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Geraldo's Capone Vault Grand Opening

I know, I know,  I've gotten all the emails and heard all the rants about it from my fellow historians, writers and friends. Things said like "Geraldo's Capone vault opening was a totally flop!" or " He was a boob for doing that." and " What a major gaffe!"
All a matter of opinion, and I would have agreed to keep the peace, but you know what? I personally think it was great!!! Okay, to build something up only to find nothing would be disappointing for most, but I was more entertained by the documentary than watching some so called "demolition experts" blowing up a brick wall. I give credit to Geraldo on two points. One for having the guts to risk his career to do such a thing and two, for doing a bang up job on the documentary. I was happy to see that he went all over the place to interview some important people related to this Capone subject. He and his staff did their homework and learned the story of Capone pretty well. Where else could we have ever seen Louise Rolfe "the Blonde alibi" speak, newspaper man Robert St. John who was beaten by Ralph Capone and his fellow thugs and lived to tell his tale. Newspaper photographer the great Anthony Berardi and his first hand accounts of murder scenes. All knew Capone and all incidently are no longer with us. So kudos to Geraldo for interviewing them.

All this done way before any history channel documentary on Capone. That alone deserves some kind of credit.
Another who deserves credit for this documentary is producer Doug LLewelyn. Some of you might say "Hey! I've heard that name before!" Yes, you have! He was the court reporter for a show called "The People's Court" which was resided by Judge Wapner. Doug used to interview the plaintiffs and defendants after the cases were heard.

Geraldo Rivera shooting a thompson submachine gun in the empty Lexington hotel before the grand opening of the Capone vault.

Three different views of a .45 slug fired from a thompson submachine gun fired by Geraldo Rivera that ended up in the wall plaster of the Lexington. Note the damage to the slug. They knew how to build walls back then.
(Mario Gomes Collection)

Closeup of Geraldo rounds removed from Lexington Hotel walls.
(Mario Gomes Collection thanks to William J. Helmer)

The Capone documentary was funded by the Tribune co. and the Westgate group together in association with Sunbow organisation which was an organisation for women who planned to renovate the Lexington hotel.

Thankfully, Geraldo's documentary ( minus the actual vault opening) was later turned into a video by MPI.

(Photo courtesy of Mr. Bill Helmer)

On Monday night April 21, 1986, after 5 years of speculative theories Al Capone's vault was opened on live tv. All that was found was a few empty whiskey bottles. The spectacle was carried natinowide across america to 181 television stations. It was broadcast live in North America and in the Netherlands. It was viewed later in Brazil, Germany, France, Britain, Argentina, Italy, Japan, Australia, the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Paraguay.

The opening of Capone's vault in basement of Lexington. Photo taken at the documentary making of Geraldo's Al Capone special.

(Photo courtesy of Mr. Bill Helmer)

 Dr. Robert Stein cook county medical examiner was brought in just in case some dead bodies was found in Capone's mysterious vault. There were rumors that Capone had his rivals murdered and placed in the vault.
Harold Rubin known as "Weird Harold" and Thomas Bangs, two Capone memorabilia excavators came across the vault in 1981 while looking for Capone stuff in the derelict and abandoned hotel. They saw what looked like an encased area of 125 ft long x 6 x 8 feet high.
Harold, whose nickname Weird Harold came from a one time pornography shop he ran in Chicago, had a masonry expert come to investigate the supposed vault. The Sunbow foundation and it's executive director Patricia Porter, who took over the old Lexington after weird Harold's claims, was now claiming it as theirs had agreed with the documentary makers to be paid $50,000 and given 1% of profits generated by the vault opening gig. Harold, insensed, hired a lawyer to litigate his right to finding the vault. Other litigations ensued against Porter for the right to profits.

William J. Helmer, our grand exhalted gangster era author and historian emeritus was also on the documentary team to help with the research for the vault opening event.
Unfortunately, when feminist Patricia Porter (who through litigation now ran the show) got wind that Helmer was once a Playboy magazine editor, he was unceremoniously removed from participating on the show. Helmer told me he had raised the issue of nothing being in there as follows; "I told 'em that the "vault" was noted on that famous gangland map, that they might at least oughta run a long drill bit through the sealed opening to take a look first, with one of those tiny snake cameras or just to make sure there was something behind the sealed part. Mentioned these things to host Doug Llewellyn and some Tribune people at fancy supper at the Drake Hotel, but they just smiled and ignored me."
----- William J. Helmer

By this time, the production company had already sunk a huge chunk of change in the show, and still forged ahead, empty vault or not.
The hype was building!

Bill Helmer's pin from the show.

Never forgiving, the IRS sent an agent with an $800,000 lien against the hotel because Capone owed $201,347.68 in back taxes. Interest accumulated since his death in 1947 amounts to $604,767.88, according to IRS figures. Al Capone had the last laugh though and left us with a couple of dusty bottles.
On a good note, hundreds of gangster fans watched it on a wide screen at the Hyatt Regency Chicago. They paid $10 a head, with the all the proceeds going to charity.

The Sunbow organisation never did renovate the Lexington. They took something on that was too big for them and with lacking funds they gave up the project. It was up for sale by a new owner who also planned to renovate her. A nightmare to bring up to code, he finally gave up and put it up for sale at several hundred thousand. Unfortunately, no buyer came through to save her. The beautiful Lex was demolished to make way for condos.
As usual, the City of Chicago was glad to see another Capone connected relic disappear.

Booklet commemorating the event.
(Photo courtesy of Mr. Bill Helmer)

First Posted  June 2007