It was one of the biggest fiascoes in television history. Reporter Geraldo Rivera, then desperate to reestablish his journalistic career after his noisy dismissal from ABC, excavated a vault beneath Chicago’s Lexington Hotel supposedly belonging to Prohibition-era gangster Al Capone on live TV in a heavily hyped syndicated special, only to reveal that the vault contained nothing except a few empty bottles and a stop sign. Although an unquestionable ratings success, The Mystery Of Al Capone’s Vaults represented a very public humiliation for Rivera, who had traded the last of his professional integrity for a $50,000 paycheck. On the 30th anniversary of the notorious special, Mental Floss’ Jake Rossen has curated an oral history of the special, including quotes from Rivera and the program’s producers.
The idea for The Mystery Of Al Capone’s Vaults began, Rossen’s article reveals, not with Rivera but with producers John Joslyn and Doug Llewelyn (yes, the guy from The People’s Court). Though none of the major networks were willing to broadcast such a live event, since the outcome was very much unknown, Joslyn and Llewelyn managed to sell the idea to Tribune Entertainment at a cost of nearly a million dollars. At first, the producers thought Robert Stack would be an ideal host, since he’d battled Chicago gangsters on TV’s The Untouchables back in the 1960s. But Peter Marino, a Tribune exec, felt that the program needed “someone who could do it without cue cards, a real reporter.” Enter Rivera, who came to believe sincerely that the vaults would contain something exciting: money, perhaps, or even dead bodies. As the evening wore on and it was clear that the Lexington vault was a flop, Rivera became despondent, thinking his career was over. At the show’s sad conclusion, Rivera sang a few lines from the song “Chicago” and wandered off to get incredibly drunk at a nearby restaurant.
The vaults may have been a washout, but the show got historically large ratings, much higher than even the wildest expectations at Tribune Entertainment. Marino, for one, considers The Mystery Of Al Capone’s Vaults to have been a resounding success:
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 realty television craze which continues to this day.
For those interested in reliving the embarrassment, the Chicago Tribune has the entire special available for viewing and is planning a live tweet tribute to the program tonight at 7 p.m. Central time. And, of course, the special will long be remembered as the inspiration for one of Homer Simpson’s most memorable songs.