The Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults

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The Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults
The Mystery of Al Capones's Vaults.jpg
Title screen.
Directed byBill Foster
StarringGeraldo Rivera
Buddy Rogers
Robert St. John
Producer(s)Allan Grafman
Doug Llewelyn
Running time120 minutes.
DistributorTribune Entertainment
Original release
  • April 21, 1986 (1986-04-21)

The Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults is a two-hour live American television special that was broadcast in syndication on April 21, 1986.

Hosted by Geraldo Rivera, the special centered on the opening of a secret vault in the Lexington Hotel once owned by noted crime lord Al Capone, which turned out to be empty except for debris. The Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults is available in its entirety on Geraldo's website.


Al Capone was born to Italian immigrant parents on January 17, 1899, in New York City. He moved to Chicago in 1919, and there he became a notable criminal figure and gangster. He played large parts in gambling, alcohol, and prostitution rackets. In 1925, after an assassination attempt on former head Johnny Torrio, Capone took control of the Chicago Outfit organized crime syndicate, which he had served as second in command. He was listed on the FBI's "Most Wanted" list, transported and 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. In 1939, he was released from Alcatraz prison on humanitarian grounds, due to acutely advancing syphilis. He died on January 25, 1947 in his home in Palm Island, Florida from cardiac arrest after suffering a stroke a week after his 48th birthday.[1]


Capone had previously housed his headquarters at the nearby Metropole Hotel in Chicago, but in July 1928 moved to a suite at the Lexington Hotel, also in Chicago. Capone ran his various enterprises from this hotel until his arrest in 1931. A construction company 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.[citation needed]

Geraldo Rivera had been fired from ABC in 1985 after criticizing the network for canceling a report on an alleged relationship between John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.[2] 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 dead 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.[3]

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. After several attempts to dig further into the vault, Geraldo admitted defeat and voiced his disappointment to the viewers, apologizing as he thanked the excavation team for their efforts. Although it gathered criticism and became infamous for its disappointing ending, the program was the most-watched syndicated television special that year with an estimated audience of 30 million.[3] After the show, Rivera was quoted as saying "Seems like we struck out".[4] Geraldo said on the April 20, 2016 edition of the Fox News Channel program The Five that he went right across the street and got "tequila drunk" after the special aired, then went back to his hotel room and put the "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door. However, in his 1991 autobiography Exposing Myself, he wrote, regarding the event, "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."

This was not the first time a vault was opened on live TV: in 1984, a safe recovered from the shipwreck SS Andrea Doria was opened. During the broadcast, all that was revealed were a few silver certificates floating at the top of the waterlogged safe. Peter Gimbel, who recovered the safe and arranged the TV event, said the media "felt ripped off because there wasn't a treasure".[5]

Legacy and popular culture[edit]

The program has been parodied in several films and television shows:

  • On May 3, 1986, Monkee Micky Dolenz served as a guest VJ on MTV, and announced in exaggerated fashion that a secret door had been discovered inside 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.
  • In the episode "New Year's Leave" of the fourth season of Night Court, a defendant enters the courtroom dressed only in a diaper and a sash, claiming to be the spirit of the upcoming year 1987. Listing things from the previous year that will be improved upon in 1987, the man includes ABC's poor offerings, such as Geraldo's special.
  • In the episode "Safe" of the fifth season of Night Court, Judge Stone becomes trapped in a safe by accident. He prays to God to deliver someone to help him, such as Geraldo Rivera.
  • Lampooned in the Hill Street Blues series finale episode "It Ain't Over Till It's Over," originally aired on May 12, 1987.[6]
  • In "When the Chips Are Down," a 1987 installment of the animated series Alvin and the Chipmunks, Alvin, Simon, and Theodore search a deceased gangster's dilapidated mansion for money the gangster stole. They do find a safe, but all it contains is a baby picture of the aforementioned gangster.
  • Parodied in the Bloom County comic strip dated October 11, 1987. Featuring Binkley's anxiety closet in place of the vault and with a more humorous ending.
  • The special was parodied in the 1989 comedy film UHF, in a scene where George Newman ("Weird Al" Yankovic), hosting his own talk show, "unlocked the mysteries of Al Capone's glove compartment." After prying open the compartment in Capone's car, on live television, George examines the contents and announces to the audience, "A-ha... road maps!"
  • The 1990 television special Disorder in the Court, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Three Stooges' first film appearance, begins with a prologue in which the host, Alan Thicke, announces with great fanfare that they are about to open a secret vault in the basement of a Hollywood studio containing long-lost footage of the Stooges. His monologue is interrupted by a nearby security guard, who quietly informs him that the "vault" is neither lost nor a secret and is being opened with a key. When Thicke opens the door of the "vault," he hallucinates that the Stooges (Larry, Moe and Curly) are still alive as animate skeletons. Then he wakes up and the whole "vault" episode is shown to have been a dream sequence.
  • 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 a 1992 episode of Quantum Leap, Sam Beckett, played by Scott Bakula, leaps into a Geraldo-inspired talk show host who, during a live broadcast, opens a door to a secret area of a factory only to find it had been converted to a closet.
  • In the 1993 episode "Homer's Barbershop Quartet" of The Simpsons, Homer Simpson writes 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!"
  • In the 1997 movie Titanic, Brock Lovett, played by Bill Paxton, tries to broadcast his finding of the "Heart of the Ocean" jewel live. When the safe is opened and the diamond necklace found to be missing, his obnoxious colleague remarks, "The same thing happened to Geraldo, and his career never recovered." Upset, Lovett tells the cameraman to turn the camera off.
  • In 2014, the special was the focus of a subplot of Season 1 Episode 20 (titled "You're not Invited") of the ABC show "The Goldbergs".
  • The special is referenced in the 2017 film Sharknado 5: Global Swarming, in which an inventor played by Rivera himself attempts to retrieve a secret weapon from a vault aboard his zeppelin, only to find the vault is empty.
  • It was referenced in "Flaw in the Death Star", Episode 5 of Season 3 of Billions in 2018.

See also[edit]

Eaten Alive, a 2014 Discovery Channel special that drew comparisons and similar criticism when host Paul Rosalie was not "eaten alive" by an anaconda as hinted at in promotional material.[7]


  1. ^ "Al Capone dies in Florida villa". Chicago Sunday Tribune. Associated Press. January 26, 1947. p. 1.
  2. ^ Grove, Lloyd (December 12, 1997). "GERALDO'S MAKEOVER". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 29, 2018. In 1985, though, he clashed publicly with Arledge over the latter's decision to kill Sylvia Chase's report on (Arledge's friends) the Kennedys and Marilyn Monroe. Arledge demanded Rivera's resignation, ...
  3. ^ a b "When Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone's vault, he turned nothing into ratings". The A.V. Club. Retrieved 2 November 2017.
  4. ^ "Capone Vault-Cracking An Unrewarding Blast". Toledo Blade.
  5. ^ Bailey, Moira (January 18, 1986). "Andrea Dorea: Salvaging Profit Recovered Currency Means A Nice Payoff For Filmmakers' Work". Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved November 19, 2018.
  6. ^ Shales, Tom (May 12, 1987). "Hill Street, Hail and Farewell". The Washington Post. Retrieved February 5, 2018. And yet the same episode includes a funny lampoon of Geraldo Rivera, translated here into pompous TV personality Robert Dinapoli, who is going to blast open gangster Abe Calabrese's vault on live TV, just as Geraldo invaded Al Capone's.
  7. ^ "Eaten Alive's snake stunt bit off more than it could chew". The Guardian. Retrieved 8 December 2014.

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