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The Showboat

By Tim Perrino, Showboat Majestic Director

In the early morning hours of April 9, 1923, Captain Thomas Jefferson Reynolds woke from his bed aboard his sparkling new showboat and quickly rousted his young sons Marion and Tommy. Along the upper deck, newly hired actors popped out of their staterooms sporting robes and curlers. Captain Reynolds then fired the engines and sounded the departure whistle as all the family, crew and performers waved to a few groggy souls on the riverbank in Glenwood, Pennsylvania.

Captain Reynolds built the Showboat Majestic himself, with the aid of his father, brother, and brother-in-law and partner Tegie Nicol. All told, it cost $7,000 and months of round-the-clock, back-breaking labor. On April 8, 1923, the "Boat" received her Coast Guard certification. The next day she began her illustrious career.

This marked the end of an era. The Majestic was the last of the purpose-built "floating operas" ever made. She's also the last to make one-night stands, the last to actively travel, and with the burning of the original Goldenrod Showboat in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 1, 1962, the last intact survivor of the singularly American tradition of floating theaters. April 9, 1923 marked a historic beginning as well. Since then the Majestic has entertained countless audiences in thousands of small towns and big cities, "tramping" town-to-town along the Inland Waterway.

As she managed to survive, many other showboats passed into history. Fires, floods and ice floes destroyed such venerable vessels as Bryant's Showboat, Cotton Blossom, French's New Sensation, River Maid and the Water Queen. In 1965, the Safety at Sea Act barred wooden-hulled vessels from transporting passengers, so the Majestic became a permanent fixture on the Ohio riverbank, first in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and then (since 1967) in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1969, a metal hull was fitted over the original wooden one, ensuring her survival for years to come.

Like the Cotton Blossom in the Jerome Kern Musical "Show Boat" (from Edna Ferber's novel Showboat), the Majestic is not only a uniquely American form of popular entertainment, but the setting for one family's saga over many generations.

In the musical, it's Captain Andy Hawks and his family, particularly his daughter Magnolia, whose story unfolds over the years. The real-life equivalent can be found in Captain Thomas Jefferson Reynolds, head of the Reynolds family--the builders, owners, operators and performers aboard the Majestic.

From 1923 until late 1950s, the Reynolds family brought the Showboat to many places and people, for whom its arrival was the most eagerly awaited event of the summer. The Roaring Twenties were the last great heydays for many showboats. Times were good; audiences had money and many hours to spend on leisurely pursuits. The Majestic, because of her medium size and shallow, 14-inch draft, played in many less accessible river towns. Entertainment-starved locals lined up in droves to see a show.

In 1925, Captain Reynolds followed the crowds to Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. Gunning the engines, he shot the Showboat over a sand bar and scraped the overhanging trees. To this day, the Majestic is the largest vessel and only showboat to navigate the Green River to the landing below the great cave.

Showboats began to decline during the Great Depression. The Majestic survived economically by converting to a completely family-run operation. Daughters Catherine and Hazel performed onstage and in the orchestra. Catherine even played the calliope on the roof. Sons and uncles took roles, learned to pilot, and played the drums and saxophones. When it came to selling tickets, the Reynoldses gladly accepted a dozen eggs, a basket of apples, or even the occasional live chicken in exchange for admission to such theatrical delights as "Bloomer Girl" or "Ten Nights In A Bar Room."

The Second World War and the ensuing "shrinking" of America by improved transportation doomed most of the surviving "floating operas." With the war came fuel rationing and tight security on America's rivers. After the war, even the smallest town featured a movie house or a paved highway that quickly led to one. Captain Billy Bryant (on whom Edna Ferber based much of character of Captain Andy Hawks) became a celebrated author and lecturer after the demise of Bryant's Showboat in 1943. During the war, Captain Reynolds tied up the Majestic at Henderson, West Virginia, and opened a grocery store. In addition, he worked as a river security agent for the Army Corps of Engineers, looking out for possible sabotage in the transportation of war materiel.

In the late 1940s, Captain Reynolds revived the showboatin' era by leasing the majestic as a summer stock college theatre. Over the next 15 years, a succession of colleges (Hiram College, Kent State University, and Indiana University) leased the Showboat, installed a company of exuberant young actors, and set out upon the Ohio River system for a full season of melodrama, comedy, and novelty acts.

In 1959, Indiana University purchased the Majestic. Ironically, just a few months after the sale, Captain Reynolds died aboard his now-sold showboat. He had been contracted to pilot "the Boat" for the upcoming I.U. season, but while working on deck he had had a heart attack. Falling into the river, he drowned, ending the career of one of the river's most revered individuals.

Until 1967, Indiana University continued to produce summer shows aboard the Majestic. The last two years she was docked at Jeffersonville, Indiana. In 1966, one young thespian aboard was noted film star Kevin Kline. "I stoked the furnace for the calliope," he said when recently contacted about his Showboat past, "and had a glorious summer aboard the Majestic!"

For the next 20 years, the Showboat was leased to the University of Cincinnati as a summer stock opportunity for theatre students. Director Paul Rutledge guided the early years--years that sent performers like Pamela Meyers, Lee Roy Reams, Diana Rogers, and Vicki Lewis on to Broadway.

Purchased by the City of Cincinnati in the fall of 1967, the Majestic opened in May 1968 with the Cole Porter musical Anything Goes. The season featured performances by such Cincinnati notables as Marian Spelman, Bob Jones, and Jerry Thomas. Monday nights were filled with performances of the musical The Fantasticks. Tuesdays were movie nights with A Song To Remember, The Jolson Story and Knickerbocker Holiday on the playbill.

In 1990, the City of Cincinnati, via the Cincinnati Recreation Commission, began its administration of the Showboat Majestic. By combining its own productions with quality professional, academic and community theatres, the Majestic has kept above water (financially speaking) for the last eight years. Director Tim Perrino has overseen a 350% increase in subscriptions while establishing many restorations and technical upgrades.

1999 The Cincinnati
Recreation Commission
Cincinnati, OH USA

What was it like to be a performer on a Showboat?
From Pat Carr, a former player on the MAJESTIC

The Attaboy was built at the same time as the Majestic (1923). The kitchen was on the Attaboy. The sleeping rooms (bunks in my day) were on the Majestic. The Attaboy burned after it was owned by the city of Cincinnati, and docked permanently with the Majestic. It was rebuilt and is used as a sort of yard boat in the area. It does not resemble the original Attaboy, according to the Majestic director and my friends who walked quite a way along the river to see it in August.

The auditorium, in its original configuration, had box seats, a VERY tiny pit (where I played my trumpet), a balcony, and total seating was just over 400. In Cincinnati, they renovated the auditorium. The stage was enlarged over the pit, which also removed the box seats, although some of their structure is visible at the sides of the stage. The balcony became the location of musicians, lighting, and other tech stuff. The new seats in the auditorium are padded. Total seating is now just over 200.

The original steam calliope, which could be heard for 3-5 miles, was located on the Attaboy. It was played with a keyboard directly attached to the pipes and whistles. Each key actually opened a valve releasing the steam pressure to the whistle. This required muscles in the hands, as well as ear plugs. The songs could therefore not be played as fast as some of the currently used calliopes. For instance, the historic calliope on the Delta Queen, taken off a sunken old showboat, is played from a distance, with a keyboard that electronically opens the steam valves. It is still not easy to play, but MUCH easier than the old original calliopes, such as the one on the Attaboy for the Majestic. When Indiana University sold the Majestic to the City of Cincinnati, they kept the calliope! According to their current publicity, this "authentic antique" calliope is now housed in a wagon that can be drawn by a six horse hitch or mechanically. It now uses an electronic keyboard. It is "available for public use." I hear it is always in the Indy 500 parade.

In 1958, when I was a student at Hiram College in Ohio, we only had electricity on the Majestic by generator a half hour before until a half hour after the show. There was no actual running water, except that tanks of the roof supplied water (cold) by gravity to a shower backstage (no semblance of spray), and to (hopefully) flush the toilets. A bucket on a long rope was kept by each toilet, just in case, so we could get river water to flush it, if necessary! We had a show every night in various river towns, except our few weeks in Pittsburgh, where the "blue laws" kept us from any Sunday performances. We did 102 shows that summer, for which we received college credit. We did old time melodramas, had a candy sale with prizes and had 10 acts of vaudeville.

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