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2433 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL 60614, USA (
The Biograph Theater
The Biograph Theater sits in the northwestern section of the city of Chicago known as Lincoln Park (also known as Community Area 7). The theater spent nearly 90 years as a movie theater before being transformed into a venue for live performances of plays. The theater is also infamous as being the place where bank robber John Dillinger was slain by BOI (Bureau of Investigation - the precursor to the Federal Bureau of Investigation or FBI) agents who lay in wait for him outside after Dillinger saw a movie there. Some say that Dillinger's ghost haunts the place.
The Early Years of the Biograph Theater
The theater is part of a larger brick structure that also houses storefronts. The theater itself is the primary reason for the building's existence with the store spaces added as insurance that the owners would make money off of their investment. Movies were still a novelty at the time and there was concern that they might prove to be a passing fad. The building was designed by architect Samuel N. Crowen, a German immigrant and Chicago architect, who designed a number of buildings that stand within the city limits. The theater began construction in 1914 and was completed in 1915, upon which it opened for business.
While the theater was quickly outdistanced by newer, larger, more elaborate theaters that were built just a few years later, the Biograph continued to do business. The theater added electric speakers in order to update from silent films to showing "
." It also added air conditioning as a further draw for customers. However, it was an infamous incident that occurred on the evening of July 22, 1934 that likely provided the theater with a boost in interest that allowed it to continue on much longer than other small movie theaters of its era.
The bank robber John Dillinger (Born June 22, 1903) was the first criminal to be number one on the Bureau of Investigation's list of Public Enemies (in 1950s this would become the FBI's Most Wanted List). Dillinger, who had been paroled from the Indiana State Prison on May 22, 1933, began an immediate crimewave just weeks later - robbing stores and banks, breaking convicts out of prison and in turn being broken out of jail by his gang. Eyewitness accounts of his flamboyant confidence during robberies caught the imagination of the Depression Era citizens, some of whom saw the criminal as a sort of Robin Hood taking from the institutions that had taken so much from the public.
Unfortunately for Dillinger, this misperception by members of the public led BOI Director J. Edgar Hoover to take an extreme interest in the bank robber. The BOI was able to take down their first Public Enemy #1 thanks to one of Dillinger's weaknesses - prostitutes.
The Woman in Red
The BOI received the opportunity to end Dillinger's crimewave in the form of Ana Cumpănaş, a prostitute and brothel madame. Cumpănaş, a Hungarian immigrant who turned to prostitution after her husband abandoned her, was more commonly known under her alias Anna Sage. One of Sage's prostitutes was Polly Hamilton, who had recently become something of a regular girlfriend for John Dillinger. Anna Sage was facing deportation from the United States due to her own criminal activities and decided to use her knowledge of Dillinger to remain a US citizen.
Anna contacted the BOI and cut a deal with them, succeeding in negotiating a deal that would allow her to remain in the country for helping the authorities get John Dillinger. Her tips led to BOI agents being stationed discreetly outside both the Biograph Theater and the Marbro Theater miles away. She informed the agents that Dillinger would be attending a film with Polly Hamilton and herself. She would wear an orange dress to tip the BOI agents to their identities. The dress appeared red under the lights of the theater's marquee, leading Anna Sage to become known as the "
Woman in Red
" once the story went public.
On the uncomfortably hot night of July 22, 1934, BOI agents sweated with both heat and anticipation. Agent Melvin "
" Purvis oversaw the team of agents who lay in wait outside the Biograph, awaiting the arrival of John Dillinger and his dates. At a little after 8:00 P.M., Purvis witnessed Dillinger and the ladies purchasing tickets and entering the theater. Purvis called in to the BOI office to report Dillinger's location and to request backup. Agent Purvis then purchased a ticket and entered the theater himself, to see if it would be feasible to make the arrest inside. The theater proved to crowded and dark for him to accurately locate John Dillinger without risk of tipping the bankrobber off to the ambush and causing further risk to theater patrons. Purvis rejoined the agents outside the theater.
Out of concern that their quarry might leave the movie early, Purvis kept approaching the ticket booth and leaving. His activity alarmed the lady working the booth, causing her to alert her manager, who in turn called the Chicago Police Department to report the suspicious behavior. The police officers arrived to discover the ambush that BOI had apparently failed to inform them of. According to some accounts, the officers were asked to leave and complied. Other stories have some officers still on scene when the ambush was finally triggered.
When John Dillinger finally did leave the Biograph with Polly Hamilton and Anna Sage, Agent Purvis lit a cigar to discreetly signal his men that it was time to move in on the target. As the agents surrounded Dillinger and called for his surrender, the bankrobber made a run for a nearby alleyway to the southeast of the theater, allegedly reaching into a pants pocket as he fled. Agents opened fire, striking him a number of times. One bullet entered through the back of his neck and exited near his eye, killing him almost instantly. Public Enemy Number One, John Dillinger, lay dead a short way into the alley. Two female passerby were mildly wounded in the flurry of shots.
A crowd gathered and it apparently did not take long for them to figure out who it was that was laying dead in the alley. Accounts of the incident state that some passerby stooped to dab in puddles of Dillinger's blood with the handkerchiefs in order to have a keepsake of the occasion. Dillinger's remains were taken to Cook County Morgue and placed on temporary display to the public. He was then finally buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Aftermath and Controversy
The shooting of John Dillinger had an impact on the film he had seen at the Biograph that fateful evening.
had been produced by Cosmopolitan Productions, a film production company owned by multi-millionaire William Randolph Hearst. Hearst, fearing scandalous press, had the film edited to remove the credits stating that the movie was a "
." Despite his concerns, the incident drove ticket sales for the film up, as people flocked to theaters to see the last movie John Dillinger had seen in life. If Dillinger and his dates had gone to the Marbro Theater instead of the Biograph, Dillinger's last film would have been Shirley Temple's
Little Miss Marker
There was variance in the stories told by those who were present (or claimed to be present) at the Biograph that night. One of the aspects that is disputed between the tales was the involvement and presence of Chicago police officers in the incident. In at least one account, a plainclothes was nearly shot by a BOI agent who mistook him for Dillinger. According to BOI agent Melvin Purvis, no police officers were at the scene during the actual ambush. There was also some controversy over whether there was any actual intention to arrest John Dillinger and that it was preplanned that the bankrobber would be killed by agents that night.
The incident brought public fame for Melvin Purvis, who was also present and in charge months later when Charles "
" Floyd was shot dead by agents (an incident in which there were similar accusations that Purvis actually executed the criminal rather than bringing him to justice). Reportedly Purvis fell into disfavor with his boss, J. Edgar Hoover, possibly stemming from jealousy on the part of Hoover. The following July, just twelve days shy of the one year anniversary of Dillinger's death, Melvin Purvis resigned.
Decades later, on February 9, 1960, Purvis's life ended with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head. While an investigation ruled the death a suicide, it has also been considered a possible accident while attempting to clear a round from the .45 caliber automatic. The gun had been a departing gift to Purvis when he had resigned from the Bureau. While there were claims that the gun in question had been the one that fired the fatal shot into John Dillinger, it wasn't. The automatic had been from another case involving a contract killer in Chicago.
Another controversy was over beliefs that the BOI had shot the wrong man at the Biograph and that Dillinger had gotten away.
There are some claims that it was not John Dillinger who died in the alleyway near the Biograph that night. In these stories a man named Jimmy Lawrence was unwittingly tricked into standing in for Dillinger by Polly Hamilton and Anna Sage: allowing John Dillinger to assume a new identity and live out the rest of his life quietly. The stories point to the fact that Jimmy Lawrence disappeared the night of the Biograph shooting.
The truth is that both John Dillinger and Jimmy Lawrence died in the alleyway off of North Lincoln Avenue on that sweltering July night - the men were one and the same. Jimmy Lawrence was an alias used by John Dillinger to hide his real identity. Morgue photos clearly show a cadaver with John Dillinger's facial features, despite reports that the bankrobber had altered his appearance through plastic surgery. The body's fingerprints were also taken and matched to Dillinger, despite his apparent attempt to alter the prints through the application of acid to his fingertips.
Haunting of the Biograph Theater
There are reports of unexplained phenomena at and/or near the Biograph Theater that are believed by some to be signs that the area is haunted one or more spirits, including that of John Dillinger himself. Some patrons and employees have complained of cold spots and feelings of unease inside the theater and in the nearby alley. There are claims of apparitions seen inside the theater as well as possible sightings of a figure with a blue tint running through the alley where Dillinger's life came to an end. The blue spectre is said to stumble and then vanish.
Later Years of the Biograph
The Biograph Theater became a popular Chicago tourist attraction after the death of John Dillinger. Over the decades following the shooting of Dillinger, the theater changed ownership and was altered in appearance and function over time. At one point during the 1970s, the balcony was converted to become two smaller theaters in order to increase the number of films that could be shown at the Biograph. The theater played on tourist interest by creating a John Dillinger display publicly visible in the windows of the old ticket booth. The theater also had a tradition of showing
on July 22 of every year. Apparently, during these special showings the theater would allow women dressed in red in to see the movie for free.
The theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places on May 17, 1984 and became an official Chicago landmark on March 28, 2001.
Victory Gardens Theater
In July of 2004, the Biograph was purchased by The Victory Gardens Theater, a center for live performances founded in 1974. The Victory Gardens Theater modified the Biograph for live performances and made the location its new home. It has been known since as Victory Gardens Biograph.
During renovations, a replica of the Biograph's original marquee was created as the original had been buried under two newer marquees over the years and had rusted badly in that time. The building's facade was restored to its original appearance as well. While the inside of the building has changed since John Dillinger's day, features such as the grand staircase were preserved and restored during the nearly two years that the Biograph was under reconstruction. A main theater was designed with 299 seats and a second studio theater was created with 130 seats.
The Biograph re-opened on September 28, 2006 with a performance of the dramatic play
by Charles Smith.
The Biograph's grand re-opening party was hosted by actor William Petersen (
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
To Live and Die in LA
), who had also helped fund part of the Biograph's refurbishment. Fittingly, Petersen had performed at the original Victory Gardens Theater location in its production of the play
; Petersen had played the lead role of the infamous bank robber himself. In a further bit of irony, Petersen appeared in the Michael Mann films
(1986). Michael Mann went on to direct the film
(2009) starring Johnny Depp in the role of John Dillinger.
Public Enemies (2009)
The Biograph Theater and the area surrounding it was used in the production of the 2009 crime drama
. The film was a fictionalized tale involving 1930s criminals such as John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd. The film crew created facades over existing buildings and temporarily altered the Biograph itself to make the section of street appear as thought it were once again July of 1934. There, the cast and crew restaged the ambush of John Dillinger by BOI agents outside the theater.
Visiting the Biograph Theater
As mentioned earlier in this article, the Biograph Theater no longer displays films but is still open to the public as a playhouse. Anyone wishing to attend a show at the Biograph should visit the Victory Gardens Theater Web Site (see Related Sites below). The alleyway where Dillinger died is apparently not quite the same as it was at the time of Dillinger's shooting. Demolition of old buildings and construction of new ones altered the landscape. While there is still an alleyway a short distance from the Biograph Theater, the spot where John Dillinger fell as he died is actually underneath what is a Mexican restaurant at the time of this article.
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Victory Gardens Biograph Theater
Official Web site for the reportedly haunted Victory Gardens Biograph Theater - the site where John Dillinger was gunned down.
Wikipedia: John Dillinger
Wikipedia entry for criminal John Dillinger.
Historical G-Men: Dillinger's Fingerprints
Document dealing with fingerprinting of John Dillinger's corpse following the shooting in 1934.
The Sixth Floor Museum
Ford's Theatre National Historical Site
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The above content is for informational purposes only. Before making any travel arrangements, it is highly recommended that you contact those in charge of the property to check for updated availability and hours of operation. While we do our best to keep this information updated, we cannot guarantee that it is completely valid and up to date. Any destination marked "
Closed to the Public
" is marked that for a reason and we discourage any visits or attempts to gain access to that facility. Similarly, take note of any "
" that may be associated with a destination. Finally, treat any location and its local residents with respect. Any vandalism and/or unruly behavior is completely despicable and only ruins the experience for future visitors.
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