A summer tradition that traversed more than 50 years will end in August, after the Minnesota Centennial Showboat concludes its final season.
A 15-year agreement between the University of Minnesota, which owns the boat, and the city of St. Paul, where it is moored at Harriet Island, is expiring. The university’s theater department has indicated a desire to move away from the 19th-century melodramas presented in the 210-seat theater.
“The Showboat,” as it was known in theater circles, will be shuttered after a 60-performance run of “Under the Gaslight,” a show typical of the work that has drawn audiences to watch university students since 1958 (with one interruption).
In fact, “Gaslight” was featured in the first season, after an old paddle-wheeler called the General John Newton was brought up from New Orleans and docked along the Mississippi River bottoms.
Dr. Frank Whiting, a legend in the university theater department, spearheaded the project. At one time, the Showboat was a thriving summer venue with melodramas and musical olios. Students got paid and gained experience with much longer theatrical runs than were available during the school year.
The boat fell into disrepair, and by 1993 it was floated downstream to Harriet Island for restoration. Shortly before the John Newton was due to reopen in 2000, it was destroyed by fire. The university, the city and the Padelford Packet Riverboat Company agreed to build a new barge for $2 million. It opened in 2002 and was named for Whiting.
Ticket sales, which have declined dramatically in recent years, had funded repairs and upkeep. The College of Liberal Arts has initiated the process to transfer ownership, according to a university news release. The city of St. Paul has the right of first refusal.
University alumni who performed on the Showboat included actors Bain Boehlke, Shirley Venard, Loni Anderson, Linda Kelsey, Jon Cranney, Valeri Mudek and Raye Birk.
John Miller Stephany, former associate artistic director of the Guthrie Theater, will direct “Gaslight,” which runs July 7-Aug. 27. As he has for more than 40 years, professor emeritus Vern Sutton will direct the olios. Ticket information is at 651-227-1100 or www.showboat.umn.edu