Roger Brucker, an 80-year-old author and historian, donned a hard hat with a light and crawled through a tiny, pitch-dark underground cave, all in the name of research.
He knew, of course, that experienced caver Floyd Collins had died in just such a cave many years earlier - Brucker co-wrote "Trapped!," the definitive history of Collins. He wanted to see Sand Cave for himself.
"It's the scariest cave I was ever in," Brucker said. "It's very tiny to begin with, but as you crawl through it, pieces of the ceiling drop on you … sometimes as big as your fist, sometimes as big as a toaster. It's really unsettling. It's like crawling through a wastebasket."
Brucker will give a series of talks in conjunction with Music Theatre of Madison's upcoming production of "Floyd Collins," a musical drama that pivots around the death and legacy of the Kentucky caver.
"The story is fascinating," said Meghan Randolph, artistic director and founder of MTM. "It's one of those things where people don't know what it is, even though it was huge in its day.
"For some reason, it's been forgotten about."
In February 1925, Floyd Collins went exploring alone in a cave on another man's property. His family managed Crystal Cave, a beautiful but remote cave located near Mammoth Cave, a much more popular (and profitable) tourist attraction. Collins was looking for a new entrance to Mammoth Cave, one that was more easily accessible from the road.
While attempting to climb out, however, Collins' leg was pinned by a small rock slide and he was trapped. Rescuers found him and, for a few days, were able to give him food and water. While he was trapped, a reporter named Skeets Miller was able to interview him. Collins became an instant celebrity.
When he talks to audiences and students, Brucker said the questions he most often hears are: could Collins have been saved today? Why was he caving alone? And who's to blame for his death?
"The fact is, the place where he was trapped was so tiny," Brucker said. "We don't think he could've been rescued then, and we doubt if he could be rescued now. People just don't survive if they're stuck in a very small place."
Brucker described Collins as a "caving nut," someone who had exhausted his family and friends in his zeal to discover new caves.
"Nobody would have gone in with him anyway," agreed Randolph.
The opening sequence in the musical describes how passionate Collins is as an explorer, and his dreams about supporting his family with a new tourist attraction.
"By the time I get home tonight/ all our money worries will be gone," he sings. "We will be dreamin' on ... gonna do the family proud."
The story of a man trapped underground is an odd subject for a musical, Randolph admitted, as is a theater piece with a protagonist who cannot move.
"The subject matter is very out there," she said. "This is one of the most difficult things you can put on stage."
Still, the idea of being buried alive fascinates people, as does the media hyperbole. Reporters who couldn't reach Collins still had to file stories, so they made things up; a song called "Is That Remarkable?" captures the media circus.
Brucker said the musical is mostly accurate, with a few conflated characters for dramatic effect. It's uplifting, he said, because Collins was willing to take personal responsibility for his situation.
"He never blamed other people for his misfortune," Brucker said. "He encouraged other people to work as hard as they could to get him free, but he made the choice. He had made risky choices before and had generally come out all right.
"He was sure he was going to get out of this one all right."
IF YOU GO
"Floyd Collins," created by Tina Landau and Adam Guettel, will be presented by Music Theatre of Madison Sept. 12-20 at the River Arts Center, 105 Ninth St., Prairie du Sac. Meghan Randolph directs and Chris Powers is the music director.
Show times are 7:30 p.m. Sept. 12 and 19 and 2 p.m. Sept. 13 and 20. Biographer Roger Brucker will speak before the shows on Sept. 12 and 13.
Tickets cost $17 for adults, $14 for seniors and $10 for students. They're available by calling 608-643-8386 or visiting the musictheatreofmadison.com.