like The Wizard Of Oz, Ben-Hur and Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London. Which makes it even funnier that the studio entered the '90s under the control of a cartoonishly horny criminal buffoon. In 1990, MGM was sold to a company called Pathe Communications for $1.25 billion. Cheering executives paraded a live lion through studio HQ, at which point the new owner started screaming in fear. Things went downhill from there, as Pathe Communications was completely unrelated to France's legendary Pathe studios. Instead, it was owned by Giancarlo Parretti, a dimwitted creep who inherited a massive financial empire after somehow befriending a Mafia-backed Sicilian business tycoon while working as a cruise ship waiter.
The Sicilian tycoon ended up fleeing the country after a failed attempt to avoid criminal charges by faking his own assassination attempt, leaving Parretti to take control of his business. He quickly racked up a truly astonishing array of bankruptcies and criminal charges. But none of that harmed his career -- because he was bribing executives at a major French bank into giving him billions of dollars in completely unsecured loans. He wasn't exactly subtle about this, literally screaming bribe offers at a bank employee in public at the Cannes Film Festival. That banker indignantly refused, so Parretti simply repeated the offer to his boss, who quickly fired his obstinate employee.
With his billions in fake loans, Parretti bought MGM. This was bad news for everyone who worked there, since Parretti was an unbelievably gross human being, apparently unable to be in the same room as a female executive without making sucking noises and frantically gesturing at his groin. He quickly put a "harem" of prostitutes on the MGM payroll, and studio executives were treated to the sounds of their boss loudly having sex in his office throughout the work day. In his spare time, he looted the company for everything it had, starting by firing almost the entire accounting department and replacing them with his 21-year-old daughter. This all culminated in a crude attempt to proposition Meryl Streep, who laughed in his face until he scurried out of the room in embarrassment.
One of Parretti's key backers was Liberian dictator Samuel Doe, who promised to invest millions. But this fell through when Doe was captured and tortured to death by his political enemies (they released some of the footage on video, which apparently sold quite well in Liberia). Meanwhile, one of France's biggest banks had lent Parretti so much money that it would have collapsed without a government bailout (executives took bribes of a few million in exchange for letting Parretti steal billions). The whole house of cards came tumbling down and Parretti was arrested. He lost control of MGM after just eight months, during which the studio produced zero movies.
In 1984, executives at Pacific Bell decided that the company needed a little shakeup. Naturally, they turned to the ideas of early 20th century Armenian mystic George Gurdjieff, who returned from travels in the East claiming to have synthesized the teachings of the "monk, yogi, and fakir" into a "fourth way" of transcending our mental limits. The company decided to spend $140 million training its employees in Gurdjieff's mystical techniques for attaining a higher level of consciousness. Again, this is Pacific Bell. The phone company. They're owned by AT&T now. And they were going to spend $140 million trying to turn their employees into some sort of mentats.
This was not some optional little side course. The company's employees could literally be fired for not fully embracing the pathway to a higher state of being, via such concepts as "the Law of Three" and "end-state visions." Baffled engineers suddenly found themselves sitting through seminars on Gurdjieff's impenetrable writings, informing them that "only he will deserve the name of man who has acquired data for being able to preserve intact both the sheep and the wolf entrusted to his care." Can you imagine calling your phone company and hearing "Thanks for calling Pacific Bell, how many I preserve your inner wolf today?"
Standard corporate press releases were suddenly replaced with impenetrable tracts declaring the company's intent to pursue "the continuous ability to engage with the connectedness and relatedness that exists and potentially exists, which is essential for the creations necessary to maintain and enhance viability of ourselves and the organization of which we are a part." It's probably not a great sign when your PR department appears to be communing with the Architect from The Matrix.
Employees quickly started to complain about brainwashing and several went to the press with concerns over "thought restructuring" and "mind control." The ensuing scandal forced Pacific Bell to shut the program down after spending a mere $40 million. As a bonus, the creator of Dilbert was actually working at Pacific Bell when all this happened. And not having the wacky office from the comic strip slowly devolve into the Heaven's Gate cult is probably that guy's worst decision yet.
These days, Blockbuster Video is primarily a punchline for jokes about failed businesses, but you can't underestimate how huge that company used to be. There was a time when Blockbusters spread across the land like the mighty buffalo, as a nation quaked in fear of late return fees. Entire forests were felled for Hellraiser and Double Indemnity posters. Legions of employees, thousands strong, pulled on a blue and yellow shirt, smoked breakfast, and slouched off to work. Then Netflix happened and everyone immediately lost interest. But if you think we're exaggerating about the power of Blockbuster, understand that the company came very close to becoming an actual government in Florida.
This was back in the '90s, when nobody found anything weird about plans for a "Blockbuster Park" to compete with Disney World (just imagine what a weird ruin that would be now). But the company wasn't content to just build a park like those nerds at Six Flags. They wanted to rule. So, in 1994, the Florida legislature voted to give Blockbuster an independent fief comprising 2,500 acres north of Miami. The incredible deal gave Blockbuster "sweeping powers traditionally limited to popularly elected governments," including the rights to levy taxes, seize private land, and issue government bonds. It doesn't specifically mention war-making powers, but we're going to go ahead and assume that the Bahamas would be the independent nuclear state of Blockbusteria by now.
This was all so the company could build a Blockbuster theme park, including new homes for the Miami Dolphins and Florida Marlins, which were owned by Blockbuster's CEO. Blockbuster Park was also to include a "virtual reality arcade," which sounds cool, but possibly not worth making a private company Florida's "68th county." As a bonus, it was going to be built right over an environmentally sensitive area of the Everglades, with unclear implications for Miami's water table.
There was a slight precedent for this. We've previously mentioned how Disney runs two fictional tiny cities, populated by Disney employees, in order to control some government functions at Disneyworld. But that was a crazy loophole. Blockbuster's deal went even further and Florida just gave it to them. The only thing that stopped Blockbuster becoming OCP from Robocop was the entire company being bought by Viacom, who pulled the plug on the project. You know how bad things have to get before Viacom winds up looking like the good guy?
Owning a Lamborghini is a classic 13-year-old boy ambition. But you never have to grow up if you're a dictator's spoiled offspring. Hutomo "Tommy" Suharto is the jackass son of Suharto, the hamster-faced psycho who ruled Indonesia with an iron fist for 30 years. By the '90s, Suharto's idiot kids were all basically in a competition to see who could rob the country blind the fastest. Tommy won when his dad gave him a monopoly on the entire clove crop, vital in a country that basically runs on clove cigarettes.
Tommy used his looted millions to indulge his love of cars, but Tommy wasn't content to just go out and buy himself a Lamborghini, like every other spoiled rich kid. He bought the entire company. Seriously, from 1994 to 1998, Lamborghini was majority owned by the large adult son of a mass-murdering dictator. It would be like if every Ferrari came with a signed note from CEO Kim Jong-Un, thanking you for the contribution to his bank account.
Tommy's management of the company was so incompetent that senior executives quit in droves. He tried to justify the purchase by claiming that he wanted to manufacture Indonesia's first domestic car, the Timor, and needed Lamborghini's expertise. That already seems questionable, since the Timor was supposed to be an affordable, durable family car for the mass market, all words banned from Lamborghini headquarters on pain of death. As it turned out, Tommy simply ignored the Timor project until the deadline hit, at which point he imported a bunch of Kias, relabeled them "Timors" and declared them the Indonesian car.
Tommy was forced to sell Lamborghini after his dad was deposed in 1998, although he held out so stubbornly the company reportedly had to go behind his back and force through a sale to VW to get rid of him. The new Indonesian government subsequently tried to prosecute Tommy for corruption, at which point he murdered the judge and launched a bombing campaign, because spoiled dictator's kids are only funny until they aren't.
In the early days of air travel, cross-country races were huge, with the public eating up stories about crazy contests like the 1911 Paris To Madrid race, during which a pilot fought off an enraged eagle with a revolver while crossing the Pyrenees and the French Minister of War was sliced in two by a runaway plane's propeller. Meanwhile, Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic crossing sparked interest in long-distance exploits. This all caught the attention of deranged pineapple kingpin James Dole, who announced that he would offer a $35,000 cash prize to the winner of an airplane race between California and Honolulu.
This was a very bad idea. Nobody had ever flown to Hawaii before, early planes had limited fuel, and the isolated islands were a lot easier to miss than the continent of Europe. But Dole wasn't the type of person to listen. The "Pineapple King" had arrived in Hawaii years earlier, shortly after his cousin Sanford Dole overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy and took power himself, governing first a Hawaiian Republic and later the US territory. With Sanford's help, Dole transformed the entire island of Lanai into a massive plantation, where immigrant workers toiled long hours in brutal conditions. Before long, Dole ran the world's pineapple market with an iron fist, producing 70 percent of the global supply. The Dole Air Race was supposed to be his crowning glory.
The most experienced pilots didn't want anything to do with this, so instead the cash prize attracted the zaniest group of entrants until the Wacky Races came along. There was a legendary Hollywood stuntman, a famous cowboy actor, William Randolph Hearst's playboy son, an aging World War I flying ace, a self-invented "mystery monoplane," and a Hawaiian local boy who had just about raised the funds to enter in a determined effort to win the prize for Hawaii. A hot favorite was Mildred Doran, a 22-year-old schoolteacher from Michigan whose good looks and aerial daring made her a media star in the making. Doran was so determined to win that she threw all her tools out of the plane on her way to the starting line, so they wouldn't weigh her down.
That was probably a mistake, since the race immediately went wrong. The "mystery monoplane" flew into a cliff before the race even started, at which point it exploded. Another plane dropped 125 feet out of the air on the way to the starting line, while a third simply fell apart during takeoff. Three people were dead before the race even started. Ultimately, only five planes managed to take off successfully. Two of them were never seen again, including Doran's toolless biplane. Then a third competitor also vanished after detouring to look for the first two. Ten people died, while only two planes actually made it through. They discovered that they had narrowly been beaten to Hawaii by an army plane, meaning they didn't even set the record after all.
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