“Baby Case” interprets the media circus that surrounded the Lindbergh kidnapping.
Celebrity is so cheap and tawdry these days that it is difficult to appreciate the adulation accorded Charles Lindbergh in 1927.
Upon returning to the United States from his daring solo flight to Paris, Lindbergh enjoyed the largest ticker-tape parade in American history, and embarked on an 80-city, 48-state tour. It was estimated that one in four Americans saw him in person.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had any parallels — maybe the Beatles in 1964 — but we’re talking about a national hero,” said Brian Horrigan, a Minnesota Historical Society curator who is writing a book on Lindbergh and American cultural history. “I can’t overstate it. Everyone wanted a piece of this guy.”
When Lindbergh’s 2-year-old son was kidnapped and murdered in 1932, coverage of the event reached to every corner of the nation and much of the world. Radio came of age as a news source. Newspaperman H.L Mencken called the crime “the biggest story since the Resurrection.”
The tragedy, the circus and the subsequent trial that convicted Bruno Richard Hauptmann in 1936 are the subject of “Baby Case,” a musical by composer Michael Ogborn that opens Saturday at the History Theatre in St. Paul. The subject matter sounds fairly dark — maybe something Kander and Ebb might have tackled — but director Ron Peluso is not deterred.
“We’ve had a lot of patrons say, ‘Really? A musical about a kidnapping?’ ” Peluso said. “But you look at the subjects of ‘Chicago,’ ‘Rent,’ ‘Les Miz’ — those are serious pieces. Michael’s take is stirring and compelling and fascinating.”
A dazzling icon
Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight and the kidnapping took place while he was still universally idolized. His pronouncements on “the white race,” the discovery of children and lovers he kept secret in Europe and his admiration for Nazi Germany would later tarnish a once-gleaming hero.
Plus, books and media in the past 30 years have challenged Hauptmann’s guilt and suggested conspiracies that implicate Lindbergh and his relatives of complicity in the crime.
For these reasons, the farmboy from Little Falls, Minn., who imagined he might become a mechanic working on planes, has not weathered history well.
“Baby Case” deals not with Lindbergh’s legacy. It is focused on the four-year ordeal that fixed America’s attention on its fair-haired hero and the ghastly crime.
Charles A. Lindbergh Jr. was taken from his crib on the night of March 1, 1932. Within hours, police and media had descended on the New Jersey home. The famed aviator took personal control of the investigation.
“His ego was enormous,” said Horrigan. “He would have said, ‘I’m Charles Lindbergh, and I’ll tell you what to do.’ ”
His involvement and susceptibility to scams that were perpetrated did not serve him well. At one point, he delivered a huge ransom to a sketchy character who promised the child was alive. Lindbergh had to admit later that he had been fooled. On May 12, the 20-month-old child was found dead.
Hauptmann was not arrested until 1934, and the media caught its second breath in sensationalizing the case.
“The coverage was so out of proportion to anything that had gone before,” said Horrigan. “Radio coverage and the idea of breaking news is a phenomenon that is tied directly to the kidnapping and trial.”
Hauptmann, a German immigrant living in Brooklyn, was convicted largely because ransom money was found in his garage and boards from his attic matched those used to build a crude ladder allegedly used in the kidnapping. He professed his innocence even to his demise in the electric chair.