Oshkosh exhibit defines ‘Public Enemies’ era

Soon we’ll swoon over Johnny Depp’s portrayal of gangster John Dillinger in the movie “Public Enemies,” while over-analyzing film sets and scenery. Much of the R-rated Universal Pictures production was filmed in Wisconsin.

That includes Oshkosh, where footage includes the airport grounds and vault of a former bank, but a local museum’s staffers are stretching beyond the Hollywood hoopla.

“The Era of Public Enemies: A Wave of Crime in a Troubled Time” opens this month at the Oshkosh Public Museum, providing depth and discussion about an age that elevated gangsters to levels of near-admiration.

Celebrity trumps notoriety? Why would this happen with violent criminals?

Dillinger’s “charm and audacious jailbreaks endeared him to almost everyone – from his girlfriend … to an American public who had no sympathy for the banks that had plunged the country into the Depression,” contends a teaser for the film.

Ouch. Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself anytime soon.

Dire times, exhibit curator Debra Daubert notes, sometimes lead to unpleasant solutions.

She offers an example: Closing schools, and leaving children uneducated, because there was no money to pay teachers. “We wouldn’t do that today, but we have consolidated” school systems.

“A lot of people want to blend ‘Public Enemies’ years with the 1920s and our pre-war world, but the 1930s were definitely unique,” Debra says. “The stock market crash made life difficult, but everyone hoped there would be good days around the corner – and some people welcomed equalizers” between income levels, such as marriages between the rich and poor.

Others liked the Robin Hood image – taking from the rich, which is what made gangster antics palatable for a while. Dillinger and his infamous rivals, Debra notes, “saw easy money to be had at low-security banks and grocery stores, or through kidnappings.”

A key part of the Oshkosh exhibit is a makeshift 1930s speakeasy, where living history volunteers converse with visitors and table menus impart facts about the crimes, drought and other hardships of Dust Bowl years.

Shoot an air-soft (no ammunition) version of a “tommy gun,” to get a feel for the era. Examine a 1930s bank teller window, jail cell and FBI office. A film about Dillinger’s life plays continuously; artifacts include 1930s fashions and a replica of Dillinger’s death mask.

A tan fedora worn by Johnny Depp during “Public Enemies” makes the cut, too; it was mailed to a local boy who watched the filming and asked for it. The hat helps anchor an explanation of “Public Enemies” movie making.

The exhibit opens June 27 and ends Oct. 18. For more about the Oshkosh Public Museum, 1331 Algoma Blvd., Oshkosh: www.oshkoshmuseum.org, 920-236-5761.

For more about “Public Enemies,” the movie: www.publicenemies.net. The movie opens nationwide July 1, but showings in Madison, Milwaukee and Oshkosh begin June 30.

Tickets to the June 30 premieres and VIP cocktail parties (that means meeting cast extras, not the stars) can be purchased through www.filmwisconsin.net. The cost: $25-75; expect audience attire to match the movie.

Oshkosh also will run with the gangster theme in other ways. At www.visitoshkosh.com are announcements about Ford Tri-Motor aircraft flyovers, 1930s music performances and gangster trading card hunts.

Notice the 1929 Ford Tri-Motor airplane in “Public Enemies.” The FBI used this model (nicknamed “The Tin Goose”) to move Dillinger from Arizona to Chicago, and the movie’s aircraft is part of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh, where it is possible to schedule a ride in the nine-passenger cabin.

Cost is $40 ($100 to sit in the co-pilot seat) for a 15-minute ride. Reservations are not taken.

For more about this former barnstormer and world’s first mass-produced airliner: www.flytheford.org, 800-843-3612.

Mobsters used our state (especially remote parts of the Northwoods) as a quick and frequent getaway. Now it’s possible to retrace some of their steps, because of gangster history documented online by the state Department of Tourism.

These lists are a mix of real-life gangster hideouts and “Public Enemies” film locations.

Outlaws frequented The Watersedge and French Country Inn in Lake Geneva, Baker Lake Lodge in Hayward and Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters. Filming sites involved much of downtown Columbus, the Lafayette County Courthouse in Darlington and Mirror Lake State Park, among other locations.

For more, consult www.travelwisconsin.com.

Absent from the roundup: Al Capone’s Hideout, north of Couderay in Sawyer County. The amazing attraction – a 400-acre summer retreat for “Scarface” – is closed this year. Guy Houston, son of the owners, won’t say why or how long. His parents could not be reached.

The family has owned the property for decades, but it went up for auction in 1997. “It never sold,” says Jim Bassett, Couderay’s town chairman, who notes that a commercial greenhouse was added to the property a couple of years ago but also remains closed.

Watch towers for armed guards, an eight-car garage and lodge with bulletproof fieldstone walls are distinctive features of the property, which remains isolated among dense woodland and cornfields. A steak/pasta restaurant, snack bar, museum and bar were long open to the public.

On display was historical memorabilia, including artifacts from the deadly 1929 St. Valentine’s Day massacre that pitted Capone’s gang against Bugs Moran’s in Chicago.

It’s a shame that the estate’s gates haven’t reopened, Jim Bassett says, because – among other things – the owner “knows how to make a real good Bloody Mary.”

Don’t confuse Al Capone’s Hideout with Al Capone’s Hideaway and Steakhouse, 35W337 Riverside Dr., St. Charles, Ill. The Hideaway – where beer brewed in the cellar quenched thirsty gangsters during Prohibition – remains open for dinner and in view of the Fox River, 40 miles west of Chicago.

The menu is big on steaks and seafood. Nostalgic decor turns back the clock 80 years. For more: www.al-capone.com, 888-SCARFACE.