If you believed every story you were told, Chicago gangster Al Capone controlled every saloon in Milwaukee, every tavern has a tunnel Capone used and every subterranean space was one of his Prohibition-era speakeasies.
While there’s a lot of Capone myth in Wisconsin (and surely beyond), there’s no denying that Capone and other Windy City mobsters were drawn to the same things that lure tourists to the Badger State: a chance to get away and lots of secluded spots to kick back and lay low.
In addition, Capone was lured by the opportunity to make lots of money during Prohibtion in a state known for its taste for alcohol.
Filmmakers Traci Neuman and Brian Ewig share some of the stories in a new half-hour documentary, “Al Capone: Prohibition & Wisconsin,” that premieres Monday, Jan. 29, at 8 p.m., on Milwaukee PBS 10.1.
Everyone knows that Capone and his cohorts were brutal criminals, taking advantage of hardworking Americans – and especially Italian immigrants – but the documentary focuses on two sources that offer another side to the Brooklyn-born Capone.
One is his granddaughter, Diane Capone, who shares takes she’s long kept secret, and the other is a descendant of a man named Bill Sell that Al Capone befriended and corresponded with up in the Northwoods. Another segment takes a look at a house Capone reportedly owned in Brookfield.
“More and more I became aware of how many stories about my grandfather’s personal life that were untrue,” Diane Capone says in the film. “I just couldn’t bear it. My grandfather was a very complicated man.
“He lived in an era when there were not an awful lot of opportunities, especially for someone who was (of) Italian descent and with very little education. So he did what he had to do to get ahead. A lot of that involved a lot of violence, but also he craved the attention and the power that came with being in the role he was in.”
In addition to the documentary, the filmmakers and Milwaukee PBS are sharing a series of extras, which you can find here, with related info that did not make the final cut of the main film.
“We are excited to present this new look at a well-known subject to our viewers,” says Milwaukee PBS VP and General Manager Debbie Hamlett. “In-depth storytelling is at the heart of what Milwaukee PBS strives to bring to our viewers.”
We asked Ewig and Neuman about “Al Capone: Prohibition & Wisconsin” in advance of the premiere and here’s what they had to say.
OnMilwaukee: What sparked the idea to do a doc about Capone in Wisconsin?
Traci Neuman: Much of it was about timing. We started out with the idea of doing a historical piece on Prohibition. As we began shooting, doors kept opening. Diane Capone only recently began telling her story. Up until recently she did not even tell people that she was Al's granddaughter. This is one of the first times that people will hear from her. Also, Bill Sell's granddaughter just started disclosing and sharing her family's secrets.
Brian Ewig: The thing that drove this project for me was my interest in history as well as my love of old film noir movies. Looking at history in the city, Prohibition is a great topic because there is so much of that history that still remains in the city.
As we were researching Prohibition in the city, we kept coming across stories of Al Capone, and once we came across the correspondence and images from the Manitowish Waters Historical Society, that led us to doing a separate story just on Al Capone.
There's so much mythology about Capone, even in Wisconsin, was it difficult to separate fact from fiction?
Brian Ewig: You can only imagine the some of the stories we heard in our research for the project. Everyone has a story when it comes to Al Capone, and that's not to say that those stories are not true, but we were more interested in telling history and getting as close to the sources as possible.
We worked closely with the Wisconsin Historical Society and Milwaukee County Historical Society to look for stories with some documentation attached. Whether that is a newspaper article, images, or in the case of Bill Sell, letters.
Traci Neuman: We were very careful to only share the ones that could be verified.
Was there anything you learned during the making of the film that surprised you?
Traci Neuman: You never know what to expect when you reach out to strangers to ask for an interview. Everyone we worked with and spoke with along the way was so helpful and nice.
Brian Ewig: I think the thing that surprised me the most was just how much the movies got correct. If you look at all the movies from "The Untouchables" to "The Sopranos," themes that keep popping up are family and religion and business on the side. These are a lot of the same themes that Diane touches upon in her interview.
She told us her grandmother, Al’s wife, would often see men waiting outside their homes in cars, and she knew who these men where and what they were up to, but she never felt scared. She never felt threatened.
Being a 26-minute film, was there a lot you wanted to include but couldn't?
Traci Neuman: Yes! We also have a digital series that includes seven pieces on topics like how Milwaukee became the Brew City, how it survived prohibition, and the importance of breweries today. It is full of historical facts.
Brian Ewig: The digital pieces offer local history during Prohibition, including the effects on the breweries and citizens. I feel this history is important, not only to the mission of Milwaukee PBS, but it provides context to the documentary. It’s unfair to approach history from a single moment, or through a lens of today. History needs context and that context is important in understanding history.
Some of the interviewees, of course, focus on Capone's human side – being relatives and friends – did that make it challenging to paint a fair picture of Capone, who, of course, was also a brutal mobster?
Traci Neuman: We see ourselves as fair journalists and would not have done the documentary if Capone's family and friends didn't acknowledge that Al Capone had two sides to him. We'll leave it up to the viewers to form their own opinion of him after watching.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.