Touched by the Untouchable
A small northcentral Pennsylvania town where famed crimefighter Eliot Ness spent his final days is poised to capitalize on that connection while celebrating the dedicated men and women who protect and serve today. A Roaring ’20s atmosphere has been created for the inaugural “Eliot Ness Fest: Touched by the Untouchable,” scheduled for July 20-22 in Coudersport. It’s one of the most ambitious projects ever attempted by the Potter County Historical Society.
“It’s taken several years to move the Eliot Ness Fest concept from the drawing board to the streets of Coudersport, but we were determined to get it right,” explains committee co-chair Bill Pekarski, who also happens to be playing the part of gangster Al Capone’s sidekick, Frank Nitti, in some of the festival’s street theater scenes.
“We have reservations pouring in from Chicago and Cleveland, where Eliot Ness is well-known for his courageous crime fighting activities, but also from as far away as California and Florida,” says David Castano, PCHS president. “This festival has come so far, so fast, that the committee is consumed with the logistics of handling such a big crowd. And there’s already a tentative schedule of events—basically consisting of programs we just didn’t have room for this year—being developed for the 2019 Eliot Ness Fest.”
The youngest of five children born to Norwegian immigrants, Chicago native Eliot Ness began his career as a federal Prohibition agent in the late 1920s. Chicago had become the nerve center for organized crime, and Al Capone’s gang was one of several that had swelled its coffers by selling illicit booze to a thirsty public. Ness was one of 300 agents charged with enforcing the unpopular dry laws. He refused payoffs, fearlessly smashed into mob-controlled breweries and distilleries, and made a name for himself in the Justice Department. In 1936 he began serving as public safety director in Cleveland, where organized crime also had a grip. In a span of seven years, reforms he spearheaded transformed Cleveland into a model of urban governance.
After World War II, during which he served as director of the new Social Protection Agency, he was board chairman for the Diebold Safe & Lock Company, then became involved with the Cleveland-based North Ridge Industrial Corporation. Financial desperation forced the company to relocate from its plush office complex in Cleveland to a small production plant and two satellite offices in Coudersport, and thus the Untouchable arrived in Potter County.
A high-profile “Celebration and Salute to Eliot Ness and Law Enforcement” will kick off the festival on Friday evening, highlighted by recognition of federal, state, and local officers and agents. Among those attending will be representatives from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, where the famed lawman began his federal service.
A former hardware store at Coudersport’s main downtown intersection has been converted to a speakeasy, “Jack’s Place.” That will be the headquarters for beer and wine sales and the setting for two of the festival’s headline events—a dinner theater and a Speakeasy Dance and Costume Contest. Down the street at La Famiglia Original Italian Pizza, the Saturday lunch crowd can enjoy “Pasta with Capone,” as the Chicago big boss gives his take on the pesky Agent Ness and the other spoilsports who can’t understand why a thirsty public might want to occasionally wet its whistle.
After the 3 p.m. parade, it’s “Capone’s Arrest” on the street corner between the Hotel Crittenden and Olga’s Café, where Eliot Ness will show up for a give-and-take with his nemesis.
Sunday events begin at 11 a.m. with an ecumenical worship service at the courthouse square gazebo, conducted by Eliot Ness’s house of worship, the First United Presbyterian Church.
The Rigas family, owners of the historic Coudersport Theatre, have made the venue available for public programming for all three days. Programs scheduled include The Fourteenth Victim, a riveting look at Eliot Ness’s pursuit of a Cleveland-area serial killer nicknamed The Mad Butcher; “Meet the Real Eliot Ness,” an authors’ roundtable, and interviews with local residents who will share their personal memories of Ness during his Coudersport days in 1956-57; “Eliot Ness in Cleveland: Saving an American City,” presented by historian Rebecca McFarland; “Law Enforcement: Yesterday and Today,” presented by agents and supervisors of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Scarface vs. Eliot Ness and the Untouchables, featuring author A. Brad Schwartz; a screening of The Untouchables, starring Kevin Costner; and a film festival featuring episodes of the 1959-63 television program of the same name, starring Robert Stack.
Area businesses are participating with special events, including the Hotel Crittenden, which has a close connection to the featured character. In early 1957, Eliot Ness and co-writer Oscar Fraley met in Fraley’s room and in common areas at the Crittenden to hammer out the manuscript that would become The Untouchables, a highly sensationalized account of Ness’s battle against Capone that launched the Hollywood frenzy.
And if that’s not enough, festivalgoers can enjoy a colorful bus tour that spotlights the known speakeasies and booze distribution points in Coudersport during the Prohibition era. Or they can follow the footsteps of the lawman himself on “Eliot Ness’s Last Walk,” which was completed moments before he dropped dead of a heart attack, May 16, 1957, just a block from the center of town. They can stroll through the vintage car show and see authentic vehicles from 1924 through 1931, including a 1924 Rolls-Royce that was purchased new by the publisher of the Chicago Tribune and specially detailed with armor and bulletproof glass to ward off attacks by vengeful mobsters.
They can, perhaps, imagine what life was like as an Untouchable.
Festival updates are on “Eliot Ness Fest” on Facebook, and at eliotnessfest.com.