The Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults
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Hosted by Geraldo Rivera, the special centers around the opening of a secret vault once owned by noted gangster Al Capone. The program is now perhaps best known for the vault being ultimately empty except for debris.
Al Capone was born January 17, 1899 in New York City to immigrant parents. He moved to Chicago in 1919 where he became a notable criminal figure and gangster. He played large parts in gambling, alcohol, and prostitution rackets and in 1925 Capone took control of the Chicago Outfit for which he had served as the second in command, after an assassination attempt on former head Johnny Torrio. He was listed on the FBI's "Most Wanted" list, sold alcohol during the Prohibition era, planned the St. Valentine's Day massacre, and was eventually indicted and convicted of income tax evasion in 1931. He was released from Alcatraz prison in 1939 on humanitarian grounds due to acutely advancing syphilis. He died January 25, 1947 in his palatial estate on Palm Island, Florida from cardiac arrest after suffering a stroke a week after his 48th birthday.
Capone had previously housed his headquarters at the nearby Metropole Hotel, but in July 1928 moved to a suite at the Lexington Hotel. Capone ran his various enterprises from this hotel until his arrest in 1931. A construction company (Sunbow) in the 1980s planned a renovation of the Lexington Hotel and while surveying the building discovered a shooting range and a series of secret tunnels including one hidden behind Capone's medicine cabinet. These tunnels connected taverns and brothels to provide an elaborate potential escape route in case of a police raid. These discoveries led to further investigation of the hotel, notably by researcher Harold Rubin. Rumors said Capone had kept a very secret vault beneath the hotel to hold some of his wealth.
Geraldo Rivera had been fired in 1985 after criticizing ABC for canceling a report on an alleged relationship between John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. He then hosted the special The Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults which was broadcast live on April 21, 1986. The two-hour special (including commercials) was greatly hyped as potentially revealing great riches or bodies on live television. This included the presence of a medical examiner should bodies be found and agents from the Internal Revenue Service to collect any of Capone's money that might be discovered.
When the vault was finally opened, the only things found inside were dirt and several empty bottles including one Rivera claimed was for moonshine bathtub gin. Despite the ending, the special became the most-watched syndicated television special with an estimated audience of 30 million. "Seems like we struck out," Rivera was quoted as saying after the show, though he later wrote of the event in his 1991 autobiography Exposing Myself that "My career was not over, I knew, but had just begun. And all because of a silly, high-concept stunt that failed to deliver on its titillating promise."
- On May 3, 1986, Monkee Micky Dolenz served as a guest VJ on MTV, and announced in played-up Geraldo fashion that there was a secret door discovered inside of MTV that would be opened for the first time in ages, and that viewers would see the possible treasures inside whatever room the door led to. When the door was later "forced" open, it merely led out to the street.
- The special was parodied in "Weird Al" Yankovic's 1989 movie UHF, when George Newman (Weird Al), hosting his own TV talk show, "unlock[s] the mysteries of Al Capone's glove compartment!"
- In an episode of the animated TV series The Real Ghostbusters, Peter Venkman ropes the Ghostbusters into appearing on a much-hyped TV special called "Live from Al Capone's Tomb!" Opening the tomb leads to a confrontation with Capone's ghost, but since none of it is captured on camera, none of the viewers believe the Ghostbusters' story.
- In the 1993 "Homer's Barbershop Quartet" episode of The Simpsons, Homer Simpson pens an incomplete song about the television special with the lyrics, "There was nothing in Al Capone's vault, But it wasn't Geraldo's fault! D'oh!"
Lexington Hotel today
The Lexington Hotel (renamed the New Michigan Hotel in 1938) was demolished in 1996. The site remained a deserted lot in the South Loop neighborhood of Chicago for over a decade, until the area was revitalized in the mid-2000s. The 31-story Lexington Park Condominiums was completed on the site in 2008.
- The Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults at the Internet Movie Database
- Al Capone's Vault on TV Acres. Retrieved July 8, 2006.
- Geraldo Rivera on the Museum of Broadcast Communications by Susan Murray. Retrieved July 8, 2006.
- The Lexington Hotel on Prairie Ghosts in 2003 by Troy Taylor. Retrieved July 8, 2006.
- Al Capone on the FBI homepage. Retrieved July 8, 2006.