Oral History: When Geraldo Rivera Opened Al Capone's Vault
By Jake Rossen
For gangland aficionados, it was almost as good as the Super Bowl. On April 21, 1986, nearly 30 million viewers tuned in to The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults, a live primetime excavation hosted by Geraldo Rivera that promised to dig deep into the catacombs of the criminal’s hotel hideout on Chicago’s South Side. For two hours, Rivera shouted over power tools, ignited dynamite, took target practice with a submachine gun, and teased the possibility of finding money, weapons, or the decayed corpses of Capone’s rivals.
For Rivera, it represented an opportunity to rekindle a career that had stalled following a highly-publicized departure from ABC after 15 years with the network. “I knew everyone in the news business would be watching,” he tells mental_floss. “And as the evening wore on, I had more and more of a sinking feeling.”
In 2016, to celebrate (or bemoan) the program’s 30th anniversary, Rivera and producers recalled the dangers, obstacles, and insanity of broadcasting an urban archeological dig on live television. If Capone’s alleged bunker held any secrets, they wouldn’t come easily.
I. TELEVISION, CHICAGO-STYLE
In the late 1970s, producers John Joslyn and Doug Llewelyn (The People’s Court) formed The Westgate Group, a production company based out of Los Angeles. At the same time the two were actively searching for programming ideas, Joslyn got wind of a discovery by mafia historians Harold Rubin and Thomas Bangs: Capone’s old haunt, the Lexington Hotel on Michigan Avenue, had a concrete wall in the basement that might contain some of the late mob kingpin’s possessions.
John Joslyn (Producer): I happened to read an article in the newspaper about the Lexington Hotel and how the owner believed there was a vault in the basement. I sat down with Doug, my partner, and said, “Doug, what do you think about this?” He thought it was a big concept. We ran it by a pal of ours in New York who was in ad sales, and he goes, “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.” He fell on the floor. He told us we had to do it.
Allan Grafman (Then-Vice President, Tribune Entertainment): It landed on the desk of the president of Tribune, Sheldon Cooper. We were only a few years old at the time and had syndicated shows, but doing something live was unheard of. I met with Westgate and thought this could really be something.
Sheldon Cooper (Then-President, Tribune Entertainment): We were generating content for our stations, and to sell across the country. It was really for stations that couldn’t afford original content on their own.
Joslyn: ABC said, “You don’t know what’s inside?” No. NBC said, “We gotta know what’s inside.” I told them no. They would not go on the air without it, but we weren’t going to do that.
Grafman: It was way too out there for the big networks.
Peter Marino (Then-Vice President, Program Development, Tribune Entertainment): John went on to tell me about the rumored tunnels that went under Michigan Avenue from the Lexington Hotel to the Metropole Hotel, directly across Michigan Avenue. John mentioned not only the tunnels but a hidden staircase and three cement vaults. The center vault … had electrical cables protruding from the top of the vault. Why would there be electrical cables? Were they to light up a wine cellar? Were bodies buried in the vault?
Joslyn: Tribune stepped up. It was a big commitment, to do a live show and not know what’s in the vault.
Cooper: Al Capone was known internationally. You go to Europe and say “Al Capone,” and they make a pistol with their finger.
Grafman: I sold it worldwide, to 20 different countries.
Clark Morehouse (Then-Executive Vice President, Sales, Tribune Entertainment): The year before, a company called TPE did a live special and tried to raise a vault out of the Andrea Doria from World War II. They didn’t find a whole lot, but they did a 22 rating, which was very nice, so we were coming on the heels of that.
Donald Hacker (Then-Executive Vice President, Tribune Entertainment): Peter and Allan had this crazy idea of doing this as a live event, which was interesting. The hotel itself was being renovated for a female job training school by the Sunbow Foundation.
Joslyn: It was a nonprofit women’s group that trained women in low-income neighborhoods.
Hacker: They had found secret passages. So I thought, yeah, this could be intriguing. This was long before the History Channel or the Discovery Channel, but it was in that vein.
In 1985, Tribune agreed to finance a $900,000 production by Westgate that would consist of a live breaching of the vault peppered with documentary-style footage that would tell the story of Capone’s rise and fall in the criminal underworld. Initially, the choice of a host seemed obvious.
Cooper: Joslyn was telling me they were planning on talking to Robert Stack. [Stack had portrayed Capone’s nemesis, Eliot Ness, on the 1959-1963 television series The Untouchables.] I said, that’s not a bad idea, but I really think we need someone who can walk and talk at the same time.
Hacker: We felt we had to have someone who could handle a live event, someone who came from news.
Marino: Having seen Robert Stack attempt to host a morning TV talk show, I felt we needed someone who could do it without cue cards, a real reporter. Sheldon suggested Mike Wallace. A terrific idea, but I doubted CBS would allow their 60 Minutes star to appear on our syndicated special.
Cooper: I said, “Well, there’s this guy who just got fired from ABC, but he won them a whole bunch of awards.”
Morehouse: Bringing in Geraldo was a real outside of the box thing, but it turned out to be genius.
Joslyn: Shelly was adamant about it.
Morehouse: Geraldo had done a story about Willowbrook, about mentally challenged kids being abused on Staten Island, that catapulted him into the ABC thing. [The piece won Rivera a Peabody Award in 1972.]
Cooper: Then there was some kind of quarrel over something that would be on the air in 10 seconds today. [Rivera stood up for a colleague, Sylvia Chase, who had a 20/20 story about Marilyn Monroe’s alleged affairs with John and Robert Kennedy withheld from broadcast.]
Morehouse: It was a hard fall from grace.
Cooper: He was so down over losing his job at ABC that he just wanted to get away from everybody.
Hacker: I vividly remember calling his agent and describing what we were going to do and having him say, “Hell, no.”
Cooper: I told him to forget them. He’s out of work and somewhere in the world. Go talk to him directly.
Hacker: He had taken his sailboat out and was somewhere in the Panama Canal. I think we met in Marina del Rey.
Geraldo Rivera (Host): My agent got in touch and said he had an offer but that he didn’t think I’d be interested. I asked how much. He said $25,000. I told him, “Get $50,000 and I’ll do it.”
Joslyn: We overnighted him all of the research we had done. He called the next day and said, “OK, deal.”
Rivera: It’s a two-hour show, so we’ll do an hour documentary, and whatever happens with the vault, happens.
II. A DIRTY JOB
Westgate had roughly four months to complete pre-production on the special before it aired. In addition to getting proper permits from Chicago and permission from Sunbow, there was a concentrated effort to get some idea of the origins of the “vault”—a 125-foot long concrete wall that began in the Lexington’s basement and stretched out underneath Michigan Avenue's sidewalk.
Joslyn: It wasn’t a safe with a tumbler. It was a large concrete mass.
Tim Samuelson (Cultural Historian, City of Chicago): What started this whole thing was the fact someone had found a sidewalk vault under the Lexington. It was common practice in the late 19th century to build out underneath a sidewalk and have doorways leading to the space. Businesses could have storage, load packages, that kind of thing. They’d start to leak and get sealed up with brick, concrete, then filled up with gravel and sealed over. I have a feeling someone heard “vault” and it took on a whole new definition.
Cooper: I remember getting a call from the business manager at Tribune Tower saying people were worried the street might fall in and people would be hurt or killed. Then it was concern over fires. We took it very seriously.
Grafman: It was a boarded-up mess of a building. I think [Sunbow] was around to make sure we didn’t blow it up.
Morehouse: I remember we took a bus trip down there on the coldest day of the year in Chicago. There was this whole story about an underground railroad running whiskey and other contraband.
Samuelson: The lore comes up all the time. The gangs of the time were really low-tech people. They weren’t digging tunnels.
Joslyn: Construction came to me one day and said, “We’re going to have to lower a baby bulldozer down there.” They took the tires off to make it fit. People do not realize the work involved.
Morehouse: They had done X-rays from the street level and on all sides, and the results were inconclusive.
Joslyn: We had ground-penetrating radar not to see what was in it, but to find parameters, to see which direction to go in.
Rivera: We had sonar, we had vibrations, we had the sort of technology available for pregnant women back in those days.
Hacker: [Westgate] had sonar and all this stuff to look at the area, which was quite big. We were reasonably sure something was in there, but we didn’t know what it was.
Joslyn: We got calls from Capone’s family wanting to see what was inside. We told them no. We weren’t going to do it that way.
Samuelson: They asked me to come down and what I did from the very start was say, “Look, I hate to tell you this, but this is a Chicago sidewalk vault. I don’t think there’s anything in there at all.”
Joslyn: I don’t remember exactly what Tim said, but there was marble tile in the basement area. You don’t fill in holes with one-inch marble. I saw it first-hand.
Rivera: We discerned there was a hollow chamber, but we couldn’t see what might be in it.
Cooper: They were doing interviews with relatives, or people that had been alive at the time, and the thinking was that it might be hiding money, cars, bodies, whatever. It got more exciting the more they talked to people.
Samuelson: They were the ultimate optimists.
Rivera: I was reasonably sure we would find either guns or money or dead bodies. I was pretty confident something was in there.
Cooper: Geraldo was a believer. I was never a believer or a non-believer. I just believed we had a good television show.
Samuelson: They called me once and said, “We found a torture chamber!” I go over there and it was a fuse box.
While construction crews worked to prepare the site for a television broadcast, producers kept busy fleshing out the taped portions of the show; Tribune's ad sales department tried to convince independent stations they had a winner.
Samuelson: They actually brought in Irene Hughes, who was at the time the biggest psychic in America next to Jeane Dixon. She was going to try to pick up the spirit of Capone in the building. We go to the basement, she walks toward the middle of the wall, and says, “Capone is behind it in a garden under glass, laughing, laughing, laughing.” Now, I had researched the hell out of that building. I told her there had been nothing there but a yard. Fifteen years later, the city found some old real estate atlases. What was in the middle of the Lexington? A greenhouse. Honest to god.
Grafman: Tribune was one of the most honored, most respected media companies in America, and there were times we couldn’t believe they were letting us do this.
Morehouse: Some of the advertisers were nervous about content. About 40 percent of it was pre-taped, which allowed advertisers to pre-screen it. We had General Mills, Budweiser; 24 spots at $100,000 per spot. That’s $2.4 million, less the ad agency commission. We took it to the television convention that January and everyone got into it. We sold all the commercial time.
Hacker: We had to go to each TV station in each market to clear out a primetime spot.
Morehouse: It was like nothing you had ever seen. We had a Model T, models dressed as flappers, and a couple of guys with submachine guns. We played it to the hilt.
Samuelson: I remember sitting with Doug Llewelyn, and he said, “You know, Tim, I know you think otherwise, but I really think we’re going to find something.”
Grafman: Half of it was the excitement of what we were doing, and half of it was dread.
At 7 p.m. central time on April 21, 1986, Tribune syndicated The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults to more than 180 domestic stations. An enthusiastic Rivera stood in front of the Lexington promising an adventure akin to excavating Tut’s tomb.
Rivera: I recall a producer giving me a pep talk. “Get out there and nail this on-camera open.” Live programming is controllable in a studio. This was like stepping off the ledge of a building.
Morehouse: We had forensic examiners in case there were bodies.
Cooper: Everyone had come to see this. Not just here, but from overseas, press from all over the world.
Samuelson: There was a guy there who was selling homemade T-shirts, “I was at Capone’s vault.” But they were used and had sweat stains on them.
Joslyn: We were going to blow up one part of it on live television with dynamite. To get a permit to light dynamite in Chicago? We didn’t get permission until 4 p.m. that day.
Samuelson: I remember early before the show, Geraldo had split the back of his pants. I don’t think they had an extra pair, so they were going around looking for safety pins.
Grafman: We got lucky with the time slot. The week before, Reagan had bombed Libya.
Joslyn: We had concerns about security. Once Geraldo came off the street and went into the building, we padlocked the doors. No one was getting in or out.
Samuelson: There were three of us lined up side-by-side upstairs. Me, because I knew the building and could identify stuff, the coroner, and somebody from the IRS in case they found money.
Joslyn: The IRS had a lien if there was money inside. [After his death in 1947, Capone still owed over $800,000 in unpaid taxes.]
Joslyn: We pulled down the first concrete wall and went, “Oh, god. More dirt.”
Samuelson: I looked at the layers, the broken-up sidewalk on the bottom and the slag from the steel mills on top and said, “Sorry, it’s all over.” I see Doug go over to Geraldo, point to me, shrug his shoulders, and then Geraldo sits on a milk crate and puts his hands over his face.
Joslyn: We found some bottles.
Rivera: We were finding nothing but trivial things.
Samuelson: He pulls out some old bottles and says, “Samuelson, you know old bottles, right? Come identify these.” They were two little cheap liquor bottles with an Illinois tax stamp of 1948. Probably from workmen who drank their lunch.
Morehouse: It was just a bunch of s***.
Samuelson: They were going to break down a retaining wall with a huge water main on the other side. If they had broken the pipe, it would’ve flooded the basement instantly. Everybody would have died.
Joslyn: No. That was before the show. It flooded about 4 feet.
With time running out on the two-hour broadcast and nothing but dirt remaining, Rivera blew an air horn and called off the workers. “We didn’t find the hollow spaces we were led to believe were in there,” he told viewers. “Sorry.”
Joslyn: He called it. “OK, guys, we tried.”
Morehouse: Geraldo played it like a Stradivarius.
Rivera: It was an old building. I do not recall fearing it would collapse on my head. I was much more engaged emotionally with finding something. Later, I maybe would’ve liked for it to fall on my head.
Joslyn: There was a little confusion when the show ended. We had an extra 90 seconds, so Geraldo sang. He padded it. It was total improv.
Grafman: I think he felt his career was over.
Cooper: He was destroyed when the show ended.
Rivera: All of the construction guys went and got drunk with me.
Hacker: Geraldo was very depressed he didn’t find anything. My take on it was, it was a great adventure. People had fun. It was a great two-hour movie with a bad ending.
Grafman: Twenty of us went to a place on the South Side, some honky-tonk, and had a drink or two. Some had three or five. I don’t even know if we went to bed.
Cooper: It was one of the saddest evenings you ever saw. Everybody was downtrodden.
Grafman: We thought, "Oh, well, that’s quite a way to go out." I don’t want to say we were fearing for our jobs, but we were fearing for our jobs. Until the ratings came in.
IV. MADE MEN
Following the anticlimactic conclusion, Rivera and the producers of Capone’s Vaults went their separate, inebriated ways. While the press had a field day—“the Windy City was never windier,” according to the company’s own Chicago Tribune—the public held a different view.
Morehouse: The next morning the teletype machine is cranking out the overnight ratings. It did a 35 share in New York, a 70 share in Chicago.
Cooper: In those days, ratings came over these big machines rattling off the ticker tape in a glass booth.
Grafman: We thought it would do a 20. It did a 35 [share, the percentage of all televisions tuned into the show]. It was an enormous, colossal success. Nationally, we out-performed the network—The Cosby Show, Family Ties. I got the ratings and slid them under Geraldo's hotel room door.
Cooper: To this day, no entertainment program in syndication has ever gotten a higher rating in Chicago, ever.
Grafman: We set a record for a live syndicated special. We did a home video deal.
Morehouse: Some executives accused me of under-selling it. We guaranteed a 25 share and got more, so there was money left on the table.
Joslyn: Now you do a 2.9 share in New York and it’s great. The world’s changed.
Cooper: The show played later on the West Coast and that was amazing. Even though the news was out, it still got phenomenal ratings.
Rivera: I knew if we found anything, I’d be the toast of the town. I also knew if we didn’t, I’d be widely ridiculed.
Joslyn: We actually kept digging for three or four days after, just to finish the job.
Grafman: We did keep digging, but it was like after you bury a body, just throwing dirt on it.
The Lexington never did get renovated: It was demolished in 1995. Despite Rivera’s fear the special would prove problematic for his career, the opposite happened. In fall 1986, Tribune announced a deal for a daily talk show featuring the broadcaster.
Grafman: We developed a lot of other live specials with Geraldo.
Morehouse: I think we did five. We did one on missing and exploited children that got an 18 share in 1987 or 1988, and another one on the mafia.
Hacker: We did do other things, but we didn’t open anything.
Grafman: We joked there was nothing in the vault, but inside we found Geraldo’s talk show. We had an 11-year run with that.
Marino: I still hear people say it was a great show with a bad ending. They always say, “It’s too bad that there was nothing in the vault.” My reply is that there was a 50 share in that vault and the special led to a dozen other Geraldo primetime specials, a daytime Geraldo talk show that ran for years, and it certainly led to the reality television craze which continues to this day.
Morehouse: About four weeks into the show, some skinheads got into a fight and broke his nose.
Cooper: That was typical Geraldo. But his ratings were very good.
Joslyn: I remember one morning before the show, we were down in that basement, and it was sub-zero. There was a three-legged cat, a little tiny thing all of three months old. A researcher adopted him. She named him Capone.