Today in TV History: Geraldo Tries to Uncover Capone’s Vaults

The Mystery of Al Capone's Vault
Courtesy of Everett Collection
The Mystery of Al Capone's Vault

When: April 21, 1986

Where: The Lexington Hotel, Chicago

What: Geraldo Rivera attempts to unearth Al Capone’s vaults.

It was the perfect convergence of subject matter, media personality, and hype. When The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults, hosted by Geraldo Rivera, was broadcast live in 1986, most everyone involved, especially Rivera and executive producers John Joslyn and Doug Llewelyn (from The People’s Court), thought there might be cash or treasures (or even bones) buried in the caverns of the Lexington Hotel, the notorious crime boss’s former headquarters. But ultimately, it was a bust. And the IRS agent who was on-site to collect on Capone’s outstanding tax debt wasn’t the only one disappointed.

Llewelyn: John Joslyn and I had a production company in Los Angeles. One day, we were sitting in our office going through the paper, and there was a notice of a supposed vault belonging to Al Capone that had been discovered in a Chicago hotel.

Rivera: I had been fired from ABC. I was the most famous unemployed person in the country. [I was] offered $25,000. I said, “I’ll take it if they give me $50,000.” It was purely an economic decision [to do the show]. But it sounded like an intriguing idea. It was a two-hour show, and one hour of it would be a documentary about Capone, the era, the mob, prohibition, the legal case, and so I could do a regular documentary.

Llewelyn: We would have Geraldo meet us at certain areas where we wanted to film him [for the documentary segments]. Like, for example, at Alcatraz, going through Capone’s old cell and all that stuff. He was a dream to work with I must tell you. He was really into this. We were all into it! We learned so much about Al Capone. We were convinced there might be something in the vault. We actually brought people with ground penetrating radar equipment in to try and see through the vault. We were doing everything we could to find what was in there without opening the vault. We did not do that.

Rivera: We spoke to relatives of both victims and “Caponistas,” and we spoke to historians. We really got a full picture of what Chicago was like at that time, and what I expected to find in the vault was almost a time capsule back to an era.

Joslyn: While Doug was working with Geraldo, who was on location for the special’s documentary segments, we got a call from the family of Ralph Capone, Al’s [deceased] brother, through his attorney. He wanted to know if they could get in the vaults. “No! Can’t open it until we do it live on television.”

Rivera: I knew that everybody would be watching, including all my colleagues at ABC—the ones I liked and the ones I didn’t. I knew it would be huge. I thought I could ride that wave back to a gig. So I had some performance anxiety, but I managed to douse it with my enthusiasm, totally embracing the whole concept.

Joslyn: We pulled on the first wall, where we had precut everything with our saws. Boom! “Ah, s–t, there’s another wall!” We thought there was only one wall.

Rivera: I was dismayed. With all the sonic testing we had done, we had banked on the chamber being hollow. I was also conscious of the clock. As we got closer to the end— I’m getting sweaty palms just remembering it—what loomed more profoundly than anything was the prospect of ridicule. I’d always been accused of flamboyance, or personal involvement, blah, blah, you can fill in the blanks. I kept thinking of Peter Jennings watching, for instance. It was not a comfortable feeling, I tell you that.

Joslyn: We bring down the second wall of the vault and there’s more dirt. And all Geraldo was able to find was a milk bottle from the ’30s and a sign that said, “Adams Express Company,” both of which I still have to this day.

Rivera: I gathered the workers around me and shared that we were going to go to the Mexican restaurant that was right across from the hotel. I was going to get stinking drunk, and I fulfilled that pledge.

Llewelyn: He went back to his hotel room and was incommunicado. We couldn’t get through to him. But overnight, of course, the ratings came in.

Joslyn: Highest-rated show ever in syndication history. So for us there was gold there after all.

Llewelyn: We were still digging when the show went off the air and we stayed there for another day or so as I recall. Part of the sidewalk caved in. We had to fix that. We had gone out under the sidewalk. We still didn’t get anything.

Rivera: I look on it with fondness. It made me very vulnerable to many people, [to the point] where they could poke fun at me, but it was almost kind of loving.

Joslyn: It really gave a boost to Geraldo. He went on to have his own talk show and launch his career all over again.

Llewelyn: It has become a running joke. Every now and then I’ll be watching some show and somebody will refer to Al Capone’s vault. [When] Geraldo was on Glee, they referred to Al Capone’s vault. I called my wife and said, “There it goes again!”