When Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone’s vault, he turned nothing into ratings

A.V. Club Most Read

When Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone’s vault, he turned nothing into ratings

What was once a major career embarrassment has dissipated into our culture of disposability

A single television episode can exemplify the spirit of its time. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.

“There was nothing in Al Capone’s vault / But it wasn’t Geraldo’s fault.”
Homer Simpson

One standing criticism of television is that it’s a disposable medium, endlessly replenished and easily washed away. But that’s not necessarily so. Aside from the old tapes and films that have literally been destroyed, most everything that’s been broadcast on TV over the decades is available in some multimedia conglomerate’s archives. The rest lingers in our collective memory, befogged by all the fresh information that gets beamed our way every day. The challenge is to hold onto what we know and not let it get lost in the new.

Geraldo Rivera is one of the many TV personalities whose careers have been both helped and harmed by what might be called “the great forgetting.” Rivera has a reputation as a self-promoting opportunist who’d gladly trash journalistic standards for the sake of ratings. But he actually began his career as an attorney and activist, who was seen early on as one of the bright young hopes of the broadcast news business, as dogged and politically plugged-in as he was handsome and silver-tongued. He was married to Kurt Vonnegut’s daughter back then, and was looked at as the mainstream voice for a newly politicized Latino-American population. He even won a Peabody Award for his investigation into the abuse of disabled individuals at a Staten Island institution.

That should all be a big part of the Geraldo Rivera story. But so should the series of on-air embarrassments he’s suffered over the years: the racially charged social commentary, the accidentally treasonous war correspondence, the platform his talk show gave to dangerous fringe groups, and, yes, The Mystery Of Al Capone’s Vaults. The accumulation of “What the hell?” Rivera moments should be enough to make an informed viewer wonder why he still gets to appear on television regularly as a reporter, commentator, entertainer, or whatever else he’s making himself out to be. After a certain point, his name and his screen presence began to matter more than his actual résumé.

Because the 30th anniversary of The Mystery Of Al Capone’s Vaults happened this past spring, one of Rivera’s most humiliating public moments was recently remembered again… for a while, that is. It’s being framed much differently than it was back on April 21, 1986. The new conventional wisdom—not entirely incorrect—is that the Al Capone special was ultimately a success, because it pulled in a huge audience share and helped rebrand its host as the affable ringmaster for crazy televised stunts. This is the conclusion reached by many of the participants in the broadcast, who went on the record for a Mental Floss oral history earlier this year. At the time though, The Mystery Of Al Capone’s Vaults was no triumph. It was a hype with no payoff, and roundly mocked.

The premise behind the special was both ingenious and ridiculous. Producers John Joslyn and Doug Llewelyn (yes, the guy from The People’s Court) heard that 1920s mob boss Al Capone’s old base of operations, Chicago’s Lexington Hotel, was planning a renovation, and that the surveyors had discovered walled-off subterranean chambers on the property. Excited by the possibility of finding human remains (in the case of which, forensic examiners would be standing by) or caches of money (which IRS agents were prepared to seize), Joslyn and Llewelyn proposed a live broadcast around the demolition of the wall, because they knew that if they pretaped the big reveal, then the contents would be known well in advance of airtime.

Unable to convince any of the major networks to back a stunt with no clear outcome, Joslyn and Llewelyn partnered with the syndicator Tribune Entertainment. As it turned out, the networks were right to be wary. What the excavators found, ultimately, was nothing. A pile of dirt and a few empty bottles. No bones, no loot, no tommy guns or discarded fedoras. For two hours in primetime, Rivera hosted what amounted to a remedial documentary about gangsters and prohibition—complete with vintage clips and photos and interviews with historians—capped off by a few minutes at the end where he sheepishly admitted they’d wasted everyone’s time.

The reviews were harsh. Even beyond the anticlimax, The New York Daily News was appalled by the glib romanticism of The Mystery Of Al Capone’s Vaults, saying, “Rivera’s cheerleader tone was incongruous with the violent subject… Disturbing was the tendency to glamorize the gangster, who was known as ‘Scarface’ and ‘Public Enemy No. 1.’ Rivera described him as ‘charming and generous’ at one point, but quickly added he was ‘a mass murderer of his time.’”

But in the Mental Floss article, former Tribune Entertainment vice president Allan Grafman says that everyone at the company was pleasantly surprised when they saw the share of sets in use the next morning. “We thought it would do a 20. It did a 35. It was an enormous, colossal success. Nationally, we out-performed the networks—The Cosby Show, Family Ties.” Even stranger, according to former Tribune president Sheldon Cooper, “The show played later on the West Coast and that was amazing. Even though the news was out, it still got phenomenal ratings.”

Where the show came from has been an under-examined part of the larger story of how it was received. The mid-’80s were when TV’s great fragmenting really began—when the expansion of cable channels and the big money poured into syndication started to break the stranglehold of ABC, CBS, and NBC, whittling down the monoculture. In October of 1986, six months after Rivera blasted open a dusty chamber, the Fox network launched, finding a home on the same kind of previously unaffiliated UHF stations that aired Al Capone’s Vaults.

With cable subscriptions on the rise, over-the-air broadcasters were looking to compete, and one big way was sensationalism. For a long time, the perception of television was that it already catered to the lowest common denominator and that the best way to offer a true alternative in that market was to skew more highbrow. But the ’80s saw the rise of trashy daytime talk and a trend to visually garish game shows, as well as “tune in or you might miss something shocking” one-offs like the Capone special.

It’s hard to know exactly what viewers were expecting from The Mystery Of Al Capone’s Vaults. (I was 15 years old at the time and watched it live, and even I couldn’t tell you.) What the show seemed to promise was something in between watching a building implosion live on local news and seeing if Evel Knievel could jump over a canyon in a rocket car—with just a little sprinkling of Raiders Of The Lost Ark in the possibility that Rivera might walk into a room piled with buried treasure. And as always with anything hyped as “live” in the era of heavy content restrictions on broadcast TV, those of us who tuned in wondered if we’d hear or see something that the network censors wouldn’t have allowed: a bad swear or a dude being crushed to death by a falling chunk of rock.

Watching the special now, what’s remarkable is how slick it is, and how well Rivera distracts from the hour plus of documentary padding. Whatever his failings as a would-be exemplar of high broadcast standards, Rivera was and is a charismatic performer who commands the small screen with blustery confidence. Even when nothing at all is happening in The Mystery Of Al Capone’s Vaults, the host makes it seem like he’s just on the verge of a major discovery. And when he can’t deliver the goods, he plays it off with a winningly apologetic smile.

Another aspect of the event that tends to be forgotten whenever it comes up today is that the Capone special was meant to be something of a comeback for Rivera. He’d been fired from his long-running, high-profile gig in ABC news the previous fall, due to a public dispute with his boss Roone Arledge over the latter’s unwillingness to air a scandal-mongering 20/20 segment. He took this assignment—and a hefty payday—in hopes of reminding the industry that he was still in the game. To Mental Floss, Rivera described how the evening went for him, saying, “I knew everyone in the news business would be watching. And as the evening wore on, I had more and more of a sinking feeling.”

He needn’t have worried. One year later he signed back up with Tribune Entertainment for the “hard-hitting” syndicated talk show Geraldo, which ran for 11 seasons and quickly became one of the cultural elite’s go-to examples for TV’s race to the bottom. He later moved on to CNBC and Fox News and has continued to mix the probing reporting of his youth with the ratings-grubbing of Geraldo. Like a lot of talented telejournalists with high name recognition, Rivera has had little trouble staying employed.

One of the advantages of the TV business is that all a person has to do is keep staying on camera, and eventually any professional disgrace they may have suffered will fade. Because there’s always something new happening, it’s hard for the public to cling too long to outrage. The comforts of a familiar face end up mattering more than whether celebrities have done or said something that should disqualify them from getting paid millions to entertain us.

That’s been an especially tricky fact of life during the 2016 presidential campaign, in which the cognitive dissonance has made it incredibly difficult to focus. What seem like monumental scandals are chased away by a fresh controversy every few days. Meanwhile, the two major candidates have been in the public eye for so long that their pasts—not their hidden pasts, but things they did and said that were reported in the papers at the time—keep popping back up as though they’d just happened. We forget. And we keep forgetting.

A big cliché in TV news is the phrase “only time will tell,” as a vague way to end a report while seeming to remain neutral and objective. But time doesn’t tell. Time keeps changing its damn mind. First Al Capone is a murderous public menace, and then he’s an iconic American figure. A journalist becomes a laughingstock, and then he’s back to being an authoritative voice on television. Our two political parties have what seem to be intractable positions on policy and moral character, and then they gradually switch sides over time. We think we know our own cultural history. We think we have a firm grounding for what we’re certain is true and right. But maybe we’d best not dig too deep, lest we find only a cloud of dust and an empty room.

Next time… on A Very Special Episode: Julia, “I’m Dreaming Of A Black Christmas”