You know a mile around the bend on the Ohio
Comin’ up the river for the Sunday show . . .
What a thrill it must have been playin’ Dixie for the folks
Up and down the river on the first showboat . . .
Those lines from Jerry Jeff Walker’s song, “The First Showboat,” came to mind with news that the last original showboat on American waterways, the Showboat Majestic, docked at Cincinnati’s Public Landing, may see its last show at the end of this month.
Tim Perrino, of Cincinnati Landmark Productions, which operates the Majestic, announced yesterday that the current production of The Showboat Follies, which closes on September 29, would be the company’s last show on the boat. Perrino is the artistic director of the Showboat and its sister theatre, the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts.
The city of Cincinnati owns the boat, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989. But the history of the boat begins much earlier, in 1923, when it was launched near Pittsburgh. Captain Tom Reynolds and his family lived on the boat and plied the Ohio River and its tributaries for 20 years, putting on shows for towns along the shoreline. The boat was docked in West Virginia during World War II, but it was back in operation by 1945, still paddling along Midwestern rivers as a summer theatre for Hiram College and Kent State University.
Indiana University took over the Showboat in 1960 and continued the tradition, but in 1965, the Safety at Sea Act was passed, and the wooden-hulled Majestic was dry-docked in Jeffersonville, Indiana, because it didn’t meet the safety criteria required to transport the company from town to town. It was bought by the city of Cincinnati in 1967 and was leased to the University of Cincinnati for summer stock performances featuring CCM students until 1988. At that time the Cincinnati Recreation Commission took over operation of the showboat; it is now under the purview of the Cincinnati Parks Department. Perrino and Landmark Productions began producing shows there in 1991.
There are newer showboats presenting plays these days, but the Majestic is the last surviving purpose-built “floating opera houses” from the heyday of showboats in America. The Cincinnati Parks Department has no immediate plans to sell or scrap the Showboat Majestic; they are looking for someone to take over operation of the theatre, but no one has come forward. They will continue to maintain the boat for the time being.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati Landmark Productions will be moving on to new ventures. “We'll be striking out from the river to the western horizon, and it's going to be very exciting,” Perrino said, referring to the organization’s plans to build a new theatre in the Incline District of East Price Hill, overlooking the city and the Ohio River.
“Even Captain Reynolds himself knew there was a time to leave the Majestic,” said Perrino. “After 23 years, we feel we've reached the same decision.” Still, he’s not leaving without some regret—“I will miss it,” he said.