I don’t know if you remember what you were doing this day in 1986, but I can tell you where I was: in front of the TV, watching a live show that would become one of the more infamous live shows in television history: “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults.”
As Mental Floss reported, the vaults were supposedly deep inside Chicago’s Lexington Hotel, which gangster Al Capone had used as his headquarters.
There were even rumors that they were connected to tunnels that ran under the street to another hotel.
Nobody knew for sure what was in those spaces, but they were about to find out, because the Lexington was starting a renovation project.
A TV company run by John Joslyn and Doug Llewellyn (yes, the guy who was then best known as the host of “The People’s Court”) thought this project had the makings of a great TV special.
But, they argued, the show couldn’t be prerecorded, or people would leak the news of whatever was in the vault ahead of time.
They wanted to broadcast live on site as the vault was opened.
As the host, they tapped Geraldo Rivera, who was trying to get back into the mainstream after losing his job with ABC News in a very high-profile dispute with the network.
The broadcast networks thought the show was too risky, so the producers syndicated the special with TV stations across the US and around the world as well.
And they hyped the show to the moon.
About an hour of the special was a kind of documentary, to explain who Al Capone was, what he did, and why people might be interested in a secret vault.
The rest was live, and it was up to Rivera to keep the excitement going as crews started making their way into the space.
There were IRS agents nearby in case the vault had some of Capone’s money.
There were forensic examiners on hand in case the vault had some of Capone’s victims.
And as they opened up the vault, they found… only a few old bottles and a lot of dirt.
Al Capone’s vault was empty.
On air, Rivera apologized to the audience; off air, he said he went out drinking with the work crew.
Reviewers and audiences alike mocked the special that had seemed to promise so much and ended up showing so little.
“The Windy City was never windier,” wrote the Chicago Tribune, which was owned by the same company that helped distribute the special!
But the ratings were huge, well above what the producers had promised their sponsors.
The special ended up on home video, and you can watch it today on Geraldo Rivera’s website.
The producers later joked that all they found in Al Capone’s vaults was 30 million viewers.
Today in Leavenworth, Kansas, it’s day one of the 2022 Association of Lincoln Presenters Annual Conference.
The four day gathering is a chance for many of the country’s Abraham and Mary Lincoln reenactors to immerse themselves in history – and to, as the Lincoln in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” put it, party on dudes.
Oral History: When Geraldo Rivera Opened Al Capone’s Vault (Mental Floss)
Capone Vault-Cracking An Unrewarding Blast (Toledo Blade via Google News Archive)