THE MOB AND THE MOVIES
Hollywood’s latest view of the mob as seen in the hit film, “The Untouchables,” takes some dramatic license, especially in showing the death of Al Capone’s “Enforcer,” Frank Nitti, as if it were an “accident” in 1931.
But Hollywood--of all places--should know of Nitti’s actual fate.
What really happened is that 12 years later, in 1943, Nitti and seven of his associates were indicted for extortion of more than $1 million from the biggest studios in Hollywood and also charged with fraud against the stage hands and projectionists unions of an amount estimated as high as $6.5 million. On the day of his indictment, Nitti was found shot to death and Chicago police listed his death as suicide.
Nitti’s fatal misadventure into the motion-picture industry began in 1934 with two small-time Chicago hoodlums, Willie Bioff and George Browne, who later became the president of the entertainment industry union, International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). Bioff, listed as a public enemy by the Chicago police department in 1933, was a convicted panderer, an ex-Teamster dues collector-slugger, “taxi” dance hall proprietor (until the police closed it down) and insurance salesman (that is, he sold “protection” to Kosher chicken dealers in Chicago’s Fulton Street Market area against damage to their person or property).
Browne also sold “protection,” but as a sideline to Gentile chicken dealers in the Fulton Street Market area. His main job was as business agent of the Chicago Stagehands Local No. 2, of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE).
When they met, instead of fighting over territorial rights, they formed a partnership (B & B) and agreed to share their incomes equally.
The first big score was a $20,000 bribe from the Balaban & Katz theater operators, paid to B & B in lieu of a pay raise for members of Stagehands Local No. 2.
Bioff later testified that on the evening of their big score, he and Browne went out to celebrate their good fortune. Nick Dean (also known as Nick Circella), proprietor of the nightclub where B & B celebrated, assigned two of his “hostesses” to entertain them and incidentally learn the details of their sudden affluence. By the end of the evening Dean had all the dirt.
Meanwhile, with Al Capone serving an 11-year jail sentence for income-tax evasion, Nitti was said to have taken charge of the gang, now called the Chicago Crime Syndicate. Dean informed Nitti that B & B “owned” a captive labor union and B & B soon received an invitation to meet with Syndicate members, which they dared not refuse, even if they wanted to. According to Bioff’s testimony at the 1943 New York trial of Syndicate members, Nitti offered Bioff and Browne a partnership with the Syndicate, which B & B accepted. The Syndicate promised to support Browne in June, 1934, for president of the national union--a post which Browne had previously sought but had not won.
Bioff said Nitti gave Browne the names of gangsters in major cities who would make sure the IATSE delegates voted “properly.” Lucky Luciano in New York; Abner (Longey) Zwillman, New Jersey; Johnny Dougherty in St. Louis, and Al Palizzi in Cleveland. Lepke Buchalter of Murder Inc. fame attended the meeting and promised he would deliver the entire East Coast.
At election time, with gunmen orchestrating the proceedings--according to the account in “The Tax Dodgers,” a book by former U.S. Treasury enforcement branch chief Elmer L. Irey--Lepke delivered as promised. Browne received all the possible votes, running unopposed. Browne’s first official act was to appoint Bioff his personal representative, at $22,000 annually--big money for the Depression years.
Control of the IATSE gave the Syndicate leverage to extort several hundred thousand dollars from Chicago and New York theater owners. With this money as working capital the Syndicate next moved on Hollywood.
In later trial testimony, it was learned that in spring of 1935 Nitti called a Syndicate meeting to map out a master plan for future operations. West Coast Syndicate representative Johnny Roselli flew in from Hollywood to explain the film industry’s labor set-up. After hearing Roselli, Nitti laid out a plan to take over all film industry unions and extort 50% of film industry profits. Roselli returned to California accompanied by Bioff, who would henceforth work in Hollywood under Roselli’s surveillance.
In December, 1935, the Syndicate called a strike of Chicago theaters and threatened to spread the strike nationwide. With the possibility of all their theaters going dark, the studios feared complete loss of income.
According to reports in the Hollywood trade papers, the studios informed 12,000 of their 30,000 employees that they had until the end of the year to join one of four IATSE crafts locals. There were cries of “sellout” by some of the employees but they were given two choices: join or don’t work.
Following this coup, Bioff admitted during his testimony that he met with film company executives in New York where he demanded $2 million as the price of labor peace. The studios balked at the amount--Nicholas Schenck, head man at Loew’s Inc., parent company of MGM, reportedly nearly went into shock when he heard the Syndicate’s demand.
According to testimony, Paramount, MGM, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. eventually paid $50,000 each to the Syndicate every year from 1936 to 1940. The smaller studios paid a lesser amount. Hollywood names involved in these payments included Nicholas Schenck, Fox’s Joseph Schenck, Harry and Albert Warner, Paramount vice president Austin Keough and RKO’s Leo Spitz.
At the trial, Nicholas Schenck admitted he paid the money “to save my business.”
Opposition to the IATSE-Syndicate combine developed during the year. Following Nitti’s orders, Browne put Bioff in charge of the IATSE locals which he ran as his personal fiefdom. The IATSE executive board levied a 2% assessment on all IATSE members’ wages, with the money to be given to Browne to be spent as he deemed necessary for whatever purpose.
In 1937, a group of IATSE dissidents, objecting to Bioff’s autocratic methods and the 2% assessment, retained attorney Carey McWilliams to represent them. McWilliams took the complaints to California State Assembly Speaker William Mosley Jones.
Jones authorized the State Assembly’s Capital and Labor Committee to conduct hearings on the complaints, which opened in Los Angeles on Nov. 12, 1937. The hearings heated up quickly with allegations of racketeering, fraud and violence countered by charges of lies and Communist agitators. On the following day, just as Bioff was about to be grilled on his gangster connections, the hearings abruptly adjourned with no visible results from all the shouting. Rumors of a $5,000 payoff circulated but there was no hard evidence.
The following year, Sacramento County Dist. Atty. Otis D. Babcock, disenchanted with California political corruption, convened a Sacramento County Grand Jury to investigate alleged corruption in the California legislature. Private investigator Howard Philbrick of the Atherton Detective Agency had been compiling evidence for Babcock over the past year.
As reported in the California Senate Daily Journal of April 4, 1939, the Grand Jury hearings disclosed a $5,000 retainer to the law firm of Col. William H. Neblett (with whom Assembly Speaker Jones was associated) from the IATSE in 1937. The Journal also reported a $100,000 transaction between Bioff and Joseph Schenck, president of the Motion Picture Producers Assn., brother of Nicholas, and chairman of 20th Century Fox. All parties to these transactions denied any wrongdoing.
But in the aftermath of the disclosures, Neblett, law partner of Sen. William H. McAdoo, canceled his plans to run for governor of California.
Joseph Schenck denied the $100,000 paid to Bioff was a bribe, but he had trouble remembering whether it was a gift or a loan. He finally concluded it was a loan. Actually, testimony at Syndicate’s 1943 extortion trial disclosed that “the transaction” was a scheme for Bioff to build an estate in the San Fernando Valley.
When the $100,000 transaction was disclosed, Jeff Kibre, a member of the IATSE, acting on behalf of a group known as the Motion Picture Technicians, filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board, charging collusion between the MPPA and Bioff. Kibre also requested the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the labor situation.
The $100,000 transaction also got the attention of the Internal Revenue Service. Feeling too much heat, Nitti ordered Bioff to resign from the IATSE job he held with a full year’s salary and the promise he could come back to work anytime. Joseph Schenck testified at the 1943 Syndicate trial that he gave Bioff and his wife an all-expense-paid trip to Rio de Janeiro followed by a trip to Europe.
During the latter part of 1939 a Federal Grand Jury conducted hearings in Los Angeles on matters pertaining to income tax evasion, labor racketeering and restraint of trade. Numerous film executives and union officials testified but their testimony was not made public. Joseph Schenck testified, presumably about the $100,000 transaction. Actor Robert Montgomery, former Screen Actors Guild president, testified for SAG. At Montgomery’s insistence SAG had retained the Atherton Detective Agency to investigate Bioff and allegations of labor racketeering and job buying in the film extras ranks.
The Federal Grand Jury hearings led to the indictment of both Bioff and Joseph Schenck in 1940 for income tax evasion. During its investigation of the $100,000 transaction, the IRS discovered that Joseph Schenck had been a habitual tax cheater. Schenck, convicted in April, 1941, and facing three years in jail, agreed to testify against Bioff and Brown on an extortion charge in return for a sentence reduction.
Based on Joseph Schenck’s testimony, the U.S. indicated Bioff, Browne and Nick Dean for extortion. Dean, pleading guilty, received an eight-year sentence. Bioff and Browne, convicted, received 10- and 8-year sentences, respectively. Film industry payoffs to the Syndicate ended with their conviction.
While the three extortionists were serving their sentences, Dean’s mistress, Estelle Carey, was brutally murdered in February, 1943. The wives of Bioff and Browne received phone calls threatening them with the same if their husbands ratted on the Syndicate. The threats backfired, for both Bioff and Browne agreed to testify against the Syndicate.
In March, 1943, the U.S. government indicted eight members of the Syndicate: Nitti, Louis Compagna, Paul de Lucia, Phil D’Andrea, Francis Maritote, Ralph Pierce, Charles Gioe and Johnny Roselli. The Syndicate hierarchy, realizing they faced indictment, turned on Nitti. They felt he should take the fall for them since the extortion had been his idea. Nitti demurred. On the day of his indictment, Nitti was found shot to death. The police listed him a suicide. So ended the career of Al Capone’s “Enforcer.”
Six members of the Syndicate, convicted of extortion, received 10-year sentences. Charges against Pierce were dismissed for lack of evidence. With the convictions, the Syndicate’s direct control of Hollywood craft unions came to an end.
Five Syndicate members were paroled in August, 1947, after serving the minimum time allowed by law. Their paroles caused a national scandal.
Published testimony from Congressional hearings on the matter disclosed the Syndicate had retained St. Louis attorney Paul Dillon, campaign manager for Senate candidate Harry S. Truman, and Maury Hughes, longtime political associate of Tom Clark, the attorney general of the United States, to work for their release.
Charges of bribery and political influence were bandied about by Republicans in Congress but again there were no hard facts. The parolees returned to their former vocations and prospered until dying of natural causes, except for Gioe and Roselli. Gioe was shot to death in 1954 and Roselli became an associate producer at Arthur Rank’s Eagle Lion Studios, producing two minor movies in 1948, “Canyon City” and “He Walked by Night.”
Later, Roselli testified before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in 1975 that he had been involved in a CIA plot to kill Fidel Castro in the early ‘60s. His mutilated body was found floating in an oil drum in Miami Bay in 1976.
Bioff moved to Phoenix and lived under the name of Nelson. He was killed one morning in 1955 when he turned on the ignition of his truck and a bomb exploded.
Browne retired to his estate in Illinois to fulfill his often-stated ambition to drink 100 bottles of beer a day. He is said to have died, in the early ‘50s, of natural causes.