Say the words “show boat” to American theater lovers and most will think of Jerome Kern’s classic 1927 musical, cited by many as the first modern work of musical theater. But in Cincinnati, people are just as likely to conjure up the Showboat Majestic, which actually predates Kern’s show by four years and represents its own corner of theater history — since 1962 it’s been the last craft of its kind, once a common venue for entertainment along America’s inland waterways.
With a happy and clever act of marketing, the folks at Cincinnati Landmark Productions, who now manage the Majestic, are finishing the boat’s 85th season with a production of — you guessed it — Show Boat. (See Tom McElfresh's review here.)
As Kern’s tuneful show portrays, floating theaters like the Cotton Blossom steamed up and down rivers in the 19th century, pulling ashore in cities and a small towns with actors and a ready-made stage, the only way many Americans could see professional stage performers.
At 140 feet, the Majestic, permanently moored at the Public Landing, is nowhere near as large as the Cotton Blossom. But the genealogy is clear — the Majestic was built in 1923 by Capt. Thomas Jefferson Reynolds for $7,000. From 1923 until the late 1950s, it traveled up and down the Ohio, blasting its calliope to attract attention. Starting in 1948, Hiram College and Kent State University from northeastern Ohio used the Majestic as a summer stock theater. Reynolds continued to plan the route and guide the overall activities.
Between 1959 and 1967, Indiana University owned the Majestic. In 1959, shortly after selling it to the university, Capt. Reynolds died on board. The city of Cincinnati purchased the Majestic in 1967 and leased it to the University of Cincinnati, which used it for the next 20 years as a summer theater for musical theater, comedy and drama.
A visit to the Majestic, now a National Historic Landmark, is a glimpse into American history. You board via a metal gangplank. From the rear deck, complete with a small snack bar, you enter a tiny theater space. There are approximately 200 seats; the balcony is no longer in use, except for musicians and technicians. The stage is similarly minute (18 by 24 feet), with no wings or backstage space. The theater’s interior retains the ornate wood bric-a-brac associated with American riverboats. When a barge goes by, you feel the wake. And when the Reds hit a home run, performances often stop until the fireworks are finished.
The Cincinnati Recreation Commission took over management of the Majestic, eventually sub-contracting operations to Landmark, which also runs the Covedale Center. The Majestic offers tried-and-true musicals and plays and annually attracts more than 2,000 subscribers. If you’ve never seen a performance there, now is the perfect moment to come aboard for Show Boat, one of the great musicals of all time.
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