The 1975 killing of Mob kingpin Sam Giancana is one of Oak Park's most notorious unsolved murders. It is also the pivotal event in No Witness, a new play with music, premiering this week at Open Door Repertory Company.
"When you live in this community," explained playwright Ted May, "you run into a lot people who have Sam Giancana stories. His legendary presence is strong around here, so I found plenty of material. I've been researching Giancana for about five years. Everything in the play is well-documented: I have multiple sources for everything. Tomorrow night my new play opens. It's pretty exciting."
May brings lots of writing and theatrical experience to this, his latest project (including freelance work for Wednesday Journal). He's received awards for poetry, stage plays, screenplays, and libretto. A co-founder of Red Orchard Theater in Chicago, May has even won an award for a music video (and played ukulele with the Harrison Street Ukulele Players). The New York Times published an article on him when he was writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House where he wrote his play Blue Movie.
"My first encounter with the [Giancana] story," he recalled, "was when I was introduced to the mobster's eldest daughter, Antoinette. At the time, she also met Larry Nestor, this show's composer, at an outdoor music event in Melrose Park. My play opens in 1935, the year Antoinette Giancana was born."
Antoinette's 1984 memoir, Mafia Princess, documented the ups and downs of growing up in a mobster family. In the made-for-TV movie, Tony Curtis portrayed Sam Giancana and Susan Lucci played the title role.
Notorious Oak Parker
From the time Sam Giancana was 37 in 1945 until his assassination at 67 three decades later, the syndicate godfather lived at 1147 S. Wenonah Avenue in south Oak Park.
His behavior, it was said, had become too high-profile and was attracting too much scrutiny. Giancana was shot seven times with a .22-caliber pistol by an unknown gunman, whom many speculate was known to the mobster. He was shot in the back of the head as he was frying Italian sausage and peppers in his basement kitchen. After he fell to the ground, the gunman rolled him over and shot him 6 more times in the face and neck.
Due to Giancana's heart problems he could no longer eat spicy foods, so investigators conjectured the murderer was a friend or associate whom he let into his home. In other words, Giancana was likely cooking for this guest who killed him. No one has ever been charged with the crime. He was murdered five days before he was scheduled to appear before an investigative senate panel.
Giancana was interred in the family mausoleum at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside next to his wife, Angelina De Tolve, who had died 21 years earlier (1954).
Sam Giancana was a colorful figure, though he was a short, balding man with a sixth-grade education. He drove a pink Cadillac, wore dapper sharkskin suits, alligator shoes, and a sapphire pinky ring — a gift from Frank Sinatra. He smoked Cuban cigars and talked out of the side of his mouth. He was reputed to be a vicious godfather who ordered at least 100 gangland executions. But his south Oak Park neighbors always insisted he was a "model citizen," a quiet man who kept to himself.
Sam, or Salvatore, Giancana was born to Sicilian immigrant parents in the old Little Italy neighborhood on the Near West Side in 1908. His mother died when he was only two. His father, a brutal, angry pushcart produce peddler, was never happy with life in America. He blamed his son for anything that went wrong. Frequently kicked out of the house, Sam slept in "gangways" between buildings, on roofs, and in abandoned cellars.
By the time he was in his teens, Prohibition was in full swing. The young man was quickly drawn into the criminal world. Giancana first learned how to steal and fight, then became a "wheelman" (getaway driver) for Al Capone. He graduated to "triggerman" by age 20 during that period of bloody mob wars. He was said to be a vicious killer, and it is now believed he was one of the assassins who killed the seven Northsiders in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929. He was a key suspect in at least three other murder investigations while he climbed the ranks of the Chicago Outfit.
During World War II, Giancana was classified 4-F (unfit for military service) for his "strong anti-social tendencies." He spent the war manufacturing counterfeit gas ration stamps.
In the 1940s, while he was serving a sentence in prison, Giancana's three daughters were told he was "away at college." When he got out, he helped orchestrate the Mob takeover of Chicago's lucrative African-American illegal lottery (called "policy"). Controlling the black numbers racket, which boosted the Mob's annual income by millions, was achieved through beatings, kidnappings, and murders. One of the South Side "Policy Kings," Teddy Roe, killed by Giancana's crew in 1952, is portrayed in No Witness.
Sam Giancana was reputed to have had frequent infidelities — with Phyllis McGuire (1928-2012) of the musical trio the McGuire Sisters, for instance, as well as with "party girl" Judith Campbell Exner (1934-1999), who was also reportedly involved with President John F. Kennedy — at the same time she was "seeing" Sam. But Giancana was often also described as a "good family man." According to Ted May, "The face you show the world is not always what you are at home."
The songs, May says, function in the way the therapy sessions worked on The Sopranos, clarifying the softer, interior life of the characters.
The Mob kingpin set up his headquarters in a booth at the Armory Lounge, 7427 W. Roosevelt Rd., in Forest Park (now called Andrea's Restaurant). The FBI planted a "bug" there in 1959 and for five years eavesdropped as Giancana conducted Mafia business. These secretly-recorded meetings yielded masses of information. Yet under his leadership in this period, the Chicago Outfit grew into a massive and powerful organization.
Also in 1959, when Sam's eldest daughter Antoinette married a bartender, Carmen Manno, Giancana threw an extravagant wedding at the LaSalle Hotel in the Loop with over 700 invitees.
May explained that his play "explores one man's journey as he negotiates the power struggles and betrayals within the Mob, the adoration and neglect of his family, and the unquenchable thirst for power that led to lucrative deals with the most powerful people of his time — and to his assassination in his Oak Park home."
Playwright May and composer Nestor have also collaborated on another musical called Dead in This Town about a writing team who fake their deaths in order to "make it."
"Writing No Witness has been, for me, a powerful journey of both discovery and connection with that fabulous swing era in Chicago's history," said May, "as well as with the culture and fascinating people from all walks of life."
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