The bus idled in front of the so-called rock ‘n’ roll McDonald’s across Clark Street from the Rainforest Cafe, and the tourists climbed aboard. You assumed they were tourists, because who else would be spending two hours of a splendid, sunny weekday afternoon riding around the city and seeking what’s left of the glory and gore of gangsterdom?
“I’m from Austin, Texas,” said one woman. “I love John Dillinger.”
Three other women were teachers from Mobile, Ala., four people (two couples) in for the day from Rockford, a family of five from Spain and on and on until all but two of the 45-some seats on the Untouchable Tours bus were filled and off we went, at $30 a head.
This tour has been in operation for 26 years, and it is a compelling example of the ongoing fascination people have with our city’s dark past. On the walk over to the bus there could be seen at a Grand Avenue bus shelter an ad for “Al Capone vs. Blackbeard,” a surreal, silly and scatological offering from the third season of something called “Epic Rap Battles of History” on YouTube.
The tour guides were “Shoulders,” who did the driving, and “Johnny Three Knives,” who did most of the talking, affecting something approximating a “dees and dem” Chicago accent. They were dressed in fedoras, suspenders and ties and brandished, for a moment or two, a pistol.
Over two hours, the bus coursed through the city, to the former sites of Dion O’Banion’s flower shop and “Big Jim” Colosimo’s restaurant. We traveled down Michigan Avenue and Taylor Street, past the former Biograph Theater, where Dillinger saw his last movie, and the former site of the garage on Clark Street where a certain massacre occurred. This trip was punctuated by some comedy, a few details about our city’s nongangster-related history, songs of the era played on a speaker system, a raffle for prizes and images of mob characters flashing from five TV monitors (gangstertour.com).
Oh, it’s cheesy in an inoffensive way and not at all unsatisfying, as could be determined by the smiling faces at ride’s end. The passengers were lively and chatty. A few tipped the guides, while some others bought souvenirs of their ride: eight items were available, including a “Gangland Graves” DVD ($15) and a shot glass featuring Capone’s face ($5).
Across the street from the McDonald’s sat, as noted before, the Rainforest Cafe, but none of the tourists, and few of the rest of us, can remember that it was once a concoction known as Capone’s Chicago. From 1993 to 1996 it offered an animatronic tour featuring a 30-minute film of “hits” hosted by Capone, including a shadow wall re-enactment of the aforementioned 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Its facade was comprised of a series of false storefronts for such “establishments” as Joe’s Barber Shop and the 51st Ward Democratic Headquarters (ha ha). There was a gift shop where one could purchase a County Jail pin for 99 cents or loaded dice for $5.99.
Few were sad to see this junky place go, but the mob train rolls on, doesn’t it?
Just last week there landed on my desk two new novels: “The Lazarus Conspiracies” by Richard Rose (released in August 2013), about “a maverick Chicago cop (who) uncovers a conspiracy that people with immense power will stop at nothing, not even murder, to keep secret,” and “Gangsterland” by Tod Goldberg (due Sept. 9), about “Sal Cupertine … a legendary hit man for the Chicago Mafia.”
The Tribune last year published “Capone: A Photographic Portrait of America’s Most Notorious Gangster.” It has been very successful, and on its heels is coming “Gangsters & Grifters.” This gathering of photos from the paper’s substantial archives has an introduction by yours truly, in which I write: “There is no city on the planet that can boast more world-famous bad guys and bloody deeds than Chicago, and — in a mildly disturbing way — we relish the association. Despite the all-too-real modern city violence that annually claims hundreds of victims, many of them innocent children, tales of the past bloodshed and tears that have fallen on our streets have an eerie nostalgic glow.”
All of which brings us to the return to Chicago of “Johnny Boy’s Graduation,” a crafty theatrical creation, the technical term for which is “interactive, environmental dinner theater,” meaning that audience members become part of the proceedings, as much or as little as they might like.
So feel free to join all kinds of mobsters, molls, crooners, singers, dancers and waiters as they celebrate Johnny Boy’s release from jail. This was an under-the-radar hit for a couple of years before going on hiatus, and it returns July 26 to its Chicago home, the charming Boni Vino restaurant at 111 W. Van Buren St., close to the Metropolitan Correctional Center (Johnny Boy’s “home” for the last six years). It is a fine setting — very good food, too, in the form of a five-course meal included in the ticket price — that provides an intense intimacy for a cast of 22 and audience of about 80 (johnnyboysgraduation.com).
The man who created this show and often plays a character in it is Mark Nassar. He is one of the original creators and stars of the hugely successful “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding.” That show was born in New York City in 1985 and was later produced in more than 100 cities in this country and around the world. Nassar played the male title role when the show moved into a Piper’s Alley space in Old Town for a long run in the early and mid-1990s.
“I debated whether to open ‘Johnny Boy’ in Chicago or New York,” Nassar says. “They have the two greatest audiences for theater in the country, but Chicago, even more than New York, has the gangster DNA woven into its culture. It’s not just Al Capone and Prohibition. There’s Dillinger. There’s Sam Giancana and his JFK connection. There’s Tony Accardo, the real boss of all bosses. Chicago audiences and the tourists that come here are curious about it. They want to explore. Our tone is more ‘Family Secrets’ than Capone. We play it for real, and the audiences love to immerse in it. And because most of our audience is from Chicagoland, they get it and know how to play their parts. It doesn’t get any better.”
In that special place in hell reserved for Chicago’s hoodlums, mobsters are surely smiling.
“After Hours With Rick Kogan” airs 9-11 p.m. Sundays on WGN-AM 720.