On Al Capone and Show Biz

There’s far too much celebration of hoodlums and gangsters in this culture so that’s not we’ll be doing with reference to Al Capone (1899-1947) today, but his name does pop up in show biz anecdotes from time to time so we thought we’d mention their existence.

Several stories are some variation on “I was performing at a [nightclub/ speakeasy/ brothel/ hotel] in Chicago [or Miami]  when, following a performance, two thugs came up to me in my dressing room, pressed a gun into my ribs, put me in the back of a car, and took me out the outskirts of [East Cicero], where I was dragged inside a mansion where a party was in progress, and I learned that I had been summoned to give a command performance by none other than Al Capone.”

I have come across this anecdote in so many show biz autobiographies it’s practically a “thing”, it’s like an Elvis sighting or Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces” — a story that happens to everybody. In the end, though, I think what’s going on here is that these entertainers were merely booked by Capone or were simply socializing with him and his crowd and needed to tell it in a way that would be acceptable to the sensibilities of mid-century readers, who wouldn’t approve of the association, as I don’t. After all, Capone wasn’t just a bootlegger, and proprietor of dens of vice, he was also somebody who murdered, maimed and tortured people. In the second variation of the story they worked in a Chicago nightclub for a man named “Al Brown” or “Mr. Brown”, who turned out to be Capone. The people who played for Capone according to the lore included Al Jolson, George Jessel, Eddie Cantor, Joe E. Lewis, Texas Guinan, Sophie Tucker, Ruth Etting, Fats Waller, and — wait for it — Morey Amsterdam. Buddy Lester and Jerry Lester claimed that Capone helped them get their start as performing children!

These encounters have an added whiff of legend because, naturally, there is no photographic proof. You weren’t going to pose for a picture with a criminal. And if someone tried to take a candid one at a speakeasy or a party with illegal booze, a couple of soldiers would come up and break your camera, and probably your hands.

Also notable: as she has reported in her autobiography and several documentary interviews, Rose Marie’s father was a gangster, and she knew Capone as “Uncle Al”!

Before he became the Chicago kingpin, Capone started out as a rank and file goon in Five Points, and later spent time working for Frankie Yale out of a Coney Island saloon, a period which Dick Zigun wrote a great play about and presented a few months ago. 

It’s also part of the lore that while he was incarcerated Capone learned to play banjo and mandolin and played in bands with other inmates. For a long time he was also thought to have written some music, but researchers have recently looked into one of the tunes he was supposed to have written, and guess what? He stole it.

To find out more about the history of show business please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous