Sunday, October 27, 2013

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: "Lucky Lindbergh" And The Enduring Cult Of Celebrity

For some change of subject, I turn from collapsing
Obamacare and government shutdowns to a bit of iconic
Americana --- public obsessions with celebrities and
celebrity crimes.

The occasion of my discussion comes from attending a
play about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping of 1932,
sometimes known as “the crime of the century.”

First of all, this is a theater review of a production of
“Baby Case” at the St. Paul History Theater. This was
the regional premiere of a musical show by Michael Ogborn
which was first performed in Philadelphia in 2001.

I attended this play with more than a little skepticism in
advance, that is, many doubts that so morbid a subject could
be successfully treated in a musical production. From the
opening scene, however, my doubts quickly evaporated.
Under Ron Peluso, artistic director of the theater and of this
play, the subject was effectively condensed and skillfully
fast-paced. With the talents of Jake Endres, music director,
and Jan Puffer, choreographer, the story and drama was
tight and compelling. Most of all, a superb cast charmed
the audience with excellent voices and deft performances.

The lyrics and tunes were very good, though not extraordinary;
“Baby Case” is not an “Oklahoma!” or “Threepenny Opera,”
but a complicated saga was entertainingly presented.

Almost half the cast are members of Actor’s Equity, but all of
them are first-rate professionals As one might guess from its
name, this theater primarily presents productions with
historical themes.

There are 30 roles in this production, but only 11 actors. Most
of them performed as multiple characters, including the two
leads who portrayed both Charles Lindbergh and Bruno
Hauptman, Anna Morrow Lindbergh and Mrs. Hauptman.
A risky dramatic strategy perhaps, but it not only worked, it
drove home some of the playwright’s themes about perpetrators
and victims.

Peter Middlecamp portrays both Charles Lindbergh and Bruno
Hauptman, the accused kidnapper and murderer of the
Lindbergh’s baby.  The program lists only some of his recent
roles, but it does not tell the full story. Young Mr. Middlecamp
is something of a local renaissance man, having finished in
the top ten in the international barista competition a few years
ago, and also competing for several years as a professional disc
golfer. In his day job, he co-owns and manages a coffeehouse in
South St Paul, a coffeehouse acknowledged by almost everyone,
including his peers, as the probably the best in the state. He also
plays and teaches a rare musical instrument. As if this not enough,
Middlecamp has a fine tenor voice and not a little acting skill
which enable him to be credible and stellar in the double role.

Kendall Anne Thompson plays both Anne Morrow Lindbergh,
mother of the kidnapped baby, and Anna Hauptman, wife of the
accused kidnapper, with good voice and convincing manner. 
Everyone in this cast is excellent, but I should mention also
long-time Twin City veteran Gary Briggle who plays both Dr.
John Condon and another role very effectively,  Jon Andrew Hegge
portrays the narrator of the play, Walter Winchell, the famed
gossip columnist, with skill and even looks like him. Emily
Grodzik plays four roles well, but her Ginger Rogers was a
standout. Stealing the show on more than one occasion was
James Ramlet who played three sensational characters,
including William Randolph Hearst, Al Capone and Norman
Schwarzkopf, Sr. (the program does not mention that the latter,
the superintendent of the New Jersey state police in 1932, was
also the father of Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr., the colorful
commander 70 years later of Operation Desert Storm). Ramlet’s
rich and distinctive voice, and deft acting skill, enables him to
take command of the stage in each of his roles.

The playwright and the production are not neutral about the
controversies surrounding Lindbergh, this case, and the
pioneer aviator’s evolving role in American culture in the
1920s, and for decades afterwards. “Baby Case” clearly
indicates that the kidnapping investigation was mishandled,
Charles Lindbergh interfered with it, that the accused Bruno
Hauptmann did not receive a fair trial. It also implies that
Hauptman, who was subsequently executed in 1936, might
have been innocent. I think most of this is actually quite fair,
as is the play’s closing scene with Colonel Lindbergh receiving
a medal from Nazi minister Herman Goering. Lindbergh, an
international hero and idol for being the first man to fly the
Atlantic Ocean solo non-stop in 1927 was overwhelmed not
only by the mindless celebrity status thrust on him, and
darkened by the kidnapping tragedy in 1932, but his rural
Minnesota isolationism led him to apologize for Adolf Hitler
and his Nazi regime, including voicing his opposition to U.S.
involvement in World War II (which led to destruction of his

As for Hauptman’s innocence, subsequent re-examinations
of the evidence have led most more modern experts to
conclude that Hauptman was indeed probably guilty, although
he might have not been alone in the crime.

This production has one more week to run at the History
Theater in St. Paul. For those readers, who live in the Twin
Cities, it is highly recommended by this reviewer.

Second, this play gives us the opportunity, however briefly,
to examine the iconic American cultural custom of
obsession with celebrities and celebrity crime. (Of course,
this is not only an American phenomenon, as sensational
British, German and other European personalities and
criminals from the Victorian era through the Weimar
Republic demonstrate.)

Celebrity cultism goes far back, but its modern manifestations
arise with the advance of modern communications. The
printing press sets the whole process in motion, but it is not
until the 19th century that the cult of the celebrity personality
and its media encouragement begins with full force. Dan Rice,
the first American clown, originator of the U.S. circus, and
model for “Uncle Sam,” was one of the first true celebrities, as
was newspaperman Horace Greeley (who became ultimately
the Democratic nominee for president in 1872). Mark Twain
was among the first literary celebrities, employing not only
his novels, but nationwide speaking engagements to promote
his fame. Even Abraham Lincoln was a pioneer in using the
media (including the newly-invented telegraph) to launch his
political career.

But it was Charles Lindbergh, a shy but very glamorous
aviator, who first electrified the whole world with his
transatlantic flight in 1927, and became the first truly modern
super-celebrity. His was a notable achievement, but nothing
compared with the discoveries of Edison, Bell, Madame
Curie, Einstein and so many other scientists and inventors of
the era. Yet its was Lindbergh who was mobbed wherever he
went. I think history has shown that he was ill-prepared for
his fame and its consequences. To be fair, few persons
probably are so prepared. His life ended in disgrace,
following the unspeakable ravages of Hitler and Nazism
which he had naively, but stubbornly, apologized for.

This, however, was only the modern beginning. The very
beginning, incidentally, might have been the opening of Erie
Canal in New York state in 1825. The ribbon cutting at the
canal's west end by the governor of New York was immediately
followed by a series of pre-arranged cannon shots fired along
the route of the Canal, and then along the Hudson River, to
New York City which by this method learned that the Canal
had been inaugurated a few hours earlier. By today’s standards,
of course, this speed is laughable, but in 1825, it was the fastest
long-range communication in world history to that point.

Radio, television, the internet, cell phones, 24/7 news have
made communications almost instant anywhere in the
world. The means exists with which to distribute news of
celebrities, their self-promotions, their pseudo-glamor and the
crimes and accidents which involve them are fodder for billions
on every continent and in every small village the world over.
The psychological bases for all of this are a subject for another
discussion, and by those who know the human psyche far better
than I do, but there will inevitably be more “Lucky Lindberghs, “
more celebrity crimes, accidents, narcissism, assassinations and
assorted media melodramas, in the years ahead.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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