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Dillinger Days: Re-living Tucson's Colorful Past

The fire. The outlaw gang in hiding. The mysterious luggage, containing a small arsenal and $23,000 cash.

The string of events that began at Hotel Congress on Jan. 22, 1934 led to the improbable capture of the country’s most notorious criminal, John Dillinger.

Celebrated annually at Hotel Congress, Dillinger Days are here again, with a weekend full of family-friendly entertainment, live re-enactments, historical presentations, a vintage car show, and a special Speakeasy fundraiser that hearkens back to the 1930s.

jdillinger-escape“Its fun, it’s about what’s best about Tucson and its Wild West roots,” says Hotel Congress General Manager Todd Hanley. “It’s done in a way that emphasizes the importance of the capture and that the Police Department and Fire Department of Tucson were instrumental in what the FBI couldn’t get done.”

After the fire caused the hotel to evacuate, members of the Dillinger gang gave a big tip to Tucson firefighters to go back inside and retrieve their luggage. Finding guns and $23,816 in cash inside the bags, and recognizing the gang from True Detective Magazine, the firefighters contacted police. Three days later, police traced Dillinger and his gang to a nearby house and arrested the outlaws without firing a shot.

dill2The centerpiece of the hotel’s Dillinger Days is the live-action re-enactment show, with three full performances on Saturday, Jan. 21, at 11 a.m., 1:15 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. The re-enactments, as well as the rest of the schedule Saturday, are free and open to the public. Advance tickets with guaranteed seating are available as part of a $30 package including an entrée from the Cup Café, beverage and commemorative gift.

“Nobody I know of can even touch this event,” Hanley says. “I’ve gotten calls from other towns trying to make hay with their own events. Indiana is clamoring to do things. We jumped on it as part of the history and culture of Tucson and Hotel Congress before anyone else.”

Dillinger Days began more than 20 years ago as an event to bridge the popular New Year’s Eve celebration and the Gem Show. In his 13 years at Congress, Hanley has seen the event grow from a small indoor show, with a “stage” marked off by masking tape so the audience wouldn’t crowd into the performers’ space, to a celebration that sprawls across the entire plaza, drawing about 7,000 people over the course of the weekend.

“I vividly remember my first Dillinger Days,” he says. “The entire re-enactment took place in the lobby, with people peering through the windows just to get a glimpse.”

dill3The Friday night Speakeasy in the Copper Hall kicks off the weekend Jan. 20,with a $30 fundraiser for the Greater Tucson Fire Foundation. The Speakeasy features a 1934 fashion show, live music by The Kings of Pleasure, the release of the signature Dillinger Desert Wheat beer from Tucson’s new Dillinger Brewing Company, the Brothers Macabre Turn of the Century Magicians and 1930s memorabilia and vintage firefighting equipment.

Saturday’s all-day schedule begins at 9 a.m., with arts and crafts and carnival games, and continues with lectures, historic walking tours, the re-enactments, live music, a car show and more. The Screening Room, at 127 E. Congress, will host several screenings of the 2009 film Public Enemies throughout the weekend, for a 25-cent admission.

“It is quintessential Tucson. What we’ve tried to do is make sure the event is about the capture of John Dillinger, but also rooted in Tucson’s history,” Hanley says. “It’s the one event that we do that crosses all age groups.”

In partnership with Cox Communications, Hotel Congress will also be streaming the re-enactments on live video via the hotel’s website.

“The beauty of this event is we flood downtown. Every restaurant will have a better day than any given Saturday,” Hanley says. “It’s a fantastic way to get people downtown to experience all the restaurants and merchants. The Jazz Festival and Dillinger Days have turned January into a great month for downtown merchants.”