Living History on Cincinnati’s Waterfront
© Becky Linhardt 2012
“Performers quickly learn that working on the floating stage of the Showboat Majestic is very different than being on a land-based stage,” said Janette Bruce, a showboat veteran (1995-2004) and graduate of Northern Kentucky University. “Waves from boat traffic can rock the boat. In my first rehearsals I was often knocked off balance when I spun or danced but I found ways to adapt to the occasional motion.” For the audience though, the rocking is gentle and barely noticed as they enjoy the special theatrical world of the last surviving, original and intact showboat, now docked at Cincinnati’s Public Landing.
”As a celebration of our little historic showboat’s 90th Anniversary Season, I chose some of the greatest, nostalgic, summer-stock shows in the canon - shows that fit the “atmosphere of yesteryear” on the Majestic. Classics like the musical George M, with its energized score of songs by George M. Cohan, and Arsenic and Old Lace, which at one time was the longest running comedy of all time on Broadway, were easy to select. And a modern baseball story like Rounding Third is a natural for Cincinnati – the town with the first ever professional baseball team. We start the season with a sparkling salute to Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, in Babes In Hollywood. And to wrap it all up, we end this special season with The Music Man – THE great American summertime musical.”
Launched in 1923, the Showboat Majestic traveled the Ohio River and its tributaries from April to October, stopping for a few days at river towns along the way to present a few of the season’s selection. “The technology was basic,” said Perrino. “They used roll drops to change scenes, would have as many a dozen hung backstage for the season’s shows – doing multiple duty for comedies and melodramas. The stage is small and we have challenges; need to think creatively to accommodate current technologies.”
The balcony area is now used for lighting and sound equipment. The tiny stage was extended out – over the original orchestra pit. During a production of My Fair Lady in 2009, the flats for the library scenes could pivot to provide the ballroom background. Sometimes they even use the old roll/drop screen equipment.
New/old seats from Music Hall were installed in 1994 on the first floor providing comfortable seating for 221, an intimate theatrical experience. Modern air-conditioning helps keep patrons and performers comfortable inside the theater on those hot and steamy summer nights common to the riverfront.
Weather is always a challenge. The narrow backstage area is supplemented by an awning-covered but open back deck so often the costumed actors and actresses have to deal with the heat there, and sometimes rain as they rush from back stage to their upstairs dressing rooms or another entrance point for a dramatic entry.
“It was stormy during the run of Children of Eden, and I knew I needed to be careful, but I was racing from backstage, along the side of the Showboat. I needed be “aged” and quickly make my next entrance through the audience from the back,” said Janette Bruce. “Suddenly my feet went out from under me and I grabbed for the guard rail as I slid through. So there I am, hanging half in the water; no one knows where I am. Now I don’t have much upper body strength but I managed to somehow drag myself back up onto the deck, round the corner by the box office, stagger into the lobby where the make-up people tried to spray on the gray on my hair. I rushed, dripping, up the aisle through the audience to the stage – late for my cue. I was pretty bruised the next day.”
It is more than – the show must go on – that keeps the performers involved. “You become like family working is such crowded spaces,” said Bruce. “I once had my own dressing room when I had the female role for I do, I do but usually each of us would try to find a space, a closet even, to change. When we had a big cast you would find performers sitting in the manager’s office putting on make-up at Tim’s desk.” Nomadic as they are, the Showboat’s performers stay in touch with phone calls, emails and FaceBook to share good news and their newest gig.
“Cincinnatiis brimming with talent,” said Perrino. “Everything from incredibly skilled teens, to college-age performers, young adults and especially well-trained, experienced actors, dancers and singers who have worked around the world – Broadway, national tours, cruise ships, and entertainment venues in Vegas, Bronson, Orlando, etc. – who have come back home to this area to “settle down” but, they still have the ability and the performing “bug”.”
The skilled performers also have the ability to ad-lib when necessary. TheOhio Rivercan throw in a few surprises, as can their neighbors at US Bank Arena and even the Cincinnati Reds when fireworks erupt to celebrate a home run or victory at the nearby stadium.
“We were in the middle of Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water, a Cold War comedy set behind the Iron Curtain,” said Perrino. “In the play, we were at a point where the lead was sulking in the sitting room of a US Embassy when all of the sudden booms from the stadium echoed through the theater. The lead, just sulked some more and said – ‘Those damn Reds.’ He paused; then shouted, ‘I’m talking about the Communists!’ It took a minute for the audience to react and then they just went wild with laughter.” Chalk up one more show-stopper as the Showboat Majestic continues to add to the folklore and history of theater on the Ohio River.
Showboat Majestic, Cincinnati Public Landing,535 East Mehring Way,Cincinnati,OH45202
Ticket pricing is generally under $20. Student and Senior Discounts available.
For information about other Cincinnati attractions: www.CincinnatiUSA.com