“It’s been a tough time for me and my family,” theme park impresario Robin Turner told The Daily Beast concerning the demise last year, after a decade of planning, of “National Enquirer Live!,” a much-touted attraction inspired and licensed by the supermarket tabloid, with locations in the tourist destinations of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and Branson, Missouri.
“We’ve just been in a damn firestorm,” Turner added, describing a financial debacle in which David Pecker, the chairman and CEO of the Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., allegedly played a decisive role.
It has been a little over a week since Turner, a managing partner and owner of Tennessee-based Frontpage Attractions, filed a breach of contract and fraud lawsuit against AMI and a related company, Worldwide Media Services Group Inc., claiming the loss of millions of dollars on the doomed “National Enquirer Live!” project because of alleged misdealings by Pecker.
It remains to be seen whether Turner’s Orlando-based lawyer, Tucker Byrd, will ultimately add AMI’s 80-percent owner, the Chatham Asset Management hedge fund, to the list of defendants.
“We have the ability to dig into them, with discovery and whatnot,” said Byrd, noting that AMI has 20 days to respond after being formally served, “and then it’s off to the races... We’re going to push with haste to trial. Let’s put it in front of a jury and let’s see what happens.”
According to Turner, Pecker expressed initial enthusiasm for the project in late October 2018, even offering to stage a celebrity-adorned press conference to hype the opening, include a digital subscription to the Enquirer with each admission ticket, and get his pal Trump to tweet a message of congratulations.
At a celebratory Oct. 22, 2018 meeting at AMI’s corporate headquarters in Manhattan—“it was supposed to last 15 minutes but it went on for two hours,” Turner recalled—Pecker, “with great aplomb, anointed the Attraction with the name ‘National Enquirer Live!,’ promising a star-studded grand opening,” the lawsuit claims.
Turner recalled: “The hype Pecker gave it—and support—was more than we had ever hoped for.”
Pecker’s then-deputy, Australian import Dylan Howard, was also present at the October meeting.
“Dylan was always very supportive, and he was trying to help us get artifacts that related to [Enquirer] stories,” Turner recalled. “There was intense discussion about the Splendour, the yacht Natalie Wood was thrown off of. Dylan was helping us with that—acquiring things that they knew were out there that could help with the attraction, like JonBenet’s tricycle. Dylan found it, but they [the owners] wanted too much money. They were asking like $50,000 for it. Dylan had always been kind of our contact person prior to the meeting with David.”
But then, less than three months later, “things quickly went south,” Turner recalled, as—unbeknownst to Turner—Pecker and Howard secretly negotiated an immunity deal with federal prosecutors to avoid felony charges over campaign finance violations (AMI’s payment of $150,000 in hush money to a Playboy model who claimed she’d had an affair with Trump) that benefited the then-Republican nominee in the runup to the November 2016 election. Trump’s disgraced personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, is serving a three-year sentence for that and other crimes, and was just taken back into federal custody after weeks of house arrest during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In late January 2019, after Pecker’s cooperation with the feds became public knowledge, Turner traveled to New York for a follow-up meeting with the AMI chief executive, who didn’t show up. Instead, during a conference call, Pecker allegedly demanded more money—beyond the $75,000 licensing fee against 6 percent royalties specified in the original 2010 contract between AMI and Frontpage—plus an equity stake in the attractions.
“He came grabbing like you can’t believe,” Turner said. “When it went south, it really went south.”
In a Feb. 3 email to Frontpage, included as an exhibit in the lawsuit, Pecker executive Derek Marlin wrote, “I won’t bore you with the details, but to get all that you’re asking for from us, all the bells and whistles you want to get AMI behind this... David asks for $500k to get started and a minimum guarantee of $300k annually per year going forward.”
When the cash was not forthcoming, Pecker abruptly withdrew his permission to use Enquirer material, Turner said, and forbade Turner from dedicating a planned exhibit to the 45th president. (During an interview with The Daily Beast last year, a few days before the opening, Turner put on a brave face, neglecting to mention that Frontpage had wasted $100,000 on designing and building a Trump exhibit featuring facsimiles of Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago, and a celebrity gossip room featuring framed animated portraits of Trump and various bold-face names speaking to each other; at the time, as his relationship with Pecker and AMI was circling the drain, Turner claimed that the attraction was a Trump-free zone simply to avoid needless political controversy.)
“All that was censored within 30 days of the opening after we spent all the money,” Turner told The Daily Beast. “We couldn’t figure out what the hell happened. When we analyzed it, you line it up to the extortion, to the ‘can’t have anything,’ ‘take this out,’ ‘take that out,’—after we’d been working with them for two years—stuff they approved, then they went back and said, ‘No, we didn’t approve that’,” Turner said. “We had to retool almost the whole building.”
Dylan Howard, meanwhile, stopped answering phone messages, Turner said, and, despite expectations, didn’t show up for the grand opening in Pigeon Forge.
Barely 30 days after the May 2019 launch of “National Enquirer Live!,” Turner said, he was forced to rebrand the attractions in both Pigeon Forge and Branson with the anodyne, far less appealing title “Beyond the Lens!,” and sustained losses of at least $4 million.
“We’ve never been through what we went through with this. Never,” said Turner, who has spent more than four decades in the amusement park and attraction business, where he started out in 1974 playing the Big Bad Wolf at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
In the late '90s, Turner stumbled upon an unlikely—and massively profitable—crowd-pleaser: chickens that were trained to play tic-tac-toe, pecking the x’s and o’s, and more often than not beating their human opponents lined up at various casinos around the country. “We were getting $5,000 a week at nine different locations,” Turner recalled. “It was insane.”
In April 2004—as Donald Trump was enjoying bigly ratings as star of NBC’s The Apprentice—the reality-TV mogul arrived at the Trump-branded Trump 29 Casino near Palm Springs, California, and challenged one of Turner’s tic-tac-toe chickens.
Apparently without the help of the GRU, Trump beat the fowl, picking up $250 in prize money.
Regarding the lawsuit, AMI’s version of events, not surprisingly, is different from Turner’s; for instance, according to an AMI source, it was Turner, not Pecker, who raised the issue of a promotional press conference and a Trump tweet, and Pecker was noncommittal. A phone conversation between Turner and AMI spokesman Jon Hammond about how a press conference might be organized, meanwhile, came to naught.
On Friday the financially-strapped company responded to Turner’s claims with a saber-rattling warning.
“American Media has delivered on every aspect of the contract and we will not stand idly by in the face of these false, meritless, and defamatory claims,” Hammond emailed The Daily Beast. “We look forward to exposing this frivolous lawsuit for what it is, a desperate attempt by Frontpage Attractions to cover-up their own financial shortfalls and failures.”
The statement continued: “In addition, we intend to hold Frontpage Attractions accountable for its irresponsible conduct and intend to counter-sue Frontpage Attractions and seek all damages available under the law.”
Turner’s attorney, Tucker Byrd, fired back: “There is no small irony here that the National Enquirer, frequently targeted by others for making ‘false, meritless, and defamatory’ statements, now claims to being victimized by the same. If so, I guess the heading on this story would have to be ‘Man Bites Dog.’ The truth will carry this case, not their words of intimidation.”
Byrd couldn’t resist adding: “Let’s just say enquiring minds want to know.”