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The Biograph Theater-The Death of John Dillinger

The Biograph Theater-The Death of John Dillinger
By Barek Halfhand

Spring in Chicago represents an almost ritualistic awakening from hibernation as the lakeside city is finally freed from the often debilitating grip of Midwestern winter extremes… a drive along Lake Shore Drive on one of these sun bathed, warmer afternoons proves that the locals are more than ready to return to the manicured beaches of Oak Street and North Avenue as they stroll, cycle or Rollerblade down the endless sidewalks separating the concrete from the sand and Lake Michigan …while the beach attire is not full blown bikinis and swim trunks, the short sleeved shirts and windbreakers tied around waists leave little doubt that the new indigenous are more than ready to shed their winter coats …

The Congress Hotel still catches my eye no matter how many times I thread my way through the outlying urban grid and finally arrive in The Emerald City …Capone’s unyielding reign as Chicago’s undisputed crime boss was often dictated from that classic block of architecture and Michigan Avenue was awash with blood as a result … I could still feel the dark countenance of Big Al’s “Thousand Mile Stare” as I explored the old banquet rooms and lobbies a few years back …I still feel intimidated every time I stand his headstone in Mt Carmel …

John Dillinger was a different breed of “gangster” than Capone, while the local and federal law enforcement agencies charged with terminating his career tried demonize him with the pejorative; “Public Enemy Number One”, he seemed to have cultivated a sort of celebrity and popularity that many gangsters of the post Capone, Depression era enjoyed… much the way Bonnie and Clyde were acquiring legendary outlaw status down in Texas almost simultaneously …holding up banks at a time when so many were in foreclosure was not necessarily looked upon with disdain by those teetering on the precipice of destitution and homelessness (sound familiar?) …

An illustrious career of crime comprised Dillinger’s resume … by the time he returned Chicago and was “laying low” he had managed to rob 15 or so banks, successfully executed an elaborate plan to break out of one county jail in Ohio and boldly escaped yet another lockup in Indiana …there was the famous shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge that seems to have some been the subject of some historic revision to accommodate the Johnny Depp film “Public Enemies” but I suppose I can grant some artistic license to that version of events because it was an such good flick …

John Dillinger had the sort of loquacious personality and effervescent demeanor that made him a media sensation and he did seem to bask in the camera flash when the reporters encircled him in Crown Point Indiana … While his assertive self-confidence was often misconstrued as the defiant braggadocio of a common thief in his early days, the later celebrated infamy of “Public Enemy Number One“ welcomed his colorful colloquialisms and good ‘ol Indiana boy antics … was it the perceived sense of public adoration that served as the impetus for John’s false sense of invincibility?… the Robin Hood-esque “steal from the rich” and brag about to the poor imagery that ingratiated him in the collective depression weary sensibility of the public? … Or was it simply because he really was THAT good at being bad?

Alas, even with his success as a crook and escape artist, all of that gangster swag and brazen bank robbing bravado, he could not conceal that much of a larger than life identity even with a trip to the plastic surgeon…his naive attempt at a low profile blurring into the Chicago landscape while things “cooled down” was in vain … Jim Purvis of the newly founded branch of federal law enforcement; “The Bureau Of Investigation” (which would later become the FBI) knew exactly who he was looking for as he staked out the Biograph Theater that humid June evening in 1934…

Lincoln Park traffic has always been challenging and this unseasonably warm pre-spring weekend afternoon was no exception …getting off of Lake Shore Drive and onto Fullerton Ave brought back memories of circling these blocks looking for a parking space when I worked downtown a few years back and the Lincoln Park Zoo seemed to have spoken for every conceivable parking spot for miles on this particular day …It’s not hard to understand why the Twenty-Somethings want to flock the city as soon as they have the means to move out of their parent’s home in the suburbs …there are a billion things to see and do and an equal number of hedonistic delights to indulge but most usually end up relocating back to the burbs by age 30 or so …or once the novelty wears off, whichever comes first ….

The buildings surrounding The Biograph Theater all have that look and feel about them like they are harboring a dark secret that is shrouded in antiquity and obfuscated by neon …the history of this small section of town alone could surely fill up four volumes of an almanac …The site of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre (2122 N. Clark St.,) is a little over a half mile away and if you listen very carefully you can still hear the ringing staccato of machine gun fire when you pass the buildings that now occupy the property where The Obanion Gang made their headquarters…when conditions are right ….

As luck would have it; I was able to secure a parking spot a reasonable distance from the old theater … As I exited my vehicle I was able to seamlessly blend into the throngs of young metro-hipsters making their way along the promenade (being the paragon of trendy hipness that I am)… some of them stopped to chat with small groups congregating in front of a pub or dinner ...some simply nodded in acknowledgement of their fellow cosmopolitans before proceeding to their obscure destinations like a coffee house, eclectic boutique or perhaps a music store specializing in reselling vinyl records, black light posters, lava lamps and assorted incense…Ah nostalgia for a past never experienced, such a strange phenomenon that seems so prevalent amongst today’s youth…I reminded myself that I used to wear black pants, a Concho belt and boots as an homage to Jim Morrison in my late teens/early 20’s even though I was barely out of kindergarten when “The Lizard King” turned in his crown … I almost missed the famous Marquis of the Biograph as in my mental absentia …

Posters advertising plays like “The Wale” lined the lobby windows but I could see that there were people milling about inside, likely there to attend a matinee …as I opened the front doors and assertively strolled inside like I owned the place, I was struck by the telltale momentary disorientation that has come to be an indication that something was amiss …

The sparse audience for the afternoon performance hob-knobbing over cocktails in the lounge area took little notice of me meticulously photographing the building’s forefront interior …nobody challenged me when I made my way down the aisle leading to the main theater although a woman standing on the stage studying the set (comprised solely of a couch surrounded by litter) glared at me indignantly as I casually snapped multiple shots of the old theater-turned auditorium …turning to make my way make down the runway leading out and ultimately back to the lobby I turned the corner and was mildly shocked to see (what I assumed to be) and actress smoking a cigarette indoors ...Illinois smoking laws are pretty tough and the fact that she was wearing her stage wardrobe while committing this almost unheard-of violation piqued my interest enough to simply stop and ask :

“You can smoke in here?...

Looking up at me with troubled yet piercing brown eyes she responded with a terse, Slavic sounding accent; “Of course, why not?” …

She immediately averted her eyes away from me and wiped away a tear …the old fashioned orange gown she wore as her costume complimented her buxom features but she seemed extremely uncomfortable in it nonetheless…

”Something wrong?” I inquired sympathetically …

“What would you care?” she shot back, sharply returning her attention in my direction … Wouldn’t you like to see a conniving Gypsy like me deported?” …

Striving to avoid a tendentious topic like immigration, I decided to extricate myself from the potentially volatile conversation and exit the building… I wasn’t keen on being seen cavorting with the indoor smoker either…

”If you’re one of Purvis’s men, tell him he doesn’t need to check up on me! “She called after me in a tone that seemed to be intentionally muffled but clearly rife with enmity...

I turned to ask for a clarification but she evidently had already left the corner and returned to the backstage area … the retrofitted ventilation system must be pretty good in that old structure because I didn’t see any trace of the billowing cloud she was producing by her emotionally charged smoke break …Back outside, I turned left and proceeded to the alley where Dillinger met his demise …

I didn’t see any bullet holes as legend contends are still visible upon close inspection…but I did see the blood …some pushed past me in a jovial frenzy to dip handkerchiefs in the dark ichor liquid that looked so black against the streetlight illuminated darkness …the pop of flashbulbs were like lightning flashes against the night shrouded background features of the city block… as I struggled to regain my equilibrium; it was then that I realized that not only did my reality shift from day to night but from living color to black and white...

Squinting at the sudden flashback to midday brightness as I exited the alley, I began the block or so jaunt back to the car … I was suddenly thrust back into my subjective state of redolence by the squawking sound of a 1930’s era car horn (struggles to phonetically express the sound; “aaaaahhhh-ooooooh-gaaah”)… The Ford DeLuxe Roadster that rumbled up from behind was piloted by a man wearing clothing of and indeterminable era at first assessment but as he rolled past me my hopes were dashed by the Blue Tooth clearly visible in his right ear…

Here are the photos from my visit to the Biograph Theater, some may have been color enhanced or edited for aesthetic optimization ….b
http://s1098.photobucket.com/user/FoundersHill/library/The%20Biogra...

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