Welcome to lovable Capone's Chicago

June 27, 1993|By Mary Schmich | Mary Schmich,Chicago Tribune

Al Capone has never looked so lovable. Chipmunk-cheeked and bushy-browed, he smiles down on the cars that whiz east along Ohio Street into the heart of Chicago. He looks a little like Ed Asner, a good-natured guy with an irascible streak, a rascal but not a killer.

In fact, Capone's giant portrait is so prominently positioned along a thoroughfare chockablock with tourist-filled taxis that good old Uncle Al could pass for the official city greeter.

This is the kind of thing that once sent Chicago tourism officials lurching for the Maalox.

But these days, though there are those who still don't like it, gangsters make increasingly good business, nowhere so conspicuously as at the new Capone's Chicago, which is scheduled to open this week next to the Hard Rock Cafe.

Located in a strip of River North that includes Michael Jordan's and Oprah's restaurants, Capone's is billed as a "historically themed family attraction." In other words, the underworld meets Disney World.

As Patricia McHugh puts it, "We're trying to make this as friendly, cheerful and upbeat as possible."

Ms. McHugh, a lanky blond woman of 28 who was a Guess? jeans model before becoming a developer, was standing outside Capone's recently while workers hurried to complete the building. The facade of 1920s storefronts is painted in warm reds, yellows, greens and blues, as jaunty as a comic strip.

"We want it to feel like Main Street USA," Ms. McHugh said. "Nothing lurking or leery."

And the sweet-faced painting of Uncle Al?

"We want people to know this is a place they could bring the kids," she said. "We're trying to put a positive spin on the era."

Any Chicagoan who has traveled abroad probably can testify to the international renown of the Prohibition era in Chicago. Say you're from Chicago and foreigners are apt to exclaim, "Chicago?" then break into a gleefully murderous tommy gun pantomime while belching rat-a-tat-tats.

This breaks the hearts of those who want Chicago known as Paris on the Prairie.

"We do not promote anything that glorifies gangsterism in Chicago," said Dorothy Coyle at the Chicago Office of Tourism, when asked about Capone's Chicago. "Chicago already has wonderful cultural attractions for visitors."

But a lot of those Japanese, Germans and Swedes pouring into '' O'Hare want gangsters with their culture. Don Fielding and his wife recognized that six years ago, when they started the Untouchables bus tours, an introduction to, as the brochure says, "the old gangster hot spots and hit spots!"

"People told us, 'If the old man was here, you'd never get away with this,' " Mr. Fielding recalls, the "old man" being the previous mayor named Daley. They got away with it, and others have followed.

A reprise of the old "Untouchables" TV series is now filmed here. At Here's Chicago, a tourist show across from Water Tower Place, a banner proclaims "CHICAGO'S GANGSTER ERA New New New."

A year ago, Here's Chicago even opened a gangster gift shop, selling plastic squirt tommy guns, jiggers that boast, "A Shot from Al Capone," and bullet-riddled parking signs that say, "Gangster Parking Only. All Others Will be 'Removed.' "

The folks at Capone's Chicago are striving for a gentler gangster attraction. It's the inspiration of Michael Graham, 30, who is identified in a press release as a "historian and entrepreneur."

As he and Ms. McHugh see it, Capone's is a chance for Chicago to reclaim its history, a history stolen by Hollywood and subverted by black-and-white movies that made the city look dangerous and grim.

Their exhibit -- a kind of diorama with animatronic characters and Surroundsound -- is short on blood, gore and bullets. They want to present a full portrait of Chicago in the 1920s.

"OK, we don't talk about the Depression very much," Ms. McHugh said, "but we want people to leave with a positive feeling about this city because it deserves it."

Capone's Chicago has encountered resistance from some Italian-Americans, which Ms. McHugh and Mr. Graham have tried to conquer. They've made sure the show notes that Capone's parents were hard- working, that other cities had gangsters, that not all gangsters were Italian.

To help with public relations, they hired D. Clancy, the former head of the city's tourism office. As she points out, the Romans don't hide the Coliseum just because Christians were fed to the lions there.

There's something a little strange about this smiley-faced version of Capone and his times, but that's the way nostalgia works, and if you don't think too hard about it, Capone's is fun. Cities, like people, have a way of remembering the good and polishing the bad.

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