The last time I dined at one of my favorite Vietnamese restaurants in the city, Pho 97, I noticed that a few storefronts to the east, the original entrance to the long-shuttered Vista Theater -- a 1932 movie house at 26th and Independence Avenue -- was slightly ajar. Peeking in, I could see the original concession stand. The candy cases, like the theater, had been long empty. After a massive fire on May 12, there's nothing left of the old movie theater or the storefront that had been occupied, in the 1960s and '70s, by the notorious Villa Capri restaurant.
No, not the 50-year-old Villa Capri still owned by Tony Scudiero at 8126 Metcalf, but the East Side venue next to the Vista Theater, where Cork Civella and Carl DeLuna were secretly recorded by FBI agents on June 2, 1978, discussing "the Genius." This meeting later inspired a subplot in the Martin Scorsese film, Casino.
The cause of the blaze is still undetermined, but the fire did reveal a long-forgotten secret in the basement of the theater building. According to Northeast News publisher Mike Bushnell, there was a 60-foot tunnel -- 4-foot-by-4-foot passage running, from west to east, the length of the building.
"It ran from under the old Villa Capri restaurant out to the parking lot where there had been another building at an earlier time," Bushnell says.
No one seems to know why there would be a secret tunnel under the building, but the Vista Theater opened in 1932, the year before the repeal of Prohibition. Was the tunnel used to store illegal hootch? The Vista Theater stopped showing films in 1958. Tony Scudiero, whose brother sold the Independence Avenue Villa Capri to an in-law in the 1960s, wasn't aware of any tunnels under the building
The good news is that a standing firewall left the stores on the west side of the Vista Theater unscathed. But Pho 97 has not yet reopened for business.