IATSE Projectionists Local 110 in Chicago was once widely believed to be one of the most mobbed up unions in America — a crooked outfit packed with members of the Chicago mob and their relatives, some of whom who are now drawing generous pensions from the local’s endangered pension plan.
Today, the local still counts relatives of long-dead gangsters among its members including the nephews of Sam Giancana, who ran Chicago’s organized crime syndicate in the late-1950s and ’60s and who was murdered gangland-style in 1975, and Joey “Doves” Aiuppa, the gangster who later succeeded Giancana and who many believe was behind his killing. According to financial statements filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, Giancana’s nephew Andrew sits on the local’s executive board, a post he’s held since 2004, while seven of the local’s members and prospective members — including the local’s secretary-treasurer — were convicted on charges stemming from arson attacks on 20 theaters in the late 1990s.
Contacted by Deadline, Andrew Giancana said he is a retired projectionist, but declined to discuss his family background. Sam Aiuppa acknowledged he is the nephew of Joey Aiuppa, but declined to say how he got into the union. Neither man has ever been charged with any wrongdoing, and both are respected members of their communities. Like many other relatives of Mafioso who, over the years, were given patronage jobs as Chicago projectionists, they chose live as honest citizens.
But their presence in a union famous for handing out no-show jobs to mobsters, and as a haven for their relatives seeking legitimate employment, suggests that while digital theaters have decimated the ranks of union projectionists, the Chicago local still clings to its dark past as a union once dominated by the Chicago Outfit.
Kent Dickinson knows that history all too well. A member of the local since 1972, he was a member of the local’s negotiating committee in 1998 and spent three years in prison for his role in a wave of arson attacks on 20 movie theaters across 10 states back in 1998 and 1999, the last time the local is known to have resorted to violence to force recalcitrant employers to sign its contract. No one was killed or seriously injured in any of the attacks — the incendiary devices produced low flames and a lot of smoke — but thousands of moviegoers’ lives were put at risk including the lives of many children when they stampeded for the exits.
“I could have been the worst mass murderer in the history of this country,” Dickinson told Deadline. “I literally thank God every day that I never hurt anybody. It may sound strange, but I believe that God was looking out for me.”
The union, which controls a $20 million pension plan that is 50% underfunded — its actuary has told the U.S. Deptartment of Labor that it’s “endangered because it has funding or liquidity problems” — has long been known as a “sandbox” for the mob and their kin. The plan is in trouble because the all-digital theaters in Chicago no longer employ any of the local’s members, and the only pension contributions flowing into it are made on behalf of members who work at trade shows and conventions.
But in its heyday, the local’s members were the highest-paid projectionists in the country, and many of those members were gangsters and their relatives. In 1978, federal investigators found that the brother and two sons of Tony “Big Tuna” Accardo, the undisputed boss of the Chicago crime syndicate, were members of the local, and that one of his sons was even an official. Federal investigators also found that eight other relatives of Accardo henchmen John Cerone, Aiuppa and Sam Battaglia were members of the union, as well.
Former U.S. Attorney Peter Vaira, who headed up that investigation, told Deadline that mobsters took no-show projectionist jobs “to show some kind of ‘legitimate’ income. A great many mobsters had jobs as motion picture operators. That’s what the union was famous for.”
In his 1978 report to President Jimmy Carter, titled “Organized Crime and the Labor Unions,” Vaira wrote: “This local has been completely hoodlum dominated since the 1930s. The history of the union is riddled with violence and murder. Until recently the president was Clarence Jalas, frontman for the late-underboss Paul ‘The Waiter’ Ricca. The union’s current roster includes names and relatives of hoodlums that reads like the syndicate version of Who’s Who. Hoodlums who would have a difficult time loading an instamatic camera are $15,000-a-year projectionists. Anthony Accardo’s son is a motion picture projector operator and union official.”
This was made possible because up until 1975, the local had a provision in its contract that required theaters to employ two operators in each projection booth. That ended 40 years ago when the local reluctantly gave up the two-man booth. “A three-screen theater would have six guys,” Dickinson laughed. “We never had six guys; we had only three. The other three guys would be no-show mob guys – real soldiers in the mob. They would come in every Friday and pick up their checks. It was done to give phony baloney jobs to people we wanted to take care of. The Chicago mob took care of Local 110, so we took care of them.” Many of those crooks are now drawing pensions from the local’s endangered pension plan.
The local’s current president Ken Rapier, and its business manager, Steve Altman, both refused to talk to Deadline for this story. Dickinson said that they are both “straight guys” and not affiliated with the mob. The local has no working website and Deadline could find no public record of when the union held its last election of officers. The local’s parent union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which has not placed the local into trusteeship since 1935 — when it was controlled by Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti – also declined comment.
Muscle Behind The Projector
Up until the mid-1980s, the mob provided muscle for the local to convince recalcitrant theater owners to sign its contract. “When I became an operator in 1970,” Dickinson said, “I was told that at least one theater owner who wouldn’t sign with us ended up dead in a plastic bag in the trunk of a car. That’s what I heard. That’s what the mob did for us.”
And in return, the local gave no-show jobs to gangsters, and real jobs to their kin. “Local 110 became the outlet — the default job — for ‘family’ members who did not want to go into the family business,” Dickinson said. “It became the legitimate job for them. They became Local 110 members. They were real employees. I worked with them. I worked with John Accardo, the son of Tony Accardo. John was a real projectionist, and a good one, too. He worked at the Water Tower Place Theater.”
The local did similar favors for judges and politicians. “Sometimes when a judge would do a favor for 110, his nephew or whoever would end up a member. We put two of Mayor Jane Byrne’s bodyguards in 110, and because of that favor, we were able to put our own man on the Chicago safety commission, which wrote the rules on how boothmen could conduct business safely. That guaranteed that there could be no automation in Chicago. We wrote that rule and we kept automation out for 20 years.”
The mob’s help was more direct. In the 1970s, when porn theaters in the city refused to hire union projectionists, a few well-placed bombs got them to see the error of their ways. “The mob did that,” Dickinson said. “Several porno houses were owned by friends of the mob, and they thought they didn’t have to pay us. They were mistaken.”
Ironically, when Dickinson was a little boy, his father had owned a theater in suburban Chicago that had been bombed by the mob. “He refused to sign a union contract, and they bombed the back of the theater,” he said. “It blew the back wall out. And I grew up to be one of them.”
The local lost the backing of the Mafia in the mid-’80s after the FBI busted up the Chicago Outfit’s skimming operations at Las Vegas casinos, as immortalized in the movie Casino. After several high-profile arrests, the mob decided to lay low. “The Chicago mob was the top operators of that scam,” Dickinson said. “When the FBI cracked that case, the mob was taken down, and they cut back doing what they used to do. One thing they stopped doing was helping us. It was a bad time to be in the mob, and we lost a lot of jobs. We went from being highly overpaid to being barely overpaid. We were on our own, and that’s when I became a participant in what I did.”
Some mobsters, however, just couldn’t give up their old ways. In 1988, when the owner of the Lake Theater in Chicago refused to bargain with the local, Samuel “Wings” Carlisi, who at the time was the Chicago Outfit’s boss of all bosses, took it personally. Court records show that his son was a card-carrying member of the local, and so were the sons of two of his top lieutenants, James Marcello and Anthony Zizzo.
Carlisi dispatched his crew to bomb the theater to make the owner sign with the union. First, they tried to set the roof ablaze with an incendiary grenade, but when that didn’t work, tried a Molotov cocktail. When that failed, they threw a fragmentation grenade on the roof but it failed to detonate, and before they could come back with another bomb, a janitor found the dud and turned it over to the police. Several of the mobsters were arrested, convicted and sent to prison.
After that, the local would have to provide its own muscle, and in 1998, when contract talks with Loews theaters reached an impasse, that’s what just they did. In his tell-all book Crimes Of A Christian, Dickinson recalled how then-Local 110 boss Albin Brenkus showed him how to make a chemical bomb – one that would create the maximum amount of smoke with the minimum amount of flame. It wasn’t intended to burn down the theater or kill the customers, but to send them running for the exits, and to send the owners a message that they were messing with the wrong guys.
Sony, which owed numerous Loews theaters in the city, had just given the union its last, best and final offer for a new contract, which would have slashed the number of projectionists it needed for its automated booths by 90% and reduced the wages of its remaining workers by 50%. Leaving the Hilton hotel where the bargaining was taking place, Dickinson and Brenkus stepped into Brenkus’ car. Reaching under the seat, Brenkus pulled out a cardboard tube and shook out a white tablet. It was chlorine. “One of these mixed with brake fluid,” he said, holding it in the palm of his hand, “causes a chemical reaction that creates a cloud of smoke after about 20 minutes. Test it out. See if it works. If it does, use ’em against AMC if you want.”
AMC had just opened a 30-plex cinema in the city that didn’t employ any of the local’s members. Bombing one of Loews’ theaters in the middle of negotiations might lead the cops back to the union, but hitting AMC would give them cover. And Sony would get the message all the same.
A History Of Violence
Founded in 1915, the local was taken over five years later by labor racketeer Thomas “Tommy” Maloy, who ruled it for the next 15 years with an iron fist and lead bullets. When dissidents tried to take over a union meeting in 1924, Maloy’s men fired machine guns into the ceiling of the union hall, sending the rebels, covered in plaster dust, quietly back to their seats. In the years to come, many of those who dared stand up to him would find themselves covered in blood, gunned down on the streets of Chicago – or in his own private office.
In 1931, a Cook County grand jury opened an investigation into the local’s operations. Among those subpoenaed to testify was Jacob Kaufman, a member of the local and a longtime Maloy opponent who in June of that year announced he would challenge Maloy for the leadership. Two days before he was scheduled to testify, Kaufman heard a noise outside his house. When he went outside to investigate, a gunman fired six shots into his head, killing him instantly. No one was ever arrested.
Two years later, when Fred Oser and six other members of the local rebelled against Maloy’s rule, they were kicked out of the union. When Oser went to the local’s office seeking reinstatement, he was shot to death in Maloy’s private office by Ralph O’Hara, a known hoodlum and union organizer. A jury later acquitted him on the grounds he’d acted in self-defense.
In 1935, Maloy, who’d been shaking down theater owners for years by promising them labor peace in return for paper bags stuffed with money, was indicted for having failed to report $350,000 in income over a three-year period. That was a lot of money in those days – about $6 million today. A week later, as he was driving on a busy highway headed downtown, a car pulled up beside him and opened fire, killing him with two blasts from a shotgun and a volley of pistol shots. His killers were never apprehended.
His death coincided with the take-over of the IATSE by the infamous George Browne and Willie Bioff, who put the local into trusteeship and continued Maloy’s shakedown racket themselves. It’s the only time that the local has ever put into trusteeship, replacing one crook with two others. But Browne, the weak president of the giant union, and Bioff, his mobbed-up West Coast representative, had bigger pockets to pick, and soon began extorting millions of dollars from the Hollywood studios in return for labor peace, and kicking back 50% of their take to Frank Nitti, who was then running the Chicago syndicate.
And still the murders continued. That same year, just four months after Maloy’s death, Clyde Osterberg, who was attempting to organize a rival projectionists union, was killed in a drive-by shooting as he took a walk with his wife and bodyguard. He’d narrowly escaped a similar attack only a few weeks earlier. His killers were never caught. Three years later, on May 16, 1938, Local 110 projectionist Harry Schneider was found shot to death. His killers were never caught either.
A massive state and federal investigation would eventually lead to indictments against Browne, Bioff, Nitti and a number of other top Chicago mobsters in what came to be known simply as “the movie scandal” – the biggest scandal ever to hit Hollywood.
Others arrested in the studio shakedown scheme included Johnny Roselli, who many years later would oversee the mob’s skimming operations of Las Vegas casinos, and who’s dismembered body would later be found floating in a barrel off the coast of Miami; Paul “The Waiter” Ricca, who served as a high-ranking capo in the Chicago outfit for 40 years; Nick Circella, aka Nick Dean, a local nightclub owner and Al Capone associate who was the mob’s liaison between Browne and Bioff; Louis Campagna, a high-ranking member of the Chicago mob for over 30 years who got his start as Capone’s bodyguard; Phil D’Andrea, a Capone thug and nephew of Anthony D’Andrea, the boss of the Chicago mob in the late 1910s and early 1920s; and Charles “Cherry Nose” Gioe, one of Nitti’s top lieutenants who would been gunned down by rival mobsters in 1954.
All but one were convicted in 1943 on racketeering charges and sent to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. The only one to escape a prison term was Nitti, who committed suicide the day after he was indicted in the case. Bioff, who had turned state’s witness and testified against the mob during the trials – and who was the first to identify power-broking attorney Sidney Korshak as the mob’s man in Hollywood – was killed by a car bomb in 1955.
Three years after Bioff was blown to pieces, Herman Posner, a longtime Local 110 dissident, told the Chicago Tribune that Schneider, the Local 110 dissident who had been stabbed to death 30 years earlier, had been “kidnapped and killed because he wanted a Northside theater projectionist job which was held by a relative of Nick Dean” – aka Circella, Nitti’s bagman in the movie shakedown scheme.
Two years later, in 1960, and just one day before he was scheduled to deliver evidence about Local 110’s corruption to the U.S. Department of Labor, Posner was found stabbed to death. His killer was never apprehended either. And still the violence continued.
After Sony gave the local its final contract offer in March 1998, Steve Spano, the local’s business manager, called for a membership meeting to put the offer to a vote. Spano, the local’s highest ranking officer, was connected; one of his relatives, Michael Spano, was the head of the syndicate’s operations in the nearby suburb of Cicero, IL.
About 250 men showed up for the meeting at the Plumbers Hall, Dickinson recalled in his book, and after Spano read them the details of the offer, and after the loud chorus of booing subsided, “Steve pointed at someone in the crowed. ‘The chair recognizes Brother Giancana.’”
“I move that we take a vote on this insulting offer,” Brother Giancana called out.
“The chair recognizes Brother Accardo,” Spano said.
“I second that motion,” Brother Accardo said.
Ballots were then passed out, and when counted, all but one had rejected the offer. When Spano told the men that he wished he could tell the owners that it had been unanimous, a hand shot up from the crowd. “The chair recognizes Brother Aiuppa.”
“I move that we make the rejection of Sony’s offer unanimous by voice vote,” Aiuppa called out.
“Brother Aiuppa has moved that we take a voice vote on the Sony offer. Is there a second?” Spano asked. “The chair recognizes Brother Giancana.”
“I second the motion,” Giancana called out.
The motion, which over the course of a few minutes had been moved and seconded by the relatives of three of Chicago’s most infamous mob families – Giancana, Accardo and Aiuppa – was approved this time without a dissenting vote.
A few days later, on March 28, 1998, Dickinson snuck out of his job at the Lincoln Mall Theater and headed across town to the new 30-screen AMC. Once there, he bought a ticket to U.S Marshals, starring Tommy Lee Jones, and was relieved to see that there were only a few people there. Taking a seat in the back of the darkened theater, he waited until exactly 9 PM, and then dropped a chlorine tablet into an empty cup and sat it on the concrete floor. He then poured the brake fluid in from a sealed plastic baggie, and left the theater. It would take 25 minutes for the mixture to catch fire and fill the theater full of white smoke, giving him plenty of time to make his getaway. At the same time, two other members of the local were doing the same thing in one of the 30-plex’s other theaters.
The next day, all hell broke loose. “Arson Hits Two AMC Theaters,” read the headline of the Chicago Sun-Times. Every news outlet in the city reported on the crime, and Spano was besieged by calls from reporters, who asked if the attack had anything to do with the local’s talks with AMC, which were also stalled.
On arriving at the local’s offices, Brenkus greeted Dickinson with a smile and a warm handshake, and then took him in to see Spano. Because of the local’s long ties to the mob, they all assumed that their offices had been bugged by the FBI, so they played it coy, telling each other how shocked they were that someone would do this. According to Dickinson’s book, Spano then told his secretary that the three men were going to lunch. They went out into the hall, and walking to the elevator – and then past the elevator – and ducked into a janitor’s closet, where they figured they could talk privately. “Wow! It really worked,” Brenkus said.
Spano, however, was not pleased. “The heat was just too much,” Dickinson quoted him in his book. “If there was any more headliner days like yesterday,” Spano explained, “the public would want our neck.” According to the book, “The order was issued: no more smoke bombs in the Chicago area. Spano made it clear: from now on we ‘take it out of town.’ Those words were the fuse which started not only a series of smoke-bombings from New York to Texas, but the FBI task force commissioned to end them.”
Nineteen more theaters would be bombed before the FBI arrested Brenkus, Dickinson and five other Local 110 members and two prospective members. A jury acquitted Brenkus of the arson-related charges but convicted him of obstruction of justice, and he was sentenced to a term of 78 months. Dickinson spent three years in jail, and prior to trial, Local 110 member Peter Macari pled guilty to aiding and abetting arson and was sentenced to a term of 46 months. He was also convicted in state court of attempted murder for nearly beating a theater manager to death with a baseball bat.
Spano, who died in 2013, was never charged, although not for Dickinson’s lack of trying. “The FBI wanted Spano so bad,” he told Deadline, “and if I could have given Spano to them on a silver platter, I would have. He knew what was going on, but the FBI couldn’t prove it.” Spano’s son Anthony is currently the business rep of IATSE Local B-46, a theater employees special department with 23 members that shares offices with Local 110.
Dickinson said that he and Brenkus, an ex-Marine, orchestrated the theater attacks to save the union and the jobs of 400 union projectionists. “We were facing extinction,” he told Deadline. “We wanted to help the union. The owners got together and they wanted to kick us out, so we fought back. And for a few years, we won. Al wanted to give the local muscle. He did not want the local to die. I got paid zero for what I did. Al got zero extra for what he did. We both took a big risk, and we paid for it. At the time, we thought we were doing a noble thing. If I didn’t believe in God, I’d say I was glad about what I did. Now I know I hurt Him for the sin that I did. I. But if I were a secular humanist, I’d have no regrets, but I would have had regrets if someone had been hurt.”