Back to top

Minnesota Centennial Showboat

  • Cite
  • Share
  • Correct
  • Print
Minnesota Centennial Showboat and performers

Minnesota Centennial Showboat and performers, 1965. Photograph by the University of Minnesota Photographic Laboratory.

University of Minnesota professor Frank M. "Doc" Whiting brought a unique type of theater entertainment to the Twin Cities with the opening of the Minnesota Centennial Showboat in 1958. For more than fifty years the showboat presented a variety of student theater productions, from melodrama to Shakespeare, in a floating venue on the Mississippi River.

In 1956, the Minnesota Centennial Commission began to plan for the 1958 state centennial celebration. Frank Whiting, director of the university's theater program, saw an opportunity to realize his dream of a showboat theater on the Mississippi. He proposed a Minnesota Centennial Showboat. The commission agreed, and the search began for a suitable boat.

Finding a paddleboat wasn't easy, and building one on an existing river barge proved too costly. In 1957, Whiting and the Centennial Commission's Tom Swain learned that the US Army Corps of Engineers planned to retire the General John Newton, a 175-foot sternwheeler towboat built in 1899. Minnesota Senator Edward J. Thye helped to arrange its transfer to the university for just one dollar.

The paddleboat arrived in St. Paul on April 3, 1958. The university had less than three months to prepare it for the season opening on June 26. Students helped to recreate the atmosphere of an 1890s showboat by painting walls, sewing curtains, reupholstering old theater seats, building scenery, and sewing costumes.

The first season opened with a production of Augustin Daly's 1867 melodrama Under the Gaslight. Miss Minnesota Diane Albers, assisted by Doc Whiting and Centennial Commission Chairman Peter Popovich, christened the boat by breaking a bottle of champagne across the bow. James S. Lombard of the commission's arts committee cut the ribbon to open the gangplank. Mayor Joseph E. Dillon of St. Paul rang the ship's original bell to invite the theater's first patrons aboard.

In its early years, the showboat traveled up and down the river. It stopped for scheduled performances in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Stillwater, Hastings, Red Wing, Wabasha, and Winona. The student cast, numbering about fifteen, performed one or two plays each season. Each show featured vaudeville-style olios (lively song-and-dance numbers) between acts. In addition to performing, the actors cleaned the boat, greeted visitors, and took tickets, among other tasks.

1969 marked the last season the boat toured. Following that season, it made an appearance in the Swedish film The Emigrants before settling into a stationary mooring site on the river's east bank, below the university campus.

In 1995, the ninety-six-year-old paddleboat moved to St. Paul for $2 million in needed repairs. Fire destroyed the boat on the evening of January 27, 2000, just months before its scheduled reopening on Harriet Island. Only the paddlewheel and burned-out hull remained.

University theater professor C. Lance Brockman led a campaign to obtain a new showboat. In December 2000, the university agreed to a partnership with the City of St. Paul, the St. Paul Riverfront Development Corporation, and the Padelford Packet Boat Company to build a new showboat. Construction began the following spring in Greenville, Mississippi.

Christened the Frank M. Whiting, the new Minnesota Centennial Showboat arrived at Harriet Island on April 17, 2002. It opened on July 4 with a production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The Minnesota Centennial Showboat exposed students to a unique type of theater. Student actors embraced the over-the-top style of melodrama. Designers and student crews met the challenges presented by a small performance space. Audiences joined the fun by booing and hissing at the villain and applauding the hero.

The showboat program earned the Tourism Partner of the Year Award from the St. Paul Convention and Visitors Bureau in 2004. The Padelford Packet Boat Company joined the university's Department of Theatre Arts & Dance to create the C. Lance Brockman Showboat Scholarship later that year.

The final curtain came down on the Minnesota Centennial Showboat at the end of the 2016 summer season. The university's fifteen-year agreement with the City of St. Paul expired, and the university cut the program for budget reasons. Fittingly, the final season featured a revival of Under the Gaslight.

The university sold the boat to the City of St. Paul for one dollar. As of 2018, future plans for the showboat are pending a new management agreement.

  • Cite
  • Share
  • Correct
  • Print
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Berdan, Kathy. TwinCities.com. "Future of St. Paul's Floating Theater Uncertain After Final Show."
http://www.twincities.com/2016/07/05/minnesota-centennial-showboat/

Biemiller, Lawrence. Chronicle for Higher Education. "For These Student Actors, Showboating is Encouraged."
http://www.chronicle.com/article/For-These-Student-Actors/48364

Boxmeyer, Don. "Captain Will See His Fleet Expand." St. Paul Pioneer Press, February 14, 2001.

Bradley, Scott. "Showboat May Sail Away From U." Minnesota Daily, July 26, 1993.

Brown, Curt. "Somehow, They Say, The Show Will Float On." Minneapolis Star Tribune, January 29, 2000.

Collins, Terry. "Fire Destroys University's Historic Centennial Showboat in St. Paul." Minneapolis Tribune, January 28, 2000.

Cronk, Sue. "Hoots, Howls, Hisses Invited at Showboat's Opening Performance." Minneapolis Tribune, June 22, 1958.

Frank M. Whiting Papers, 1942–1981
University of Minnesota Archives
http://archives.lib.umn.edu/repositories/14/resources/1628
Description: Collection includes scripts of plays, correspondence, materials regarding tours to Brazil, Germany and through the Midwestern United States, administrative papers, materials regarding the Guthrie Theatre and materials regarding the University Centennial Showboat.

Karlson, Karl J. "Showboat Fire is Tragedy for its Actors." St. Paul Pioneer Press, January 29, 2000.

Lance Brockman Papers, 1919–2013
University of Minnesota Archives
http://archives.lib.umn.edu/repositories/9/resources/1922
Description: Collection contains three-dimensional models, two-dimensional designs, production records, and source materials of scenic designer Lance Brockman.

Lednicer, Lisa Grace. "Old Showboat Floats to Home in St. Paul." St. Paul Pioneer Press, June 12, 1995.

Lee, Jim. Centennial Showboat Return to Campus Tuesday." Minnesota Daily, Special Centennial Showboat Edition, July 17, 1958.

Livingston, Nancy. "Showboat: $2 Million Facelift Will Buy Shows at Harriet Island." St. Paul Pioneer Press, April 12, 1996.

Melo, Frederick. TwinCities.com. "St. Paul's Mississippi River Theater Showboat Seeks a New Managing Partner."
http://www.twincities.com/2016/11/15/st-pauls-mississippi-river-theater-showboat-seeks-a-managing-partner/

Ochu, Jenny. The Never-Ending Impact of Showboat. University of Minnesota, College of Liberal Arts, Department of Theatre Arts & Dance.
https://cla.umn.edu/theatre/news-events/story/never-ending-impact-showboat

Papatola, Dominic P. "A Boatload of Tradition." Pioneer Press, June 30, 2002.

Park, Eunice. "U's Showboat Theater Faces Uncertain Future." Minnesota Daily, September 25, 1992.

Royce, Graydon. “After More than 50 Years, U of M is Shuttering its Showboat.” Star Tribune, April 19, 2016.
http://www.startribune.com/after-more-than-50-years-university-of-minnesota-is-shuttering-its-showboat/376135841/

Schraeder, Phil. "Hard Work Rewarding for the Men Behind the Showboat." Minnesota Daily, Special Centennial Showboat Edition, July 17, 1958.

"Showboat Documentary Video." YouTube video, 21:46. Posted by "umncla" (University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts), April 6, 2009.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyCNu74bH9w

"Showboat Midway on Trip up Mississippi." Minnesota Daily, March 13, 1958.

Steamboats.com. The Dave Thomson Collection: Steamboats in the Movies.
http://steamboats.com/museum/davet-movies3.html

University of Minnesota Department of Theatre. Minnesota Centennial Showboat. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1958–1970.

Whiting, Frank M. "One of Us Amateurs." Typescript. Provo, UT: Stevenson's Genealogical Center, 1980.

Wolfe, Bev. Twin Cities Arts Reader. Feature: The End of an Era: Minnesota Centennial Showboat's Farewell Season.
http://twincitiesarts.com/2016/06/30/feature-the-end-of-the-showboat/

USITT (United States Institute for Theatre Technology) News & Notices. C. Lance Brockman Honored with Showboat Scholarship.
http://sightlines.usitt.org/archive/v44/n10/stories/ShowboatAward.html

Related Images

Minnesota Centennial Showboat and performers
Minnesota Centennial Showboat and performers
Major General John Newton
Major General John Newton
Minnesota Centennial Showboat at Stillwater levee
Minnesota Centennial Showboat at Stillwater levee
Minnesota Centennial Showboat
Minnesota Centennial Showboat
Theater-goers boarding the Minnesota Centennial Showboat on the East Bank River Flats below the University of Minnesota Campus, 1970.
Theater-goers boarding the Minnesota Centennial Showboat on the East Bank River Flats below the University of Minnesota Campus, 1970.
Bloomer Girl (a Minnesota Centennial Showboat production)
Bloomer Girl (a Minnesota Centennial Showboat production)
Minnesota Centennial Showboat
Minnesota Centennial Showboat
Frank M. Whiting
Frank M. Whiting

Turning Point

Fire started by a welder's spark destroys the original Minnesota Centennial Showboat while it is undergoing major repairs on January 27, 2000.

Chronology

1899

The General John Newton sternwheeler paddleboat is built for the US Army Corps of Engineers.

1856

The Minnesota Centennial Commission begins planning for the state's centennial celebration and Doc Whiting sees an opportunity to tie a showboat theater into the centennial.

1957

Tom Swain and Doc Whiting learn of the availability of the General John Newton, which is about to be retired by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The corps stipulates that the vessel is to be used for educational purposes.

January 28, 1958

Doc Whiting gets the news that the boat will be transferred to the University of Minnesota for the token fee of one dollar.

April 3, 1958

The General John Newton arrives in St. Paul, towed in tandem with eleven barges.

June 26, 1958

Under the Gaslight opens with festivities including a christening of the boat with a bottle of champagne broken across the bow by Miss Minnesota Diane Albers, a gangplank ribbon-cutting ceremony, and a ringing of the ship's original bell.

1969

1969: Following the summer season, the showboat makes a guest appearance in the Swedish film The Emigrants, directed by Jan Troell and starring Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann.

1970

The showboat is deemed unsafe for river travel and, for the first time, spends the season moored on the east bank of the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus.

1993

The showboat is pulled from service for repairs and updates.

1995

The Centennial Showboat is moved to St. Paul from its East Bank Minneapolis mooring and put into dry dock for needed repairs.

January 27, 2000

The showboat is destroyed when a fire starts from a welder's spark during repair work.

December 8, 2000

The University of Minnesota's Board of Regents agrees to a partnership with St. Paul Parks and Recreation, St. Paul Riverfront Development Corporation, and the Padelford Packet Boat Company to build and manage a new showboat.

April 17, 2002

The new Frank M. Whiting Minnesota Centennial Showboat arrives at Harriet Island Regional Park.

July 4, 2002

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde opens the new showboat's first season.

2016

The fifteen-year agreement with the City of St. Paul expires, and the university decides to discontinue operation of the showboat program for budget reasons, selling the boat to the City of St. Paul for one dollar.