Back in Time

It's kind of sad to think that many of the historical events that Tucson is best known for, at least on a national level, have to do with violent crime.

Even before the tragic events of Jan. 8, 2011, our community had been linked to notorious acts, including the 2002 shooting that left three professors dead at the UA nursing school, the Gary Triano car bombing in 1996 and the exploits of the Pied Piper serial killer in the 1960s.

But sometimes events transcend their violent roots and become the stuff of legend, as has become the case with the capture of notorious bank robber John Dillinger and his gang here 80 years ago. For the past 20 years, their apprehension on Jan. 21, 1934, has been the theme for an annual celebration.

The aptly named Dillinger Days is coming around again. For about 24 hours starting Friday, Jan. 24, Hotel Congress and the surrounding area will be transformed into a 1930s street scene complete with vintage cars and plenty of period clothing.

"Every year it seems to grow a little bit more," said David Slutes, entertainment director of Hotel Congress. "This year, we've added so many more partners and more features to it. It's taken a bigger step this year than the incremental ones of past years."

For those not familiar with the Dillinger story, here's a recap:

Dillinger and his gang robbed numerous banks across the Midwest in 1933 and 1934, with the gang accused of killing more than a dozen people during its reign of mayhem. Though he was captured on more than one occasion, Dillinger's most famous arrest came following a fire at Hotel Congress, where some of the gang had rooms on the third floor.

A re-enactment of that capture is one of the many activities associated with Dillinger Days, which began in 1994 as a small event in the hotel lobby. It stayed that way until 2000, when the city of Tucson took over the celebration.

"They felt it was worthwhile for the community, and would be a great event to bring people downtown," Slutes said.

But as is the case with some things the city gets its hands on, the city decided after a few years that it couldn't afford to hold the event, at which time Congress took it back.

"We felt we couldn't let it die," Slutes said.

Slutes said Hotel Congress also didn't want to go back to the small-scale version of Dillinger Days after the city expanded the activities.

"It's not a moneymaker for us; we just think it's pretty neat," he said.

The festivities begin Friday night with a 21-and-older speakeasy, with music by Kings of Pleasure. Tickets are $25 and proceeds from the event will go to the Greater Tucson Fire Foundation.

Saturday is when the free, all-ages activities are scheduled. They start at 9 a.m. when the arts and crafts booths and carnival games open. The first of two re-enactments of the Dillinger arrest is at 11 a.m. (the other is set for 3 p.m.). At 12:30 p.m., a walking tour of the Tucson streets Dillinger roamed will include a visit to the old Pima County Courthouse, where Dillinger and his gang were arraigned.

New this year is a magic show from the Brothers Macabre. It will be held in the only third-floor room that wasn't damaged during the 1934 fire. Previously used to house the hotel's swamp cooler, the now-named Dillinger Room has been renovated as a small performance suite.

While most of the events will happen in and around the hotel and along Fifth Avenue, activities are planned at other downtown businesses that Hotel Congress has partnered with this year. Slutes said they include a museumlike display at the Chicago Music Store, firetruck rides commencing from Maker House on Stone Avenue and other activities at Buffalo Exchange and Hydra.

Additionally, vintage cars will be lined up along Congress Street, which will remain open this year rather than be closed to traffic as in past Dillinger Days.

"You'll be able to drive right past those vintage cars," Slutes said. For more information, visit

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