Beer (& More) In Food

Beer: The Condiment With An Attitude!

When King Richard and His Media Flunkies Helped Bury Old Style in Chicago

Posted by Bob Skilnik on March 26, 2009

Old Style Label Rip Off From Local Garden City Brewery

Old Style Label Rip Off From Local Garden City Brewery

Chicagoans traveling the world often experience a distinctive phenomenon when asked where they’re from. When they answer “Chicago,” the local drops into a crouch and yells something like “Al Capone, rat-a-tat-a-tat!”

It can’t be helped; Capone, after all, and his legacy of murder and bootlegging in the Windy City, were an undeniable piece of our local history.

For some history revisionists, however, the memory of Capone and his legacy in Chicago should be forever buried, the Daley administration often leading the charge. This might happen again with the possibility of Chicago hosting the 2016 Olympics.

You might recall “Capone’s Chicago,” a silly little entertainment center that once stood near Rock-and-Roll McDonald’s. Opened in 1993, pressures from city and tourism officials forced its closing a mere two years later. Most of you probably don’t recall a privately-owned tourist center in the Old Water Tower on North Michigan Avenue called “Here’s Chicago!” After opening an exhibit titled “See Chicago’s Historical Gangster Era,” where tourists lined up in droves to purchase items such as Capone coffee mugs and t-shirts, they too felt the political pressures of highlighting this dark period in Chicago’s history and were forced to close the exhibit. Despite repeated attempts to sweep the legacy of Capone under the rug of local history, it’s still a fact of life in Chicago that people’s interests in “Big Al” won’t go away, especially for the millions of tourist that make their way to our city every year.

In the summer of 1994, while Chicago prepared for the World Cup Soccer games, the folks at G. Heileman decided to take advantage of the influx of thousands of tourists who were streaming into the city for the soccer championship games. They began a tongue-in-cheek advertising campaign that included scores of outdoor billboards of Big Al and the words “1929—Al persuaded all his friends to try Old Style” as the tag-line.

Former Sun-Times columnist, Ray Coffey, was the first to take note of the billboards going up. The reporter, who in my opinion, always did a good job of regularly spouting the City Hall party line, noted that he had received “…some calls and letters about what’s going on…”

True to form, Coffey’s next move was to call Leslie Fox, director of the mayor’s Host Committee for the World Cup, at City Hall and then stir the pot a little bit more by also contacting Fred Randazzo, executive director of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian-Americans, for their opinions on the ad campaign.

The billboards, opined Fox, were “…the very image that we’ re fighting against.” Randazzo trumpeted Fox by noting that he objected to the Capone “revival” not only as an Italian-American but also “…as a Chicagoan proud of our city.”

The day after Coffey’s article, the Sun-Times editorial page joined in the fray, scolding G. Heileman for their new advertising campaign and claimed that the use of Capone’s image demonstrated “…how far—and how irresponsibly—a beer company will go to push its product, even to trashing a city’s image.”

The next morning, another Sun-Times columnist, this time “Hollywood” Richard Roeper, whined on about the billboards during his segment on Bob Sirott’s old “Fox Thing in the Morning.” As I recall, Roeper once found a local art exhibit that included Jesus Christ as the Pillsbury Dough Boy as an amusing piece of artistic expressionism, but here he was, solemnly looking into the WFLD-Channel 32 cameras to voice his disgust with the ad campaign.

Although local televisions also picked up on the “controversy,” the absence of any mention of the billboards whatsoever from the Chicago Tribune made me wonder whether or not this was a typical “high-horse” campaign by the Sun-Times to boost circulation figures. I think it was, but G. Heileman officials were forced to take the whole thing seriously, having just recently dusted themselves off from the PowerMaster malt liquor controversy, another contrivance from social do-gooders Like St. Clemsnt’s Father Pfleger that forced the La Crosse, WI brewery to stop production of its latest malt liquor product.

From the Fifth Floor of City Hall, Mayor Daley proclaimed that “They should take it down [the billboards]. Companies have a right, but I think there will be a lot of pressure by citizens groups and community groups.” Sure, Mr. Mayor. They have a right, but TAKE IT DOWN!

Though a brewery spokesman commented that “…from the company’s point of view, [the protest] was much ado about nothing,” the Capone billboards starting coming down, “…out of respect for the mayor and others.”  Replacing Al’s face were a series of images of Enrico Fermi, another famous Italian-American who helped split the atom and developed the deadly atomic bomb, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, a White Sox player who was accused of throwing the 1919 World Series and Tommy Bartlett of Wisconsin Dells fame.

This all took place, of course, during the height of political correctness. Now I’m not sure what a defamed and disgraced baseball player, a guy who probably got his ass kicked once or twice for having workers indiscriminately plaster bumper stickers for his Wisconsin water show on thousands of cars without the permission of the car owners and physicist Enrico Fermi had to do with Old Style beer .

Possible better advertising approach with tag-lines:

Enrico tried Old Style and went critical! or After work, Enrico went out with friends to split a few!

When the new billboards went up, the Old Style/Capone controversy faded away as did sales for “Chicago’s beer.”

A few months later, the president and CEO of G. Heileman resigned, citing the large amount of travel required to try to hold the fading Heileman empire together. In Chicago, reporters noted that his departure seemed awfully close to the Old Style/Capone controversy. [“Look at us. We’re the Press and so powerful!”] Even the return of once-retired G. Heileman CEO Russ Cleary – the man who had brought the regional brewery to national stature – couldn’t save the brewing operation.

Current G. Heileman CEO Richard F. Gaccione, an Italian-American, was unavailable for further comment on all of this nonsense. Mortally wounded, the once proud name of G. Heileman disappeared in 1996 when the Wisconsin Brewery fell into the hands of the Stroh Brewing Company.

With 2016 coming, who’s next in line for a City Hall beating?


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