University Centennial Showboat’s past is littered with hardship

NBy Chelsie L. Hanstad News of the fire came as a shock.

“The Showboat burned to the hull tonight,” Sherry Wagner said a colleague told her after waving her out of a night class. Wagner is the Minnesota Centennial Showboat managing director.

The General John Newton, aged 101 years, was gone – just as it was supposed to be experiencing a rebirth.

The Minnesota Centennial Showboat began its life as a maritime courtroom boat for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It traveled up and down the Mississippi as a floating courtroom used to resolve disputes.

The showboat was part of the 1958 Centennial of Statehood, a celebration marking Minnesota’s 100th year as part of the United States of America. The head of the Centennial celebration, Tom Swain, was judging the Miss Minnesota beauty pageant and happened to meet fellow judge – and the head of the University’s theatre department – Frank Whiting. The two decided to collaborate on the boat idea and the University soon obtained the General John Newton for $1, Wagner said.

After the boat was moved up the river to Minnesota, St. Paul and the University each spent $20,000 to renovate it.

“They cut the boat in half, put a theatre in it, and closed it up again,” Wagner said.

The showboat made its theatrical debut on June 26th, 1958 and operated up until 1993, when the presence of lead paint and the boat’s completely wooden frame caused the University to close it for renovation.

Ben McLaughlin worked on the showboat the summer of 1976.

“That old boat was falling apart even then,” he said. “But it had a charm that was hard to beat.”

It took six years to raise enough money to make the necessary repairs, during which time the boat was moved to Harriet Island at St. Paul’s request. Shows were held at Rarig Center, dubbed the “Experi-boat” and later in a riverfront tent on Harriet Island, but attendance fell.

“People want to be on the boat,” Wagner said.

Then, on the night of January 27th, 2000, disaster struck.

“It was never official [what caused the fire],” Wagner said. “But there was some welding going on that morning.” An errant spark, she explained, might have strayed under some debris and sparked a fire in the boat.

Once word of the fire got out, the community was shocked. Would the showboat be rebuilt? If so, would it be built from scratch or would the University obtain another existing boat? Would the entire project be scrapped?

The University wasn’t sure what to do, when the Padelford Packet Boat Company approached them, wanting to know how they could help.

“Build us a new boat,” Wagner said.

And they did – with an agreement that the University would have the exclusive use of the boat during the summertime. During the rest of the year, the Padelford Packet Boat Company would rent it out for corporate events, children’s workshops, weddings and other events. The Padelford Company would also do the maintenance and sell the tickets.

Mississippi Marine in Greenville, Mississippi, built the boat and sent it north, as the original showboat had been, by means of the Mississippi. The Frank M. Whiting, named for the theatre director everyone called Doc. Whiting, arrived at its new home on April 17th, 2002 – but it wasn’t completely finished yet.

“We had no water, no seats, no electricityÖand were set to open on July 4th,” Wagner said.

Students, faculty and the Padelford Company completed the unfinished work on the boat and by the July 4th performance – a rendition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – the showboat was sold out for the entire season.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for students,” Wagner said.

And, despite the wonderful new boat, many students and alumni said they will always carry fond memories of their days aboard the General John Newton.

“The backstage area was practically non-existent,” McLaughlin said. “But we still got the cast in there every night, making costume changes and entrances and exits as if it were a Broadway theatre.”

Chelsie L. Hanstad is a freelance writer for the Minnesota Daily. The freelance editor welcomes comments at [email protected]