The Mob Moves In

August 29, 2010 at 7:49 am (General blather)

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American organized crime entered its golden age during the silent film era. Hollywood should have been the ideal stage for Mafia activity at the time, thanks to a corrupt Los Angeles Police Department and a small but growing crime family under the  leadership of Joseph “Iron Man” Ardizzone. But for now, the mob was focused on bootlegging. The artists and businessmen of the film colony were customers for illegal booze, not targets for shakedowns. That would change.

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“Please give me the address of Freeman’s bootlegger.” Undated letter from Mabel Normand to her secretary.

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The film capital may have been safe from the Mob, but elsewhere the movie business was already drawing the attention of organized crime. Scattered amongst issues of trade papers like Exhibitor’s Herald and Motion Picture News are startling reports of bomb threats against large movie theaters in major cities.

In Minneapolis, the Vista Theater had been open for only a week when children discovered a bomb smoldering beneath one of the seats in November 1928. This was only the latest of nearly a dozen bomb incidents in that city’s theaters since 1920. Seattle had seven of them in just the first eight months of 1928.

I wish an ambitious film history student somewhere would research these incidents. (It won’t be me!) I’m not aware that anyone’s ever studied these theater bombings, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to link them with organized crime.

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In Chicago, the organization known to its members as “the Outfit” was consolidating its power, eliminating competing gangs such as those belonging to Angelo Genna and Dean O’Banion. After the famous “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” of 1929 effectively eliminated its last significant rival, the Outfit controlled organized crime operations all over the upper Midwest.

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Gladys Walton in Crossed Wires (1923).

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At the top of that heap was Al Capone, and to my knowledge he never visited California until he arrived at Alcatraz in 1934 for an extended stay. But at least one person believes Capone had a silent film connection.

In his book Gladys and Capone: The Untold Story, author John Walton (son of Universal contract player Gladys Walton) asserts that he is the son of Al Capone.

According to Walton, he was 16 when his mother confided the truth about his parentage and asked him to tell her story after her death. The story goes that his mother and Capone met around 1922, and that when Universal released her upon the expiration of her contract, it was because “they’d heard about her relationship,” that in fact she was “Capone’s girlfriend and lieutenant.”

John Walton was born in July 1929. He claimed that Capone visited his mother in the hospital very shortly afterward, even though contemporary accounts make it clear that Capone was actually imprisoned in Pennsylvania at that time.

Walton had no real evidence to support any of his story, and he conceded that “I favor my mother’s looks.” However, he added, “We’re not going to do any tests or anything like that, but no one can deny that my grandson looks like Capone.”

It should be added that Robert Schoenberg’s acclaimed 480-page biography of Al Capone contains no mention of Gladys Walton.

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The Chicago Theater, flagship of the Balaban & Katz chain, seen here a year or so after its opening. The marquee announces the Mae Murray release Broadway Rose (1922).

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As everyone knows, Capone was finally nailed on tax evasion charges and sent to prison. Eventually he was released, racked with permanent health problems caused by a nasty case of advanced syphilis (let’s hope there’s no Gladys Walton connection there). Post-Capone, the Outfit was ruled by Paul Ricca and Frank Nitto, who adjusted to a post-Prohibition world by seizing new opportunities. Labor unions were infiltrated, with results that echo the bomb scares of the 1920s.

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Al and Barney Balaban (with Samuel Katz) founded what had become the dominant chain of movie theaters in Chicago and the upper Midwest. Aligned with First National, the chain was purchased in 1926 by Paramount. (The loss of those screens tipped First National into a death spiral that ended when Warner Bros. bought a controlling stake a couple of years later.)

By the early 1930s, Tommy Maloy, the president of Local 110 of the Motion Picture Operators Union, was extorting $150 per week from Balaban & Katz in exchange for labor peace with the theaters’ projectionists.

This was followed by a good news-bad news development in 1934. Maloy’s extortion racket abruptly ended with his murder. Then, Barney Balaban was confronted by George E. Browne, de facto head of Chicago’s Local 2 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). Browne demanded $20,000 a year (plus the usual $150 per week) to keep stink bombs from being thrown into Balaban & Katz’s theaters. Lurking in Browne’s shadow was the Outfit.

Balaban gave in. Before long, the Outfit demanded a new payoff of $60,000 to keep union projectionists from striking. This money was paid too. His capitulation didn’t do his career any harm; in time Balaban became the president of Paramount Pictures. And anyway, it could’ve been worse: the Loew’s chain of theaters was shaken down for a whopping $150,000 in 1935.

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Meanwhile, the Outfit’s tentacles had reached out to crime families in other cities. A low-level bootlegger named Johnny Roselli had been dispatched to Los Angeles in the winter of 1923, and by the end of Prohibition he’d become the human bond between that city’s burgeoning Mafia family (now headed by Jack Dragna, his predecessor “Iron Man” Ardizzone having been murdered), and the home office in Chicago.

Roselli’s biographers, Charles Rappleye and Ed Becker, say the ambitious young hood did some work as a Hollywood extra in those early years. He certainly learned a few things about the film business. Multiple accounts say he became close to Bryan Foy, a prominent producer at Warners, and he was a key figure in helping the mobbed-up IATSE take over organized labor at the studios.

Those studios made extortion payments in the low seven figures in exchange for labor peace, and Roselli went to prison when the racket was finally exposed. That exposure came about in an unexpected way: the chief of Twentieth Century-Fox was under investigation for income tax evasion, in the course of which a $100,000 payoff check came to light. After he was convicted and sent to prison, he protested that what he’d described ambiguously and uncomfortably during his trial as a “loan” had actually been an extortion payment. He was Joseph M. Schenck; back in the 1920s he’d produced the films of Natalie and Constance Talmadge and Buster Keaton, among others.

Back to Roselli for a minute. He and his associates didn’t stay in prison for long, and soon he was right back in Hollywood. Mafia historian Carl Sifakis reports that among Roselli’s later adventures was an episode in which he staged a crooked poker game that clipped $400,000 from Zeppo Marx and Phil Silvers.

Anyway, Roselli made his final appearance in 1976, when his corpse was discovered in an oil drum, bobbing in the waters off Miami. Whether he was whacked by the Mob or by vengeful fans of Sgt. Bilko remains a mystery.

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Meet Vincenzo Capone, the elder brother of Al Capone. Running away from home at an early age, he turned up in the Midwest and worked in a circus, developing a love of Native American culture and the old West. Assuming a new identity, he worked in law enforcement for the rest of his career under the name “Richard Hart,” a name he chose in tribute to his idol, silent star William S. Hart. True story.  Here he is with his wife in September 1951, having been served a subpoena to testify at the trial of his other brother, Ralph, a lifelong but relatively minor figure in the Outfit.

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– – – Christopher Snowden

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5 Comments

  1. John Bengtson said,

    Bravo! Per usual your blog is entertaining, fascinating, and well written.

  2. Bruce Calvert said,

    Yes, another great blog entry.

    When I was a college student working at the AMC Prestonwood Theater in Dallas in 1980, somebody working for the projectionist’s union set off a smoke bomb in the middle of a packed showing for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. During the confusion as we evacuated the theater, they took a knife and hacked the bottom of the movie screen to pieces. I don’t know if they ever caught the people who did it.

  3. Valeska Suratt said,

    All us girls here at the Studio Club love your posts … BUT ….

    THIS one went way beyond wonderful cause of that little note from Mabel !

    Seein that curly straggly handwritin again was a jolt kinda like when I stepped on the raggedy electric cord except my foot don’t need to be sewed up again.

    Who else but Mabel would be lookin’ for a ‘legger and “you just hurry the hell up cause tomorrow’s Sunday, for cripesakes” ?

    And it’s funny that she filled two bitty lil pages with everyday nothins and all these years later they’ve become silly little mysteries.

    Like that Betty gal, she’s barely a dim memory to me now. But when you get real old, your brain-pan finally rusts right through and names is the first thing what leaks out.
    There’d be one less headache in the world if you could say what Betty’s last name was.

    And weren’t Sundays sacred on account of Lew Cody and his Stinky Dinners ? (Or was that later ?)

    Also, she sez: “please enclose in” [what kind of ?] envelope … ?

    But I don’t recall Mabel ever havin problems with her ears. I just still hear all that awful coughing. Got so bad that toward the end when you went for a visit, if you could manage to make her smile but NOT make her laugh, she’d be so damn grateful she’d give you a teeny slug of that “goop” she was taking. And to hell with the car you came in … you’d just flap your arms and FLY home!

    But what’s up with her signature? I know Mabel dint have the patience to write real pretty but her name on your note looks almost like she was tryin to draw something?

    Or something . . .

    One last favor, young F. Scott: it’s awful hard these days to find hooch what don’t take the varnish off the table when ya spill. You think Freeman’s ‘legger is still around ?
    You’d be a real “Sister Aimee’s sister” if you could tell his name. (And “number, plee-azzz” …)

    Lordy, how that note took me back ! I feel like the phone’s gonna ring and Mabel will be on the line.

    But I guess that stuff only happens in the movies, now don’t it ?

    Yours most gratefully,
    Val

    P.S. It won’t matter much if you don’t get around to answering my silly questions. You already made an old lady’s day.

    • unkvid said,

      Thanks, Valeska. Sadly enough I don’t know who Freeman’s bootlegger was. Hell, I don’t even know who Freeman was.

  4. Caravan in Brean said,

    BEAUTIFUL !!

    Lovely content, lovely images (infact i have just printed out the magazine image to frame!)

    Thank you so much !!

    Lee
    UK

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