BRAINERD, Minn.-Twilight had yet to give way to the morning sun on a Monday in October 85 years ago in downtown Brainerd.
Late October weather foretold the winter to come, with a mix of snow and rain expected and temperatures topping out below freezing. The city's commercial center came to life as workers arrived to start their shifts. George Fricker was one of them. A custodian at First National Bank on South Sixth and Front streets, Fricker walked through the doors of his employer at 6 a.m., unaware he was about to encounter one of the most notorious U.S. gangsters of the Depression era-Baby Face Nelson.
The robbery by Nelson and his gang of miscreants put Brainerd residents in the line of machine gunfire, left the bank $32,000 lighter and kicked off the next eight decades of humble bragging about the city's brush with the infamous lawbreaker.
A heist, a punch, a play
"In Brainerd it was a very big thing," said Wendy DeGeest. "Not a lot has happened in Brainerd that you can say put Brainerd on the map, but I think this bank robbery did. It was very famous, and I think the bank robbery went everywhere."
Although many Brainerdites have likely heard one version or another of the Baby Face Nelson story, DeGeest grew up with the harrowing tale of an eyewitness-her father, Zane Smith, who sported the distinction of tangling with Nelson. Working as a clerk and messenger boy, Smith entered the bank after several employees were already hostages of the gangsters. His attempt to make a hasty exit was thwarted by Nelson, who grabbed Smith by the collar, spun him around and punched him in the jaw.
Smith told the Brainerd Dispatch in 1999 he was questioned about bank money, but had few answers from his position as messenger. The gunmen then threatened to put burning cigarettes in his ears.
"So I made up the answers," Smith said.
Smith died 15 years ago, the last surviving person who brushed with death that October day inside Brainerd's First National Bank. But his story, along with those recounted in the pages of this newspaper and other sources over the decades, comes to life on stage for a four-day run this week at the Franklin Arts Center. Stage North Theatre Company will present an original play, "Baby Face," written by Mora native Roger Nieboer in collaboration with Stage North board members Gary Hirsch and DeGeest. Hirsch directs the play, while DeGeest choreographed the dancing. A grant from the Five Wings Art Council supported its creation.
"It's exciting. I think it's very cool," DeGeest said. "This was my dad's story. I don't want to say it's what made him famous, but it kind of did. He was interviewed I think about every five years."
History on stage
Hirsch and DeGeest said depicting the Baby Face robbery in a play was something they'd considered since forming the theater company four years ago. Hirsch, also from Mora, was unfamiliar with the tale until moving to Brainerd and was immediately captivated. When the organization's board agreed to pursue the play, Nieboer was a natural choice to write the play, Hirsch said. The two collaborated numerous times during Hirsch's time as a high school theater director and after, and Hirsch admired his fearless approach to playwriting.
As for Nieboer, his passing familiarity with the famous Brainerd robbery grew into a near encyclopedic knowledge of the event. He sifted through numerous accounts, comparing details across different witnesses while building his script around video footage and newspaper clippings of Smith sharing his story of the robbery. For Nieboer, a playwright for more than 40 years, it's another chance to bring a historical event to life.
"As a kid, I did a lot of theater stuff in high school. Theater seemed like a really interesting way to tell stories," Nieboer said during a phone interview. "I've always been intrigued by stories and playwriting ... and I've always been interested in history."
Among Nieboer's past plays are "Tom Boy"-a production about a black woman named Toni Stone, born in St. Paul, who played baseball with men in the Negro leagues-and "Fireball," a play focused on the Great Hinckley Fire.
"With anything that's historical, for me, I immediately try to see what parallels are there for the time we're living in now," Nieboer said.
When it comes to "Baby Face," Nieboer said the era lends itself to comparisons with today's mistrust of institutions. The year 1933 fell squarely within the Great Depression, and confidence in the nation's banking system was low. In March of that year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared a four-day banking holiday, suspending all banking transactions. Congress followed this up with the Emergency Banking Act, a law intended to shore up the banks and improve public perception of the failing financial institutions.
"I think that there's a lot of discord (today). I think there's a lot of sort of mistrust of the government, the federal government, but yet at the same time a dependence on the federal government," Nieboer said. "I think there's a lot of socioeconomic divide that for whatever reasons in the U.S. we don't want to acknowledge. We don't want to acknowledge there are people of great wealth, and there are people who struggle day to day just to put food on the table. In the Depression of course, that was very obvious."
Because of the climate at the time, Nelson and other bank robbers were viewed through a Robin Hood-esque lens, Nieboer said. Hirsch noted by some accounts the robbers not only took $32,000 from the bank, but also stole a number of mortgages and destroyed them-effectively freeing those property owners of bank debt.
"It seems like there's something about gangsters," DeGeest said. "People love gangsters, because whenever you talk about Baby Face Nelson, people get excited."
Nieboer said he wanted to maintain that feel while also acknowledging the serious nature of the crime and the danger bank employees encountered that day. Nelson and his gang sprayed the bank with bullets on multiple occasions, according to accounts, and evidence of those bullets remains today in the building now housing Design Consign. The sign from the bank, also sporting bullet holes, will be on display in the Franklin Arts Center lobby during the show's run.
"It's sort of romanticized, like this guy was a famous folk hero almost," Nieboer said. "For whatever reason, he chose the Brainerd bank to rob. It was absolutely a dramatic, horrific event where people were really afraid they were going to die."
Weaving a tall tale
Generations removed from the robbery, the life-threatening reality seems to take a backseat to the coolness factor of the Baby Face Nelson chapter of Brainerd's history. Hirsch and DeGeest have experienced that in the runup to opening night of their production, describing multiple instances of residents recounting their own connections to the story.
This includes one of the actors in the community theater production, Michael Roberts. Roberts, who plays both a gangster and the bank vice president in the play, said his family owns a historic building believed to have served as a hideout for Nelson's gang after the robbery. In the 1950s, Nelson's parents purchased the log schoolhouse used in Lake Edward Township. Over the years, as former students and others visited the schoolhouse, one story came up over and over again.
"They said that awhile after the robbery, they found the money bags from the First National Bank inside it (the schoolhouse)," Roberts said, recounting a number of other stories appearing to corroborate Nelson spending time in the Lake Edward/Merrifield area.
Just as varied as these sometimes tenuous connections to the bank robbery are, the details of the story itself, told through multiple voices, varies in sometimes contradictory ways. Smith said even in the immediate aftermath of the event, eyewitness accounts differed significantly.
"It was amazing how unobservant you are under stress," Smith told the Dispatch in 1999. "Our employees had the robbers dressed in everything from overalls to business suits."
One report had them escaping the area in a plane.
Rather than permitting these contradictory accounts to stymie the play, Nieboer used them to craft a narrative drawing details from numerous sources. The research informed the dialog he created for the characters in the play, most of whom represent actual people involved in the event.
"The more I got into it, I found just really fascinating details," Nieboer said. "But it didn't all add up. There were different versions. I just went with that in the telling of the story, to really try and embrace that, not really knowing exactly what happened."
Hirsch said his favorite scene in the play grew out of this spirit.
"There's a scene, my favorite scene, where all the employees are lined up and being individually questioned about what happened," Hirsch said. "One of them will say there was one car and it was green, and another would say there was two cars, one blue, one black. One was driven by a man with a red hat, no, a woman with red hair."
Nieboer hopes those who attend the play leave entertained, while also recognizing the power of theater in depicting culture.
"I really, really enjoy working with community-based theater projects," Nieboer said. "I think it's important, I guess-I'll get on the soapbox for playwrights-but it's important for people to see new plays, to realize the power of theater. ... We can all see Shakespeare classic productions any time, any place, but I think it's really important for people to experience new work."
If you go
"Baby Face" will take the stage at 7:30 p.m. June 13-16, with a 2 p.m. matinee June 16 at the Franklin Arts Center auditorium in Brainerd.
To order tickets, call 218-232-6810, order online at www.stagenorththeater.com or stop in at the A 2 Z Yarn Shop on the main level of the Franklin Arts Center. Tickets are also available for purchase at the door.
Tickets are $10 for adults, $9 for seniors and $5 for children ages 6-12.