Since we never got a Hollywood sourcebook before FASA discontinued the Crimson Skies boardgame line, I've always wanted to know more about the militias and pirate groups of the former state of California. One of the most curious throwaway lines to me in the original CS rulebooks was a brief mention of "Prince Vlad and the Red Dragons" as the leading pirate threat to Hollywood.
I always wondered what this pirate band's origins and background were like, so I decided to try writing something up myself. Here is my own (VERY non-canon) take on Prince Vlad and his Red Dragons. Comments and criticism are welcome! - Neo-Tanuki
Air Action Weekly Profile: Pirates of the Hollywood Coast
Prince Vlad and the Red Dragons
If not for a twist of fate, Vladimir Kardos might have carved out a place in history as one of the great actors of the silver screen. Instead, thanks to several ill-timed strokes of bad luck — and an off-hand snide comment by a young Howard Hughes — Kardos would instead claim a place in Hollywood infamy as “Prince Vlad,” leader of the pirate band known as the Red Dragons and the most notorious aerial corsair to plague the Pacific Coast.
Born in 1907 in Budapest to a stolidly middle-class shopkeeper and his wife, Kardos had few prospects for wealth and fame in childhood. Running away from home at the age of 15, he took advantage of his two greatest gifts — darkly handsome looks and a powerful baritone speaking voice — to break into a modestly successful career in theatre. His stage presence made him a minor local sensation and caught the attention of the leaders of the European Expressionist movement in silent film, which had just begun to make its mark on an enthralled public across the continent. Under the direction of filmmakers such as Murnau, Lang, and others, Kardos went on to star in half-a-dozen classics of silent horror such as “The Dollmaker,” “The Shadow Carnival” and the cult 1926 vampire film, “The Man Who Visits The Churchyard.” These films made Kardos a minor sensation in Europe, especially in Germany and his native Hungary…but he found himself craving more. In 1928, he emigrated to Los Angeles, determined to break into the burgeoning Hollywood film industry. Known for a flair for the dramatic, Kardos would show up at auditions for horror films fully in character, clad head to foot in the black undertaker’s suit he made famous in “The Man Who Visits The Churchyard.”
Unfortunately for Kardos, there was little demand for his talents in Hollywood. The sensational debut of the Academy Award-winning “Wings” in 1927 had created an overnight sensation for aviation adventure stories. Dark, artistic drama and horror was out—air combat films were in. Kardos struggled to find work in the sink-or-swim entertainment culture of Los Angeles, juggling odd jobs as a waiter, taxi driver and construction worker with dozens of auditions and night classes in English and aviation. Proving himself to be a highly competent pilot, he landed what looked might be his big American break — a part as a German fighter ace in Howard Hughes’ upcoming World War I epic, “Hell’s Angels.”
Then disaster struck. In 1930, midway through production, the first talking motion picture, “The Jazz Singer” caught Hughes’ attention — and immediately the mercurial director decided that “Hell’s Angels" would have to be re-shot to accommodate sound dialogue. After re-working the script and reviewing the re-tooled footage, Hughes became unsatisfied with Kardos’ pronounced Hungarian accent and decided to remove him from the picture. “No one is going to buy him as a German. He just sounds too fake,” Hughes said in Kardos’ hearing. It was an insult the proud, dignified Hungarian actor never would forget or forgive.
Kardos was devastated — the more so when “Hell’s Angels” became a box-office smash at its premiere. Furious and disgusted with Hughes, Hollywood and the entire motion picture industry in Los Angeles, running out of money, and unable to land any acting jobs, Kardos decided to leave America in October 1930 — just as the United States collapsed and California seceded from the Union to form the Nation of Hollywood. The Collapse threw Kardos’ plans into chaos. Unable to return to Europe thanks to the dissolution of the nation’s transportation infrastructure, the once-great actor disappeared into a spiral of destitution and alcoholism. Hollywood insiders assumed he had drunk himself to death or committed suicide in some anonymous flophouse. They would find out just how wrong they were one year later.
At the time of the Great Collapse, Catalina Island, a picturesque island 20 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, was just starting to come into its own as the premiere tourist spot for the wealthy and famous of Hollywood. Chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. had purchased a controlling stake in the island in 1919 and developed it with hotels, restaurants and what was to be the island’s crown jewel — a spectacular casino, theatre and ballroom that had just opened to great success in 1929.
On October 31, 1931 — one year after the formation of the Nation of Hollywood — hundreds of rich and influential guests were celebrating Halloween at a gala masked ball hosted at the casino. At the stroke of midnight, the celebrants were puzzled to hear the roar of airplane engines overhead. Ten minutes later, the island was thrown into chaos as armed pirate aircraft attacked the island in a surprise raid — the first documented post-U.S. pirate raid on the West Coast — sinking dozens of yachts moored in the harbor and strafing the grounded aircraft at Catalina’s small airport. A score of armed gunmen landing by boat and parachute stormed the town of Avalon, seizing the casino and taking the partygoers hostage. Leading them was a commanding figure, clad in black finery and a swirling velvet-lined cape. Several shocked producers, actors and directors recognized the mysterious pirate leader as Kardos. As his men herded the hostages into the central ballroom, Kardos — now stying himself as “Prince Vlad, Knight-Captain of the Order of the Crimson Dragon”— explained to the shocked prisoners that Catalina was now under his control, but his ‘guests’ were assured of their safety and would be returned to the mainland shortly—provided their families, studios and business partners paid a suitable “immigration tax” for the costs of repatriating them!
The fledgling Nation of Hollywood, still struggling with its new-found independence and yet to organize an effective air militia, was left with little choice but to comply with “Prince Vlad’s” demands. The Los Angeles government, with financial assistance from the major film studios, paid an enormous ransom for the release of the hostages. While the full sum has never been publicly revealed, rumors have placed the total ransom as high as 3 million dollars or greater. It remains the first and most successful act of air piracy ever committed on the West Coast, and permanently cemented “Prince Vlad’s” reputation as a pirate leader to be reckoned with.
Vlad used the payoff to turn Catalina Island into his own bandit kingdom. Turning the casino into his personal palace, he published a grandiose proclamation declaring Catalina and the Channel Islands as his personal demense, patrolled by his band of sky raiders, who he stylized as his “Knights of the Order of the Crimson Dragon”— later shortened to the “Red Dragons” by the Hollywood press corps.
Unfortunately, while Vlad may have failed as a Hollywood actor, he has proven shrewd and successful as a pirate leader despite — or perhaps because of — his delusions of grandeur and unpredictable behavior. It’s never been certain if Vlad is an insane genius who successfully channeled his theatrical presence somehow into commanding a small army of aerial brigands, or merely a deranged figurehead being manipulated behind the scenes by one of his pirate subordinates. Whatever the truth is, the Red Dragons have constantly proven to be one of the most shrewd and persistent thorns in the side of the Nation of Hollywood. After claiming much of the abandoned possessions and property of the island’s former residents and visitors, Vlad fortified the island against possible retaliatory strikes, and then announced his intention to make Catalina a haven and refuge for criminals and villains of every description — provided they obey his rules and offer proper tribute.
The Red Dragons have continued to raid and harass Hollywood in the years since seizing Catalina. Kidnapping wealthy travelers for ransom is still popular with the pirate band — in one of Vlad’s more notorious escapades, he abducted a starlet being wooed by Howard Hughes and held her for ransom. It was only after collecting money from the anxious Hughes that the starlet sent a message that she had become infatuated with “Prince Vlad” and would not be returning to Los Angeles — causing a field day in the press and reportedly driving Hughes into a rage.
However, most of the wealth and power of the Red Dragons stems from opening Catalina, the new “Tortuga of the Pacific”, to other sky pirates in need of fuel, supplies and a place where they can spend their ill-gotten wealth in comparative safety and luxury. Many criminal groups flock to the island under flag of truce with enemies and allies alike to drink, gamble, and consort with companions of low repute since Vlad’s arrival. But those who have harbored thoughts of deposing the Dragon Prince and taking his wealth have not lived long enough to regret their mistakes. While it remains a mystery how Vlad recruited and outfitted his “Red Dragons,” their fighting skills are not in question — the pirate band has destroyed two other raider squadrons who have challenged Vlad’s dominion over the island, and fought numerous local Hollywood militias to a standstill.
One reason the Red Dragons have been so difficult to eradicate has been the gang’s frequent use of seaplanes such as the Skewer and Albatross. By scattering their aircraft and concealing themselves in caves and coastal inlets along the California coast, the Red Dragons are often able to strike from unexpected directions, as well as making it extremely difficult for enemy forces to pursue and destroy their air forces when they flee. While Hollywood today now has sufficient force to wipe out the main Red Dragon headquarters on Catalina itself, the government has been reluctant to commit the resources and military power to do so. Not only would such an operation weaken Hollywood’s ability to defend against rival nations such as Pacifica and the Empire State, but many influential former residents of Catalina Island are horrified at the possible destruction of their former homes, wealth and businesses, and have met any proposals for a retaliatory strike with protests, lawsuits and legal wrangling that has stymied any efforts to dislodge the Dragons. Today, Catalina remains a hive of piracy and lawlessness, presided over by Prince Vlad and the Red Dragons — unquestionably the royalty of crime in the Nation of Hollywood.