The Minnesota Centennial Showboat and Popular Minneapolis Theater
Steamboat Ben Campbell
I could not find a usable picture of the Minnesota boat. The boats depicted are illustrative of the type.
Music City Queen
This is a side to the 1950s and 1960s that I remember with affection but I think maybe forgotten. Except that the showboat continues.
In 1958 Minnesota was celebrating its centennial. The University Theater had been considering buying a showboat for some time but cost and unavailability prevented continuing the tradition of river entertainment. So in 1956 with the statehood celebration approaching the University Theater director, Frank M. Whiting was judging a Miss Minnesota pageant with Tom Swain, who was the executive director of the Minnesota Statehood Centennial Commission. They discussed the idea of a showboat and agreed it would add to the state celebration.
In 1899 the boat “The General John Newton,” a 175-foot long paddlewheel is commissioned. It has been used as a maritime courthouse and at least four presidents had visited it. The University bought it for $1 from the Corps of Engineers for the state celebration. It is renamed as the Minnesota Centennial showboat.
I was a student at the University and found the idea very romantic and exciting, although I knew nothing of the theater. I felt much the same about the river gambling boats in the Illinois and Iowa Quad cities many years later. As I recall the news items at the time, the boat took considerable fixing. It also was obsolete and could not be run on the river as the steam engine was not legal anymore. The news said that the University people ended up mounting two very large outboard motors for propulsion.
In 1993 the boat was in need of major repairs and was closing with Agatha Christies “The Mousetrap.” The next few years a major campaign was launched to get it going again. A permanent home for the boat was established at Harriet Island in St. Paul. Harriet Island is basically below the downtown bridge that crosses to the West Side.
In the year 2000 a welding spark started a fire that destroyed the boat. A new boat was built is named the “Frank Whiting.”
The showboat specializes in light entertainment such as might have been found on such boats in the Victorian Era. It is a training experience for University theater students doing melodramas and comedies. They are known for what are called whimsical olios–musical entertainments done between scenes or as an after piece to relieve tension created from the storyline.
Some well known stars today started in the showboat performances, such as Loni Anderson, Linda Kelsey, Peter MacNicol, Michael Goetz and Jon Cranney.
That era sticks in mind for more than just the Showboat. Minneapolis seemed to have theater groups springing up everywhere. Mostly doing comedy and melodrama, I recall. I remember going to a performance of “The Beggars Opera” in closed Woolworths store. It was outlandishly fun because in the middle of the performance some bats were disturbed and flying around the actors who forgot the performance temporarily while the chased the bats. Now that is theater that I love.
On a more high plane Minneapolis wins chosen as the site for the “Guthrie Theater” by Sir Tyrone Guthrie.
I owe inspiration for this hub to Tom Whitworth when I responded to his Independence day hub.
He talked about George C. Cohen and the showboat is where I first saw a Cohen play.
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© 2010 Don A. Hoglund
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