CHICAGO -- Frankie swaggers onto the black bus with bullet holes in the windows and snarls at the passengers. "All right, shut up!" Then he pulls out his gun and starts firing.
Everybody ducks, before the momentary shock gives way to guffaws. Frankie, a k a Michael Moylan -- surrogate gangster, tour guide, historian, comedian -- smiles mischievously. "Hmm," he mutters, "you must all be from New York."
With that, we're off to Prohibition-era Chicago on a most unconventional tour, led by Moylan and his partner in crime re-creation, "Shoulders," street name for Randy Craig.
For two hours, the "Untouchable Tour" journeys through the city's notorious gangland past: sites of hits and massacres, Al "Scarface" Capone's former headquarters, the theater where the feds finally caught up with John Dillinger, the churches where gangsters worshiped, the saloons, gambling dens, shops, brothels, breweries where they amused themselves, did business -- and killed one another.
But don't expect the normal patter of droning tour guide filtered through one of those plastic speakers that automatically translate English into some foreign tongue nobody understands.
This bus is a theater on wheels with Chicago actors dressed in baggy pants and wide-brimmed hats, who know their parts -- and their history -- well.
Punctuated by occasional bursts of recorded machine-gun fire, Moylan and Craig trade insults and occasional slaps. They deliver endless one-liners and politically incorrect commentary. They lead sing-alongs to Dixieland music and hand out props -- garlic (John Scalese dipped his bullets in it, hoping it would cause gangrene); corsages (found in a hood's pocket after a hit); and, yes, even a would-be Capone stash -- one Geraldo Rivera and his nationwide TV audience somehow overlooked while searching for treasure at Capone's former headquarters, the old Lexington Hotel on Michigan Avenue.
"We got the treasure of Al Capone, our personal stash, hand-rolled Cuban cigars. They're rolled on the thighs of virgin Cuban women, I hear," says Moylan, handing each passenger one. "It's OK, though. If you don't smoke, give it to a kid."
The 8-year-old tour relies on such shtick, theatrics and heavy doses of evocative, bloody detail to keep it lively: Many sites of the most infamous crime scenes, after all, have been demolished or paved over, as official Chicago has all but disowned and largely dismantled its unsavory past.
At one stop, the imposing Holy Name Cathedral on the North Side, Dion "Deanie" O'Bannion served as an altar boy and choir boy, like any good Irish Catholic kid. (Popular myth and Hollywood versions of history notwithstanding, Italian hoods competed with Irish, German, Polish and Lithuanian rivals).
For his part, O'Bannion missed Saturday confession a few too many times, Craig explains, and fell into a life of sin across the street.
Coming and going
"Old Dion owns the flower shop right there on what's now the handicapped parking zone. He runs his flower shop by day, bootlegging at night," Craig says. "It was a nice front 'cause you figure you gotta be shooting guys anyway, sell flowers to the families, you know, make money coming and going.
"If you'll oblige, sir," Craig says, gripping a New Jersey man's hand to demonstrate the two-handed Irish shake. "But the handshake is murder because they don't let go, and guys on either side plug him six times."
O'Bannion died with floral shears in hand, ready to cut the wreath the thugs ordered. The warm farewell set off gangland wars that would claim up to 1,000 lives and spawn the most rampant corruption in the city's history.
Look closely at Holy Name's stone facade, down by the 1874 cornerstone, and you can still see the crater left by a fusillade of bullets Capone's assassins fired at O'Bannion's successor, Earl "Hymie" Weiss.
Under elevated subway tracks, past early 20th-century architectural gems, across the Chicago River, through extremes of opulence and abject poverty, the bus winds its way through one-time sites of more infamy.
Where McGurn bought it
Inside what's now a Milwaukee Avenue furniture store, "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn bowled his last frame in 1936, seconds before a blast of tommy-gun bullets found him.
On this grassy lot on North Clark, site of the former S.M.C. Cartage Co., Capone's hit men, disguised as cops, lined up six rivals and an associate from Bugs Moran's gang. Nearly seven decades after the Valentine's Day Massacre, the ruthlessness of the 100 seconds of machine-gun fire still brings chills.
Inside a tunnel at Randolph and Michigan, Chicago Tribune reporter Jake Lingle paid with his life after getting too close to his sources and their way of life.
Turns out, he had boosted his $65 weekly salary to nearly $700 by brokering deals between gangsters and politicians. The gangsters showed their displeasure over Lingle's price increase as he headed for a subway to the racetrack.
At the Biograph Theater (a National Historic Landmark that still shows first-run movies), a wax figure sits impassively in the original glass ticket booth. Here, on a 100-degree day in 1934, Anna Sage wore red to tip off the G-men; they shot Dillinger dead seconds after he left the 8 o'clock showing of "Manhattan Melodrama."
Moylan lays on the heavy drama here. Spectators swarmed "Public Enemy No. 1," he says, and young women dipped skirts in the blood.
A queasy woman lets out a long "ooh," to which Moylan replies: "What are you oohing about? You'd be the first one down there."
He's used to dishing it out. Each year, about 25,000 visitors from around the world take in Chicago's underbelly on the popular tour. You won't read about it in official tourism literature. But however skittish city leaders may be about past bloodletting, the gangster image appears as popular a draw as ever, even as the actual sites of violence keep disappearing.
Go to one of the best steakhouses in town, the Chicago Chop House, and you find two green walls covered by rare photos of notorious gangsters. At the American Police Center on State Street, visitors gaze at weapons from 1920s Chicago and photos of bloodied gangsters felled by police.
Five blocks away, inspiration for the Untouchable Tour took hold, fittingly enough, at Tommy Gun's Garage, speakeasy-dinner theater, complete with artifacts, flappers, a police raid and audience participation.
Idea is born
There, Craig Alton once wrote scripts for the skit, and his sister, Cynthia Fielding, handled group sales. Their appetites whetted, patrons kept asking about tours of Chicago gangster haunts, but none existed. Alton, who had produced children's programs for public radio, and Fielding, a veteran of nonprofit, grass-roots arts organizations, knew they were onto something, and quit Tommy Gun's in 1987.
"That's when we decided to take up a life of crime," Fielding says.
So Alton, Fielding and her husband, Don, painted a school bus black, did months of painstaking research, hired actors and opened the family-owned business. Its popularity has grown with each passing year, and it now employs eight actors, runs three tours a day in summer, one every other day in fall and spring and on weekends in winters.
Though a gangster tour, it also provides a fact-packed, fast-paced way to learn a city's history the best way -- by seeing it up close. Amid all the talk of mayhem, the gangster guides manage to weave information about the city's less-grisly side, from the Great Fire of 1871 to the first skyscrapers, from the wave of European immigration and the ethnic neighborhoods it created to the black blues-man's journey from the Delta to Maxwell Street, birthplace of the Chicago blues.
Tour with a difference
But, as Moylan points out, one key difference distinguishes Untouchable from other city tours: It ventures into Little Italy, Chinatown, West and South-side neighborhoods most tourists never see, past boarded-up buildings, vacant warehouses -- and thriving, upscale shopping districts as well.
"We show you a part of Chicago no other tour's ever going to show you," he says. "We take you to a side the mayor and the city officials won't even talk about. But, let's face it, the gangsters are what Chicago's known for."
If you go...
Untouchable Tours, Chicago's Original Gangster Tour, begins at N. Clark St. (at Ohio Avenue), convenient to most major hotels. Tickets cost $20 for adults, $15 for children. (Call for schedule.) Reservations strongly encouraged. (312) 881-1195.
For a taste of gangster lore, check out Tommy Gun's Garage, a dinner theater/speakeasy at 1239 S. State St., (312) 728-2828. Actors serve up meals along with constant gangster talk. Stage show features flappers, a police raid and audience participation. Dinner and show cost about $30 per person. Reservations recommended.
Nearby on State Street, the American Police Center displays weapons from 1920s Chicago and photos of gangsters. Open Monday-Friday, 8: 30 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission: $3.50 for adults, $2 for children 12 and under; (312) 431-0005.
Although Scarface himself no longer rests at the Mount Olivet Cemetery at 2755 W. 111th St., Capone's monument still stands at his original burying ground and remains a popular draw.
For a huge photo tribute to gangsters at a restaurant rated America's second best by the Knife & Fork club, head for the Chicago Chop House, 60 W. Ontario St. Reservations accepted: (312) 787-7100.
You can save a considerable sum and probably some time by taking the Blue Line train from Chicago O'Hare International Airport to downtown. The 40-minute rapid-rail ride departs from the lower level of the terminal every five to 10 minutes (every 30 minutes from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.). Cost: $1.50.
For a good overview of the city, visit the 110-story Sears Tower at Wacker Drive and Jackson Boulevard, (312) 875-9449, or the 100-story John Hancock Center at 875 N. Michigan Ave., (312) 751-3681. Several narrated bus tours do major downtown attractions. During warmer months, take one of the boat tours along the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. Another good way to see it all up close: Take the elevated train that goes around the Loop.
For information on accommodations, packages and attractions, call (800) 226-6632 or write Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau, McCormick Place on the Lake, 2301 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Ill.; Internet address: http:
Chicago Plus Reservations, working with tourism agencies, offers one-stop airline, train, rental car and hotel reservations; call (800) 873-2446. Large hotel discounters also often feature major Chicago hotels, from luxury to budget, sometimes at more than half off regular rates. One of the larger discounters is Hotel Discounts, (800) 715-ROOM; Internet address: hotelotel discount.
Pub Date: 11/10/96