U’s Centennial Showboat celebrates 50th anniversary

After closing in the 1990s and reopening in 2002, the Showboat will celebrate 50 years of performances this July.

The University’s Centennial Showboat has existed for 50 years, endured 45 theater seasons and overcome adversity; its alumni and staff have reason to celebrate.

The Showboat program, essentially another stage for the University’s theater program, will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a reunion July 12 on Harriet Island . The event will begin with a matinee performance on the Mississippi River, followed by a reception for the current players , alumni and guests. A dinner and river cruise will follow on the Jonathan Padelford paddleboat.

“With an event like this, you can go one of two ways,” said Showboat Educational Programs Director and University theater arts and dance lecturer Sherry Wagner-Henry . “You can decide to have a fundraiser or you can have a party. We decided we wanted a party.”

The event is intended to welcome back those who had worked on the showboat , and audience members who have enjoyed performances, she said. It will be open to the public.

But the origins of the Showboat are a far cry from what it is today. The General John Newton , the very first showboat, was commissioned in 1899. It was formerly an Army Corps of Engineers vessel, and used to hold court hearings regarding access and use of the river.

In 1956 , the University theater department developed the idea of a showboat to add to the 100th anniversary of Minnesota’s statehood.

Wagner-Henry said the project was a collaboration between the Statehood Centennial Commission and the University’s Department of Theater Arts and Dance .

The idea to bring the showboat to the University started as a discussion between Theater Department Director Frank “Doc” Whiting and State Centennial Commission Executive Director Tom Swain, while judging a Miss Minnesota pageant, Wagner-Henry said.

“They got to talking about ways to celebrate the Centennial during breaks in the pageant,” she said. “They cooked up this idea of a showboat.”

The search for an appropriate vessel began soon after.

By the late 1950s, the General John Newton was found in New Orleans. The University bought it for $1. After $50,000 in renovations, the boat was made into a functioning theater.

The showboat ran without incident every summer until 1993, Wagner-Henry said, when the boat was nearly 100 years old and no longer complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

It closed after the 1993 season until further renovations could be completed. The University’s funding efforts failed due to rising costs.

Work didn’t begin on the boat until 1999, and in January 2000 it was burned by a wayward-flying welding spark.

After several months of searching for a new boat, the Padelford River Company , in collaboration with a Mississippi ship building company and the city of St. Paul, offered to help the University build a historically correct showboat.

The new showboat opened in July 2002. This summer marks the beginning of its 46th season.

Showboat player and recent University graduate Christopher Kehoe said the facility embraces the past 50 years of showboat performances.

“I think tradition goes hand-in-hand with appreciation,” he said. “If you can foster an appreciation for the style, the tradition, the corniness and the spectacle-less awe , everything will fall into place.”