Lois Gildemeister played the organ at the First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Grand Rapids, Minn., for decades of Sundays starting in the early 1930s. The rest of the week, she ran the Ford dealership that her German-born father started in 1917.

Way ahead of her time, Gildemeister helped launch a business women’s group in Grand Rapids, managed the community’s food bank and posted low scores on Itasca County golf courses.

“I don’t think she ever slept,” said Bud Stone, president of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, who started selling cars for Gildemeister in the 1960s. “She was such an energetic pillar of this community.”

But of all her contributions, Gildemeister is best remembered as the one-woman force behind Grand Rapids’ Mississippi Melodie Showboat — an old-time summer variety show she created in the mid-1950s on a reproduction steamboat built on pontoons and docked on the city’s rivershore.

“Seeing as how you’ve got the Mississippi running through town,” she said in 1980, “it’s a shame not to be using it.”

A 1965 profile in the Minneapolis Tribune summed her up: “Lois is striking proof that it is possible to have many irons in the fire without losing efficiency. She thrives on long hours, hard work, sleepless nights of planning and seemingly insurmountable problems.”

For most of the Showboat’s 60-year run, Gildemeister cajoled neighbors to join the amateur production’s orchestra or the cast of dozens that sang, danced, cracked jokes and performed skits for busloads of crowds that often topped 1,000 people on riverbank benches. There were always lots of tickets to sell, buses to coordinate and lights to rig.

“Lois was the energy behind it all,” said Alan Sweet, 97, the show’s longtime musical director. “She was a dynamic woman and the people in the show loved her.”

Lois Bendix, 79, remembers walking down the church steps one Sunday morning. Gildemeister was waiting to ask her help with Showboat bus traffic.

“When Lois asked people to get involved, you didn’t want to let her down,” Bendix said. “When she asked for help, you not only said yes, but you wanted to do well and not slough through it.”

Mary Jo Jess said Gildemeister was a “natural-born leader, a magnet” who combined vision and determination to “make dreams possible.” Jess, 80, remembers when the community starting kicking around the idea of a local performing arts center. Gildemeister headed over to the Blandin Paper Co., the town’s major business.

“She walked into the president’s office and told Myles Reif we needed an arts center and he ought to pay for it — and he did,” Jess said.

The Myles Reif Performing Arts Center opened in 1981, and Gildemeister went on to serve on the Blandin Foundation board.

Gildemeister lived in a small house on Little Jay Gould Lake and poured her boundless energy into the Showboat.

“She had a way of connecting with people whether you were a novice with no acting experience or not,” said Brian Carlson, who worked as a funeral director and house painter in Grand Rapids and landed the coveted role of Captain Dan — the Showboat’s master of ceremonies.

Carlson remembers one summer when a TV celebrity came to the Showboat. Hugh Beaumont, who played the imperturbable father figure, Ward Cleaver, on “Leave it to Beaver,” owned a summer cabin on a Lake Wabana island north of Grand Rapids.

“She made it clear to the cast that we were not to bother him for autographs, but we could talk to him if he initiated the conversation,” Carlson said.

The Showboat peaked in popularity in the 1960s.

“Lois’ passion turned it into a phenomenal draw,” said Stone, who sang in the shows for 17 years. “She was so special, generous and caring.”

Stone said the advent of casino gambling in Minnesota was a factor in the Showboat’s demise. After 50 years, crowds began to dwindle in the early 2000s, and the production finally fizzled out in 2015.

“I went to see Lois when she was dying and she said she hoped the Showboat would make it to 50 years [in 2006] and then it should go away,” Bendix said. “She saw the handwriting on the wall.”

The boat was sold to the chamber of commerce downriver in Aitkin, where rehabilitation efforts have been slowed by the pandemic.

Gildemeister remains revered in Grand Rapids 15 years after she died in 2005, five days shy of her 91st birthday. She’s buried at Itasca Calvary Cemetery just north of the river she loved.

Five years after the last Showboat production, her legacy lives on. Bendix mentioned her own work trying to bring a food cooperative to Grand Rapids.

“She inspired lots of us as a role model for caring for our community,” Bendix said. “Lois had that ability to gather all the right people to get things done.”

 

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.