So Al Capone has come home to Chicago at last. His heavy presence, seated behind a goon-sized desk in a cloud of cigar smoke, stirs unwanted memories and old misgivings. In Chicago we call it Caponophobia. Victims suffer from a morbid fear of thinking about civic history or hearing it mentioned out loud. Teams of professional analysts working in the important new area of Revisionist Amnesiac Hypeology are studying the phenomenon for clues. Meanwhile, the source of the anxiety is pulling in the crowds at his newest and flashiest hangout, the aptly named Capone’s Chicago, an indoor amusement attraction starring Disney-World-style animated figures of the rich and infamous. It’s too bad that Al, who became unhinged in his long years on Alcatraz, died in 1947 and therefore cannot attend in person. In his place is a lifesized electronic dummy who looks like Al, talks like Al, and sits behind Al’s desk. The hands move uncertainly, as if the big fellow had forgotten to take his medication. At the media opening there were audible creaks just before he spoke, the kind an old grandfather clock makes when it gears up to strike. What would the Immortal Scarface think of Capone’s Chicago if he could be here now? He would surely feel uneasy, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week at Clark and Ohio, turf that once belonged to rival psychopaths Dion O’Banion and Hymie Weiss. Now their dummies face his from across the room, almost 70 years after Al was obliged to kill the originals because of their preoccupation with trying to kill him first. He would be puzzled to see that the only political figure in sight is a New Yorker, Al Smith. No locals, like Governor Len Small, who moved into the executive mansion on Capone money and then, overcome by gratitude, pardoned or paroled 8,000 convicted felons between 1920 and 1929. And no Big Bill Thompson, our mayor and Capone employee, who said it was all newspaper talk.
Yes, Capone would be puzzled by their absence, but then, as an old hand at local politics, he wouldn’t stay puzzled long.
The press release issued by the owners describes Capone’s Chicago as a “historically-themed family attraction” and takes pains to divert attention from the deplorable likes of O’Banion and Weiss by directing it to the dummies who represent Notable Figures from the Prohibition Era.
Carrie Nation is one of the notables. She was the vandal who traveled around the country breaking up private property with axes and sledgehammers in the interest of temperance. Nation, along with Al Smith and Louis Armstrong, lends support to the theme of historic uplift. These three are among the robots, at Capone’s Chicago that will “tell the real story about the social and political forces that shaped the city and nation’s history during the Prohibition gangster era.”
Nobody is fooled by this hopeful groping for dignity.
Nobody comes here to see notable historic dummies. People want to see dummy gangsters shooting each other, and they want to see them in Chicago.
There were moves afoot in the state legislature to close this splendidly goofy spectacle before it opened. There was talk about the risk of offending the memories of a minority. This could not be permitted, especially if the minority in question had once worked in government or law enforcement and, because of one thing or another, had drifted into murder, stealing, bribery, and bootlegging in the 1920s.
Such were the public servants who found it convenient to allow men like Al Capone to do just about what they liked so long as they split the take. Al pioneered the tradition that you don’t fight City Hall, you rent it.
Mysteriously, this is one of the historic themes absent at Capone’s Chicago, possibly because the people who created the show figured that the sight of a dummy cop, judge, or politician taking money from a dummy gangster had limited visual appeal. Besides, if they’d left it in, they’d still be waiting for a license to open the place when the last traces of human existence had vanished from the earth.
Italian Americans who object to Al’s comeback talk about the ugly stain on the face of Chicago and how the Capone Chicago show will convince everyone who isn’t Italian that all Italians belong to the Mafia. Whatever the merits of that opinion, it carries the unavoidable implication that all non-Italians are halfwits. Besides, Al Capone was born in Brooklyn, and that makes him an American first, last, and always.
At Capone’s Chicago and elsewhere in the great and beautiful city of Chicago, the controversy lingers. Meanwhile, the Boss of All Bosses is back in harness, lending his world-famous name once again to the personal enrichment schemes of strangers in show biz. So much for Public Enemy Number One. Dummified and reduced to a logo. Al would have had something to say about it. He enjoyed talking to reporters, even those on his payroll, and the quotes attributed to him suggest that just because he was a pimp and a murderer, he was no dummy. “It’s strange,” he once told an interviewer, “that men should take up crime when there are so many legal ways to be dishonest.”
You said a mouthful, Big Guy.