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A Borrowed Empire : Meshulam Riklis, Known to Most of the World as Mr. Pia Zadora, Is a Model for Today's Corporate Raiders, a Controversial Tycoon Who Built a Financial Kingdom on Debt

August 17, 1986|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | Michael A. Hiltzik is a Times financial writer based in New York

The financial page is howling about yet another corporate raid, one more takeover at tempt destined to produce nothing much more lasting than speculation, creative financing, a raft of lawsuits and millions for the Wall Street types to whom value is something expressed in a blinking green light on a Quotron machine. In a penthouse office suite on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, Meshulam Riklis feels entitled to wave a dismissive hand, as if to say: This is not how we did these things in my day.

"This is not empire building; this is jungle predators," he says. "Now, I'm not judging. I am yesterday's news. In my business I am not a factor any longer. I am known as Mr. Pia Zadora. Why? Because I got what I want." He smiles tolerantly. "None of them will make as much money as I do. Because I am already ahead of them in the game."

Certainly he has a longer history. Rapid-American, the company he cobbled together from two office-machine concerns, some garment companies, a liquor distiller and a chain of variety stores, has been a business legend for almost as long as some of today's Wall Street prowlers have been alive. Today, Rapid and its associated properties, including the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, give the Riklis family what he says is a net worth of a billion dollars. His salary last year from Rapid, which he owns as a private company, was $3 million. And more deals are brewing, designed to set Rapid on a course that will overcome its lingering problems and take it by momentum into the next generation.

The sweep of his hand takes in the fruit of 30 years of doing what these Wall Street babies are only just learning: buying companies and selling them, to build an empire. On one dark gray wall is a Picasso, on another a Miro. Most of today's tycoons have such things, but Riklis' are what remains of a collection long since donated to museums such as New York's Museum of Modern Art, where there is a Riklis Gallery. Mounted directly over his shoulder, as if to kibitz, is a small, extremely intense portrait of an old nobleman with a beard red like the blaze of a sunset.

"This is a Nolde," he says, spelling out the artist's name to satisfy the didactic streak of the ex-Hebrew teacher. Emil Nolde named the painting "The Anarchist," Riklis says, "but I renamed him 'Moses,' because to me it looks like Moses. It has that look of anger and . . . , " he hunts for the right word, "morality."

That is the difference between being a mere entrepreneur and an impresario , confident and experienced enough to instruct the artist how to do his job, even a German Expressionist dead 31 years.

Meshulam Riklis was born in Istanbul in 1923, two months premature and two months short of his parents' completion of their immigration to Palestine from Odessa, in southern Russia. After a comfortable Tel Aviv childhood, he emigrated with his wife and two children in 1947, months ahead of the war of independence, to Columbus, Ohio, to study at Ohio State while teaching Hebrew on the side.

Today he stands in elegant ease in the hallway of the Beverly Hills office he established for Rapid-American to share with the production company of his wife, singer Pia Zadora. He wears a checked sport jacket and striped, open-neck shirt, his dark brown hair brushed straight back to show a streak of silver running down the center. Trimmer than his old photographs suggest, he works out regularly with a trainer who brings exercise equipment by van to Riklis' Truesdale Estates home.

Running through his telephone messages with a distracted air, he calls in Tino Barzie, Zadora's manager, for a consultation on her upcoming concert tour. Barzie, solidly built and almost entirely in white, down to his spotless deck shoes, runs through a schedule that would take her from Akron, Ohio, in July to a performance by invitation with the Boston Pops four months later--"a major victory," according to Riklis, after years of derisive reviews.

"Theater is a very important part of business for Rik," says a businessman familiar with him. Now that Riklis, at 62, wants to run his companies more conservatively than in the past, it is convenient that Zadora's career gives him an outlet for his theatrical instincts. "Frankly, he's much easier to do business with now."

To hear the Riklis life story first-person is a theatrical experience, a dramatic monologue with numberless digressions about Zadora's career, Jewish history or some point of debt accounting, until finally the monologue arrives back at a destination on which the impresario has remained focused while the listener has been distracted by the passing scenery. And it is all in an idiomatic English inflected with the courtly rhythms of Hebrew and punctuated with the occasional sharp Anglo-Saxonism, like the rap of a knuckle on a hardwood desk.

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