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.