Thursday, March 19, 2009

Blackhand Strawman: The History of Organized Crime in Kansas City

“Kansas City is like a lady of former ill-repute who is ashamed to talk about her past.” –Chuck Haddix.

Haddix, longtime host of KCUR-FM’s popular “Fish Fry” program, was referring to our fair city’s notorious history as a hub of organized crime and political corruption. It seems that a lot of people would rather ignore that sordid part of our heritage.

Terence O’Malley, the local lawyer and filmmaker who enjoyed success with his documentary “Nelly Don: A Stitch in Time”, hopes to change all that.

O’Malley’s exhaustively researched documentary “Blackhand Strawman: The History of Organized Crime in Kansas City” opens on March 20th at the Screenland Theatre at 17th and Washington, KCMO.

O’Malley is a Kansas City native with a degree in English from Loyola University, one in Radio and Television Production from KU, as well as law degree from Washburn University in Topeka. His résumé also includes extensive experience as a TV reporter, pianist, and a stint as the press secretary for the governor of Alaska.

His eclectic background gives him a unique perspective as a filmmaker.

O’Malley received unprecedented access to film, photos and other documentation from family members of the very criminals that his movie profiles.

“I’d essentially proven myself to be a bona fide storyteller with ‘Nelly Don’, so that when people heard that I was endeavoring to tell the story of organized crime in Kansas City, they understood that I was probably the right guy”, O’Malley explained. “They thought, ‘Okay, he’s a good guy, he understands. We’re going to take a chance on him because we think that he is going to treat the story with the gravitas and the respect that it deserves.’”

The film incorporates this privately collected information with archived data, news footage and interviews with experts on the subject.

It was while working on his film about Nell Donnelly, the famous Kansas City dressmaker, that O’Malley became fascinated with local gangsters.

In 1931, Donnelly was the victim of a kidnapping and Missouri U.S. Senator James A. Reed recruited notorious KC crime boss Johnny Lazia to find her. “When I was researching ‘Nelly Don’, I realized, ‘Holy Cow! She was rescued by the mob, by the Mafia.’” O’Malley said. “It started fomenting in my head that nobody had ever given a serious treatment to organized crime in Kansas City before.”

The film chronicles this dark history from the turn-of-the-century when many Sicilian immigrants arrived in Kansas City, up until 1986 when the grip of crime boss Nick Civella was finally broken.

The movie’s “Who’s Who” of notorious ne’re-do-wells includes Lazia, Democratic Party boss Tom Pendergast, Charlie “The Wop” Carollo, Anthony “Fat Tony” Gizzo, Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Frank “Jelly” Nash, and Nick and Corky Civella, to name but a few.

O’Malley found them all to be fascinating individuals.

“Charlie Carollo was probably a mathematical genius because he kept all of the books for all of the Pendergast sin businesses in his head,” O’Malley explained. “Pendergast didn’t own those businesses (bootlegging, gambling, prostitution, loan sharking, etc.), but he got a cut of everything that was going on.”

Anthony Carollo, Charlie’s son, was taken with O’Malley when the filmmaker knew the name of the band (the Coon-Sanders Orchestra) that played at a function for his parents in the 1920s.

Impressed by O’Malley’s knowledge, Carollo called his sister in Kansas City and said, “Give him anything he wants…give him all the access he wants.” As a result, O’Malley was able to include heretofore-unseen film and photos.

“Same story with the Lazia family,” O’Malley said. “Vince Bianchi is the great-nephew of Johnny Lazia. I had a long conversation with him about the project and told him that I was interested in the characters in more than just a two-dimensional context. “I wanted to explain how these people got to where they were. They weren’t just gangsters. It wasn’t so much about perpetrating crime as it was a mode of survival.”

Having won the trust of the families, O’Malley then went about the business of educating himself on the subject. He was aided in his inquisition by a noted group of experts.

In addition to Haddix, on-screen contributors include:

Although these authorities contributed, the actual filming was a one-man affair. O’Malley estimates that he’s spent between two and three thousand hours over a three-year period working on the movie.

“I did the camerawork at the same time that I interviewed everybody. I did all of the writing, all of the research, the field production (acquiring and digitizing the imagery), selected the music, did the narration and I did all of the editing.”

The big-screen incarnation opens on March 20th and the DVD will be available in time for Father’s Day. A companion book is set to be published in November.

“The reason “Blackhand Strawman’ is being released on March 20th is because that date coincides with the 37th anniversary of the release of ‘The Godfather’ in Kansas City,” O’Malley pointed out.

The KC Italian community, concerned about the “The Godfather” and its potential for impugning Italian-Americans, purchased all of the tickets for the film’s 1972 premier at the Empire Theatre…and then refused to attend. The movie played to an empty house while a party was held down the street instead.

O’Malley was quick to mention that most Italian-Americans were victims of organized crime, not participants.

“The overwhelming majority of Italian-Americans were not criminals or murderers by any stretch. I wanted to set that as a tone or theme so that people could enjoy the film for the stories it contains without denigrating or besmirching the Italian-American community.”

He did admit some trepidation in pursuing the project.

“I talked with people in law enforcement, and the message to me was that I have nothing to fear,” O’Malley said. “I am no threat to their ongoing criminal business enterprises. They’re not going to worry about someone like me.”

And what about those contemporary mobsters?

“That’s why I terminated the film in 1986. I didn’t want anyone to believe that this was any type of exposé on the status of organized crime in Kansas City today…because I really don’t know.”

Thanks to Russ Simmons

1 comment:

  1. "..without denigrating or besmirching the Italian-American community."
    Contrary to what O'Malley claims, this film achieves all of the above. The filmaker chose henious photographs (autospy, crime scene photos, etc.) to portray the "characters" of this saga, with no regard to the families who still reside in the wonderful city of Kansas City. The Italian-Americans of Kansas City represent a rich, vibrant culture. These individuals, many children of organized crime, have gone on to achieve great things. Doctors, lawyers, and business owners make up the group that has been "besmirched" by O'Malley's portrayls. There is an appropriate way to depict history, but there is also an undignified, disrespectful manner in which to portray these events. O'Malley is nothing more then a greedy opportunist who chose the later for his own personal gain. Please do not support him by going to see his film.

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