Of the roughly 82,000 tour-takers Joel Green has guided through Robber’s Cave since 2016, the Tennessean with the camera stood out in September.
“He was mesmerized and blown away by all the carvings,” Green said. “He was taking photos the whole time; I could tell the wheels were spinning.”
The customer had learned about the Lincoln landmark when he and his wife were looking for strange stops on the way home from their Colorado vacation.
“When we drive, we will search for the most interesting things, the craziest places to visit,” said Daniel Patton. “That’s how we do our trips.”
His wife, Justina, searched Google, and told him about a cave beneath a brewery in Lincoln.
“And I said, ‘You’re picking two of the best things for us.’”
They didn’t know the brewery had closed in early 2019, replaced by a 12,000-square-foot event space. But the cave was still open, and Green was still giving tours.
“The minute I walked into the cave, I was completely dumbfounded,” Patton said last week. “I stood in complete sensory overload, trying to comprehend what I’m seeing — which is 150-plus years of history written on the walls.”
Patton knew something about caves. Tennessee has more than 10,000, but nothing like Robber’s Cave, carved into the sandstone south of Van Dorn Park. It served as an early brewery warehouse but spent much of its existence as an official — and unofficial — tourist attraction, its soft-stone walls gathering more than a decade of signatures.
Patton also knew something about good stories. The independent filmmaker from Knoxville has traveled the country shooting features, documentaries and TV pilots. And he saw potential in the 5,600-square-foot series of mostly man-made tunnels. The past, written in stone and still visible in the present. The cave’s geology, and its mythology.
He approached Green after the tour. Has anyone ever made a documentary about this place?
Green said no. A few people had talked about it, but nothing ever developed.
Patton pressed on. “I said, ‘You’re going to have to let me convince you that we are the crew to do this.’”
And in late January, just as Lincoln was getting hit with more than a foot of snow, two RVs and a gear truck from Tennessee pulled into Lincoln.
* * *
The groundwork was laid quickly.
Back in Tennessee, Patton pitched the idea to the other production companies he teams up with, assembling a team and the necessary equipment.
In Lincoln, Green talked to Sam Manzitto Sr., one of the cave’s owners, who got a green light from his partners.
Manzitto had helped resurrect Robber’s Cave, which had been sealed by a bulldozer years earlier.
Starting in 2015, Manzitto and his former tenant, Blue Blood Brewing owner Brian Podwinski, married the new building above to one cave entrance, dug 30 feet through the ground to open the other, rewired the tunnels, strung lights, brought it up to fire code, protected its federally threatened bats and opened it to tours and events.
Last year, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The cave deserves a documentary, Manzitto said. “I thought it was a great idea. It’s been a long time coming for Robber’s Cave, for this buried time capsule we have.”
The filmmakers found a partner in Green, whose book — “Robber’s Cave: Truths, Legends, Recollections” — won a Nebraska Book Award for local nonfiction in 2019.
He had already done the heavy lifting; his years of research and interviews and separating folklore from fact would provide the framework for the documentary. They bought the option on the book and named Green as a producer.
“Without Joel, there would be no documentary,” Patton said. “The guy’s an encyclopedia.”
An encyclopedia with connections. He asked Patton: What if we could interview Dick Cavett?
Green had met Cavett in 2017, when he gave the Lincoln High grad a personal tour of the cave.
Patton was impressed. And then he thought bigger.
“Interview him? No. I want him to narrate this story.”
Cavett agreed. And an audio crew is making arrangements to travel to Connecticut to record the Emmy Award-winning comedian and talk show host reading the script to “Robber’s Cave,” the documentary’s working title, Patton said.
* * *
They filmed for a week inside the cave and in the event space above.
They filmed Green giving a tour to the barbers from Straight Edge, where he gets his hair cut. They filmed interviews with Matt Hansen, the state Capitol’s preservationist architect who landed the cave on the National Register of Historic Places, Lincoln historian Jim McKee, the state geologist, History Nebraska officials, a paranormal investigator, even Green’s 9-year-old daughter. They shot drone footage and quizzed people on the street about Robber’s Cave and filmed a few reenactments.
The week underground only heightened Patton’s enthusiasm. “It’s all freaking cool. It was a constant stream of amazing information, which to me solidified why this documentary is paramount, why the history of it is just paramount.”
They’re in post-production now, trying to edit dozens of hours down to a stand-alone documentary. They’re shooting for a 90-minute piece, to market it to a streaming service such as Netflix, but would likely have to cut that in half if a traditional channel — History or Discovery — buys it.
Patton hopes to have a rough edit by the middle of the month. He didn’t want to guess how soon it might find air time, but he liked its chances of getting there.
“I’m very confident. It’s a valuable history lesson, and it needs to be heard.”
Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter