Showboat Majestic: Final curtain for National Historic Landmark in Cincinnati?

Theater production group pulls out after 23 years

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CINCINNATI - Is this the final curtain for the Showboat Majestic?

The 91-year-old National Historic Landmark is the last original showboat still operating as a floating theater in the U.S, but that may be coming to an end Sunday.

Cincinnati Landmark Productions, which has been producing shows on the charming wooden boat moored at the Public Landing for the last 23 summers, is calling it quits after Sunday’s sold-out, season-ending performance of “Showboat Follies.”

So far, the city, which owns the boat and pays hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for upkeep, has not found anyone interested in putting on productions and willing to share the cost.

“If we’re not able to get some of the expenses paid, we wouldn’t be able to sustain the Showboat as it is,” Jenny Mobley, supervising manager of riverfront parks, told 9 On Your Side. “It’s one of our largest costs.”

Mobley said the city is considering several options for preserving the boat – including moving it to a lake, where it could stay open year round without concern for the rising and falling of the river and where it wouldn’t be subject to the constant pounding of the current. While the boat has been fitted with a metal hull overlay, some of the pipes and other features are at least 40 years old, she said.

If it can’t continue to operate as a theater, it might work as a small club or maybe even as a riverboat museum.

“We (park managers) have talked about that, but no one has come to us about it,” Mobley said.

Mobley said she has been handling inquiries about the boat and giving tours since Cincinnati Landmark Productions announced it was leaving.

“We’ve had about 10 (groups) come forward. I’d say about three or four or serious. We’ve only had one formal proposal so far,” Mobley said.

That came from a person in the local theater community, she said.

“We’ve had inquiries from high school theater groups, college theater groups. Some people want to hold live bands or independent film festivals,” Mobley said.

“Honestly, I think some people have come down just to take a tour of the boat. Others ask about the infrastructure and about operating expenses.

“There are people in the community who want to help save the Showboat, but when you talk about costs, they backpedal a little bit,” Mobley said. “And it is a 91-year-old wooden boat, after all, so there are concerns with that as well.”

The same things that make the Showboat unique make it difficult and it expensive to operate, especially considering it's only in use for a few spring and summer months.

Anybody taking over operations “would have very large hurdles to overcome,” said Tim Perrino, head of Cincinnati Landmark Productions.

In their arrangement with the city, Perrino and his group took on the task of keeping the boat afloat.

“We literally kept the boat afloat for 23 years though floods, ice in the winter – even tornadoes and the windstorm from the hurricane (Ike) in 2008,” Perrino said. “It’s a 24-7 job and it’s year round and it takes a lot of time, money and energy.

“I like to say the river doesn’t care if it’s 3 in the morning or if it’s Easter. If one of the lines breaks loose, you have to deal with it or the boat floats down to New Orleans.”

The showboat never broke away “on my watch,” but it happened before he took over, Perrino said.

“Every time the river rises a foot you have to let (the boat) out because it’s not built to be dropped at an angle on concrete,” he said, describing what would happen if the river pushed the boat onto the Public Landing.

“Every time the river drops a foot, you have to pull it in.”

Perrino was successful in filling 80 percent of the theater’s 221 seats during his run, but he says that would be hard to maintain with The Banks and other new entertainment venues on the riverfront and downtown.

“The biggest thing is just the time and effort the boat requires, but you also have the location with so many competing attractions now. A small wooden boat might get lost among the larger attractions,” he said.

The Showboat Majestic goes back to the 1920s when it was one of dozens of showboats on the Ohio River. It started touring river towns and putting on shows in 1923 with its original owners and builders, Capt. Thomas Reynolds and family.

It was sold to the Indiana University in 1959 and traveled on the river until 1965 when the Coast Guard decided that the wooden hull was too hazardous. It was tied up at Jeffersonville, Ind., and continued to host shows until 1967.

That’s when a local group bought it and moved it to Cincinnati.

For a while it was a training facility for UC's College Conservatory of Music.

The city bought it in 1990, and Perrino’s group started producing shows there in 1991.

Asked if she was optimistic about finding someone to operate the Showboat, Mobley said, “Half and half.”

“Unfortunately, the costs involved are hard for some people to digest.”

She said the city would cover about $350,000 in needed capital improvements. Annual operating expenses are about $105,000, not including $45,000 for utilities and $45,000 for  “nautical” expenses.

Mobley said the city is willing to “negotiate” with any interested party, just as it did with Perrino’s group.

“CLP paid the nautical costs and we paid the utilities,” Mobley said. “If somebody is able to do that, or the opposite, yes, I would be optimistic.

“We have two visits scheduled next week. We’re hoping to have more proposals by the end of October. We’re still in the first step.”

Mobley said “I love the Showboat” and thinks it “deserves a calmer location” like a nearby lake.

“I know people say, ‘But it’s a riverboat.’ But it’s 91 years old and it’s susceptible to a lot of adverse conditions with the river current,” she said.

Mobley said the city talked to Coney Island about putting it there.

“They seemed somewhat interested, but I don’t think that will happen,” she said.

She also suggested Burnet Woods (“but people say that’s too small”) or Winton Woods, a county park.

The city has no intention of scrapping the boat, Mobley said, but she didn’t actually rule that out.

“You have to ask if we’re doing a service just keeping the Showboat open if no one is using it. Does it make sense to keep it on the river and let it deteriorate?

"That’s something we may have to deal with,” she said.

Related story: Tim Perrino to open $5.1 million theater in Incline District

Copyright 2013 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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