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The Minnesota Centennial Showboat and Popular Minneapolis Theater

Updated on February 27, 2015

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

creative commons attribution Henry Forson
creative commons attribution Henry Forson


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.

Creative Theater

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.

© 2010 Don A. Hoglund


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    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 2 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      The early 1960's was a creative and enjoyable time, for me aat least. I loved the very innocence of it. Thanks for commenting.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 2 years ago from sunny Florida

      Two shows in one.....the

      real show and the on the spur of the moment show that ensued when the bats appeared.

      Thanks for sharing this

      Angels are on the way to you ps

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids


      I think a showboat is a unique bit of theater. Maybe there is some Tom Sawyer in all of us.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids


      Thanks for commenting. Minnesota is a popular vacation place. I think you'll like it.

    • Gawth profile image

      Ron Gawthorp 7 years ago from Millboro, Virginia

      Your hub strikes the Tom Sawyer nerve in my soul. It sounds like fun.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids


      The others may be more profession theater. The Minnesota boat is part of the Theater Arts dept at the University and the actors are all students.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids


      Thanks for commenting. Although I never got to it very often it was part of the theater scene when I was in college and I liked the atmosphere. I tended to associate theater with being somewhat "Stuffy>

    • billyaustindillon profile image

      billyaustindillon 7 years ago

      Thanks again another great historical piece. I have been on one as a tourist in New Orleans wonderful experiences.

    • Coolmon2009 profile image

      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      I love showboats and the mystique surrounding them. I got a chance to ride a replica at the Moody Gardens in the Houston Texas area. I enjoyed reading your article.

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 7 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Wow, I learn much about these place. I'll go to Minnesota someday. Thanks for share with us. I really love theater. Thank you very much.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I'm not sure but I think the coffeehouse in Minneapolis "The Twelve o'clock Scholar" may still be there. But ehy started with poetry readings and then made a comeback during the folk boom. Now bookstores and libraries have coffe, I'm not sur why.

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      I have always wanted to go on a showboat, especially ones with paddles! I remember coffee houses too - where did they go?

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Peggy W

      One thing fun about the showboat and some other small theater groups back then was the closeness of the small theater and the actors would get out among the audience.The bats just carried it a step farther. It seems that so many theater groups now take themselves far too seriously.That was also the days of Coffee houses.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 7 years ago from Houston, Texas

      I had to laugh to myself thinking of the actors and the bats causing an impromptu performance of their own. Haha! You educated me once again about an interesting subject of which I was unfamiliar. Thanks!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      This Woolworth was on what is now the West Bank and now part of the University community. There is now a large high rise apartment building across the way from it.The University district now is starting to take over NE around University and Broadway.There is a "Ritz" movie theater there which they were trying to convert to holding plays a few years ago. My son lived near there.

    • Storytellersrus profile image

      Barbara 7 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      I remember attending some event on this Showboat in 1973 but I have no idea what it was! I attended Augsburg College across the river... I have always been impressed with the burgeoning theater population in the Twin Cities. Thanks for reminding me how great it is and what impromptu experiences like bats bring to the performance. Was this Woolworths across from Daytons? I used to buy cheap slices of pizza there, when friends and I hopped a bus into the big city from the suburbs, lol.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for the comment.The comments about Cohen got me to thinking about the showboat. I always learn some thing new in the process of writing and researching.

    • Tom Whitworth profile image

      Tom Whitworth 7 years ago from Moundsville, WV


      Thanks for the props. I'm glad I could help you with your entertaining hub.