Theater on the River: The Showboat Majestic Records

By Suzanne Maggard

In 1967, the City of Cincinnati purchased an old showboat named the Majestic and docked it at Cincinnati’s Public Landing.  The city was in the process of attempting to revive its riverfront and thought the boat, which spoke to an earlier era of river travel, might be a perfect addition.  To keep the tradition of the showboat alive, the city leased this boat to the University of Cincinnati, and in the summer of 1968, UC theater students began performing on the Majestic.

The Majestic is the last of the “floating theaters” once common along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.  Showboats like the Majestic provided a form of traveling entertainment to people who lived in isolated river towns in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  The first showboats began to appear at the turn of the 19th century.  In 1817, Noah Ludlow and his troupe of actors began traveling by boat, but William Chapman’s Floating Theater is the first documented showboat.  “Showboats” provided a variety of entertainment from combined museums and theaters to floating circuses to disreputable gambling boats, strip shows, and medicine shows.  Although the Civil War halted traveling river entertainment, showboats were revived in the 1870s with performances including vaudeville, melodrama, and variety acts.  The larger showboats, including the Majestic, were barges without their own engines, which allowed for a large theater.  They traveled the river with the help of a tugboat.

Photograph of the Majestic's stage from Catherine Reynolds King's memoir.

Built in 1923, the Majestic was the third showboat owned by Tom Reynolds and his brother-in-law and business partner, Thomas Nichols.  His first showboat, the Illinois, was a tradeboat selling glassware, graniteware, china, pottery, tin, and ironware before Reynolds bought equipment to show movies in 1912.  The Illinois was lost in a fire when a projector spark ignited highly flammable nitrate movie film.  Reynolds was passionate about his business, though, and wasted little time building a second showboat.   The America, a drama and vaudeville showboat with a professional troupe of actors and musicians, was launched in 1917.  Business was so successful that Reynolds and Nichols, decided to build a larger boat at the close of the 1922 season.  They named the new boat, the Majestic.

Tom Reynolds and his family lived and performed on the boat as they traveled the Ohio River and its tributaries.   After World War II and with his family grown, Reynolds found it harder to maintain the showboat lifestyle.  Starting in 1945, he began leasing the Majestic to Kent State University and Hiram College for a summer theater experience for their students.  In 1959, Indiana University bought the Majestic, but Reynolds continued to pilot the boat until his death in December of 1959.

In 1965, the Majestic was declared unsafe to travel under federal legislation and it was dry docked in Jeffersonville, Indiana.  In the late 1960s, after the Majestic was purchased by the City of Cincinnati, theater students at the University of Cincinnati began regular performances on the boat.  At first, the performances were only in the summers, but during the 1970s, fall and spring performances were added.   In 1988, UC ended its lease of the MajesticCincinnati Landmark Productions, in cooperation with the Cincinnati Recreation Commission, now operates the Showboat Majestic and continues the tradition.  This summer’s shows include 42nd Street, Art of Murder and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Showboat Follies, 1982

If you’re interested in learning more about UC’s connection to the Showboat Majestic, the Archives and Rare Books Library holds two collections containing Showboat Majestic material including programs, posters, photos, budgets for each season, and other interesting information like security reports, correspondence with customers, and health inspection reports.  Findings aids for both collections are available on the OhioLINK Finding Aid Repository – UA-89-49 and UA-90-26 or contact the Archives and Rare Books Library at or 513-556-1959.

If you’re looking for more information, but aren’t ready to dive into the archives, UC’s libraries holds several books on showboats and the showboat era including:

Here Comes the Showboat by Betty Bryant – Langsam Library PN2293.S4 B79 1994

Showboats; the History of an American Institution by Philip Graham  – Langsam Library PN2293.S4 G7

A History of Showboats on the Western Rivers by Duane Eldon Read – Langsam Library PN2293.S4 R42

Catherine Reynolds King , daughter of Tom Reynolds, wrote a history of Showboat Majestic and the life of Tom Reynolds entitled Cargo of Memories which is available in the CCM Library PN2293.S4 K56

You can also try searching Summon for a list of journal, newspaper articles, and e-books related to showboats, or photographs of the showboat Majestic are also available on the Ohio Memory Project.

Other References:

“Showboat”  The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre. Ed. Phyllis Hartnoll and Peter Found. Oxford University Press, 1996. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. (accessed June 28, 2011).

“Showboat Pilot Dies.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Dec 18, 1959, (accessed June 28, 2011).

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