Relic of Chicago's Bloody Past Gets A Modern Rewrite
Monday, October 16, 2006
CHICAGO, Oct. 15 -- It was at the Biograph Theater that bank robber John Dillinger was gunned down by FBI agents on July 22, 1934, after taking in the movie "Manhattan Melodrama" and being betrayed by the "Lady in Red."
The Biograph is one of Chicago's last remaining landmarks from its gun-slinging past; Al Capone's Lexington Hotel hangout and the warehouse site of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre have been demolished.
Over the weekend, the Biograph held its coming-out party as a newly rehabbed venue for Victory Gardens Theater live shows, and theater leaders echoed Mayor Richard M. Daley (D) in playing down its bloody past.
"We just assume that part of Chicago history goes away," said artistic director Dennis Zacek, who led Victory Gardens to a 2001 Tony Award for best regional theater. "That's all in the past. We've converted it to something new."
But their efforts to bury Dillinger's ghost have been in vain. Tour buses still regularly pass by and point out where Dillinger was killed in the alley, the agents tipped off by brothel madam Anna Sage, who was trying to avoid deportation to Romania.
At the theater's grand opening Saturday, audience members gushed about the past. As the audience filed in, a tuxedo-clad man brandished a plastic machine gun. Several women wore red dresses, including Gina Petersen, wife of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" star William Petersen, a Victory Gardens alum. He logged his first Equity role playing Dillinger in a 1978 play of the same name that was directed by Zacek.
"I guess I'm the lady in the red dress," Gina Petersen said. "Maybe this shows Chicago is turning over a new leaf, going from a Mafia town to a cultured theater town."
The red-brick and terra-cotta building is a city and national historic landmark, because of the Dillinger history and also because it was among the first theaters designed to show motion pictures.
"It was run by entrepreneurs who were trying to make movies legitimate," Zacek said.
It was also one of the first air-conditioned buildings in the city, one reason Dillinger went there on that hot July evening. A photo shows the marquee with a banner that reads "Cooled by Refrigeration" in dripping letters.
Zacek and several other patrons noted that whenever they travel overseas and tell people they are from Chicago, Capone is always mentioned. Zacek said he would rather Chicago be known as the home of 190 theater companies, a city he calls "the theater capital of the country or even the world."
"It has a bad reputation because of Al Capone and Dillinger," he said.
But the Chicago History Museum's chief historian, Russell Lewis, says Dillinger had a more noble reputation than Capone. Some likened him to Robin Hood.
"Capone was an organized criminal mastermind, and he was very ruthless," Lewis said. "But Dillinger was just a bank robber. It was during the Great Depression and banks were foreclosing on people. He was exciting and entertaining, and at the time some people really pulled for him."
Dillinger's legend grew in death. Crime writer Jay Robert Nash asserted in two books that Dillinger was not killed, but had learned of the plot and dispatched a look-alike petty criminal in his stead. Members of a Chicago club called "John Dillinger Died for You" have been known to march through the alley accompanied by a bagpipe player on the anniversary of his death.
The theater, which showed movies until 2004, was gutted and converted from a 1,000-seat chamber into a 299-seat theater with a reception area and offices. Cost: $11 million. The original marquee was donated to the Chicago History Museum -- Zacek calls it "a piece of junk" -- and was replaced with a $110,000 replica.
Even though Zacek plays down the memory of Dillinger at the Biograph, he not only directed the Victory Gardens play about the robber but also wrote his 1969 Northwestern University doctoral dissertation on a topic linked to theater and gunplay in the District. He analyzed the acting technique of Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, the actor who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.
"Edwin was a classical actor," he said. "John Wilkes was more of a romantic lead. They were an eccentric family."