The ABCs of Lowell History: S is for Showboat

The Lowell Area Historical Museum is offering a weekly feature to explore local history. The ABCs of Lowell History continues with one resident’s memories of the heyday of the Lowell Showboat. To learn more about Lowell history, visit the museum website to explore its collection of local artifacts and records.

“Nowhere else can such a story of community spirit and good will
be found as in the people of Lowell at Showboat time.”
Grand Rapids Herald July 24, 1955

As Showboat #6 is now being built, this week seemed a good chance to explore the history of the Showboat in Lowell. While that history has been explored many times in many ways, we wanted to share some memories that help to evoke the feeling of the Showboat from a letter written by Larry Wittenbach who experienced it during its prime. The Story of the Lowell Showboat, its history and its meaning to the community can best be shown through the memories of the young people who grew up knowing its charm and celebrity personalities. Enjoy this walk down memory lane…

“Like many teens of my generation the Showboat was an entertaining and exciting part of our life each summer. In the fifties many of us youngsters sang in the showboat Chorus or helped cleaning, painting, decorating the boat, or volunteering in many other ways to help the adults prepare for the shows. After a Chorus practice we might head over the Chris’s Drug store and order a Cherry Coke at the soda fountain. Often Runci (Carleton Runicman) would stop in and pick up the tab for the whole group. Boy, were we impressed!

In the late sixties Bill Doyle asked me to take over the hiring and handling of the professional entertainment and I so got to know some really great people like Dinah Shore, Milton Berle, Ray Stevens, the Everly Brothers (Don and Phil), and Jerry Reed among others.

For the 1969 show, it was comedian Milton Berle known as Uncle Milty on his weekly television show. I was to pick him up at the airport. It was July 20th and I was waiting for him I had the car radio on listening, as most of the nation was, to the landing on the moon of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. I saw Berle coming and struggling with two big heavy leather suitcases one of which I found out later contained musical arrangements for his part of the show. I helped him get them into the trunk and we headed to the motel on 28th Street. After introductions his first question was about the progress of the moon landing so I switched the radio on and we listened until we got to the motel where we got him checked in and made sure the room had a television set. We wrestled those heavy bags up to the room and turned the TV on. I then offered him a good night and headed for the door. Uncle Milty said “Wait, don’t you want to watch, he is about to get out and step onto the Moon?” I sure did not want to miss that so we perched side by side on the foot of the bed watching silently and after a while Neil made that first historic step. An indelible memory for me!

I found out that like Uncle Milty all of the entertainers were wonderful, friendly personalities to be around. Dinah Shore was another one. The day before her Showboat appearance I took her and her manager to the stage to do some rehearsing with the band. Afterwards it was getting dark and asked if they were hungry. Was thinking where on a Monday night we might go. Then I saw a light in the kitchen of the Levee Restaurant which was on the corner right near the Showboat. It was closed but when I rapped on the front windows the owner Thelma (née Eickhoff) Roth who was making her famous pies in the back came up front, unlocked the door, seated us, and brought coffee and warm pie from the oven. Dinah was genuinely ecstatic about the pie, asked Thelma to sit down, and they talked for an hour or more about their mo’s pies and cooking and Dinah’s upbringing down in Tennessee.

I would take each performer around Grand Rapids to radio station studios and WOODTV to go on air and promote the Showboat. On these occasions Jerry Reed was very entertaining and good at the interviews. Chet Atkins always said that Jerry was perhaps the finest guitar player he had every played with and they produced more than one album together. While driving around Jerry mentioned that he had just purchased some land on a. Lake outside of Nashville and was building a house there. I told him about our spot on Murray Lake where we had a boat and water skied. He perked right up and said he planned on getting a boat but did not know how to ski. So I invited him to come with us Saturday afternoon and we would teach him. Found out he was not a great swimmer but we put him in a life jacket and dragged him around the lake until he could ski after a fashion. At one point I feared I might have killed him when he caught an edge on the disc at high speed and was thrown through the air in a huge arc like a rag doll. Thankfully he came up from under the water laughing and unhurt.

Many more pleasant memories flood my mind as I write to you but I have carried on long enough. I do want to say what a wonderful job your staff and volunteers do at the Museum and hope you can continue. I also do hope the Lowell Showboat can again become a big part of Lowell with the new boat.”

~Larry Wittenbach

Image above shows a crowd gathered for the Showboat show.

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