The newly renovated Hunterdon County Courthouse is a virtual made-to-order setting for Harry Kazman’s 14th reenactment of "Lindbergh & Hauptmann: The Trial of the Century," playing in Flemington through October. After the reinstallation of the tin walls and the ceiling with its centerpiece medallion, the shining up of the wooden benches, the restoration of the molded wood surrounding the tall windows, and other touches, the courthouse has resumed the simple beauty of 1935 that belied the gravity of the proceedings within its walls.
Kazman, the show’s writer, director, and producer, says the actors were thrilled to be in the restored courthouse for the first time. "We’ve been doing it in the 1960s incarnation of the courtroom," he says, "where modernization meant taking out everything that is beautiful and making it functional."
The historic setting extends beyond the courtroom itself to the renovated jail in its backyard and the 1814 building of the Union Hotel (now a restaurant) across the street, where many celebrities resided during the famous trial.
Kazman has enhanced the 1930s feel with music and simulated period newscasts, as well as hawkers selling reproductions of the Hunterdon County Democrat at the courtroom’s entrance before the "trial" begins. But his production invites viewers to move beyond the physically authentic surroundings and to enter the 1935 legal and social context of Bruno Hauptmann’s trial for the murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s infant son.
Kazman, a theater teacher at the Hunterdon Central Regional High School, originated the idea for the play in March, 1990, when the Hunterdon County Chamber of Commerce asked him to create a reenactment of the trial as an anchor event for a festival they were planning. Kazman was a natural for the project, having taught theater for years and having written scripts for a bicentennial celebration and other private projects.
Before accepting the assignment, Kazman decided to investigate the case and its dramatic possibilities. One place he visited was the New Jersey State Police Museum in West Trenton, which houses an extensive research library on the Lindbergh case as well as artifacts that include the actual ransom notes, the ladder used by the kidnapper, and a video of the Fox Movietone News with trial footage. He assessed the transcript as "great dramatic dialogue."
Kazman had to edit down the 32 volumes of transcripts, sifting through the testimony of 157 witnesses and deciding what had to be cut. He says: "I agonized because there was great testimony and witnesses, with dramatic and exciting dialogue, but I didn’t have space and had to eliminate some of it."
He ended up using just the most famous witnesses: the Lindberghs; the defendant Bruno Hauptmann; the notorious go-between, Dr. Condon; the baby’s nursemaid; an expert witness on wood grains; and an elderly man, who had allegedly observed Hauptmann in the Lindbergh neighborhood the day of the kidnapping. "The challenge was to give everyone in the audience a sense of the major evidence in the trial and how the trial progressed forward through 32 days," Kazman says.
Kazman also felt it was important that the audience get into the specific feeling of the 1930s courtroom. Trial procedure, for example, was very different then. "You have to look at this trial in the perspective of the time. It occurred in 1935, when behaviors were much different than those acceptable today," he says. Attorneys could badger witnesses; call them names; and approach them freely, moving in and out, none of which is allowed in today’s courtrooms."
The trial was also the first where newsreel cameras were permitted in a courtroom; despite objections from the American Bar Association, the judge allowed them. When the trial over, though, says Kazman, cameras were banned until 1955, when TV cameras were allowed in courtrooms. The case also helped structure future trial procedure and influenced law, for example, giving rise to "the Lindbergh Law," which first defined the crime of kidnapping to be a federal offense.
Another touch that evokes the period in the play are the characters’ costumes. Women of that time appeared in pert black hats, rhinestone earrings and pins, stylish black dresses, and thick-heeled pumps with ankle straps. The men dressed according to their station, ranging from perfectly tailored suits to ill-fitting pants and jackets.
The performance opens with period music about Charles Lindbergh, whose "name will live in history…Take your hat off to the plucky, plucky Lindbergh, the eagle of the U.S.A." Newscasts, which used to convey information about testimony not portrayed on stage, sound like radio shows from the 1930s.
Kazman’s personal goals for the production have been both educational and artistic. "In the beginning was the challenge of being able to create something I knew I could bring to life and make people enjoy the experience." But he adds that he can never escape the educator part of his background, after having taught for 35 years.
The defense attorney, played in the Saturday, October 1, performance this reporter saw by Larky Barnes, attempted to implicate the Lindberghs’ servants and their friends as well as neighbors who might have been angry at the wealthy couple. Kevin Young, who is in his 14th year playing the prosecutor, Attorney General David Wilentz, clearly enjoyed his role as he punctured holes in the testimony of Bruno Hauptmann and lectured the jury on their obligations. In their closing statements, the two attorneys traded biblical quotes, "Judge not lest you be judged" and "He that killeth any man shall surely be put to death."
One technique Kazman uses to convey information about testimony not included in the play is to have two newswomen talk to each other several times during the course of the trial. Although their conversation does provide both information about the trial and about the publicity surrounding it – including the presence of famous people like Walter Winchell, Damon Runyon, and Jack Benny – their interactions felt a little artificial and took away from the otherwise realistic presentation.
Kazman grew up in the Freehold area and graduated from Rutgers University in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in English. He then earned a masters in theater at the University of Michigan. Beginning his teaching career at Hunterdon Central in 1968, he developed a large theater program, taking early retirement in 2001 to concentrate on the theater company. His wife, Reva, still teaches theater at the high school, and she helped develop and direct the play.
Some of the seats in the "theater" are jury seats, available for $40. Jurors actually vote on whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty, and their names, "home jurisdictions," and votes are displayed on a small board on the way out of the theater. The fact that about two-third’s of the jury of audience members voted "not guilty," when the verdict of the actual trial was 1st-degree murder, with a death sentence, suggests that the actual evidence was, in the end, not entirely convincing.
Now Kazman is looking to do new trial-related plays. He is considering a number of possibilities for a March production, and in 2006-’07 will premieer a play based on the Rosenberg trial. "Trials are life and death struggles," he says, noting the popularity of television shows like "Law and Order" and court television. Murder trials are inherently dramatic presentations. Says Kazman: "There is no more basic conflict than good and evil, and death is a real possibility for a defendant if he loses."
The Trial of the Century, Saturdays and 2 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2, through Sunday, October 23, Famous Trials Theater, Hunterdon County Courthouse, 75 Main Street, Flemington, 908-782-9783. Dramatic reenactment of the 1935 Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial. $25; jury seats $40. 908-782-2610 or visit www.FAMOUSTRIALS.com. The play is part of the "History Comes Alive in Flemington" celebrations sponsored by the Flemington Partnership For Progress, which feature guided tours of the historic town, and of the courthouse.