December 15, 2015, marked the end of a 60-year performing arts legacy in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.
As with many other Northern MN artists, the organization had a large influence on my stage experiences; it began with my debut on its stage at the age of 10 and concluded with my leadership participation in events during this summer past that would turn out to be its last. I’m sad to see her go; yet with the rest of its final board of directors, we were the one who euthanized her.
So that her death is not for naught, I hope that in her departure, other volunteer-driven arts organizations can take some hard lessons to heart.
First: Her name was Mississippi Melodie Showboat (not to be confused with the Hammerstein-Kern musical or with the Minnesota Centennial Showboat of the University of Minnesota, although they all share roots). Our Showboat was the 1956 brainchild of Lois Gildemeister and others, whose legacy of arts in rural Minnesota is still evident throughout the community of Grand Rapids today.
In an effort to recreate the river-bound revues of the late 1800’s, our reproduction sternwheel steamboat would round the bend of the Mississippi and pull up to a thousand-seat amphitheater overlooking a stage built right over the water. The brass would blare triumphantly as the recurring tune of “Here Comes the Showboat” echoed across the river and welcomed performers to the stage. The captain would come down in his crisp, white nautical uniform, welcome the crowd, and serve as emcee to the acts of song, dance, and skits that followed.
In her heyday Mississippi Melodie Showboat drew in buses of crowds, visitors from statewide and beyond. During her mere three weekends of annual existence, she would bring in 10,000 spectators, and she gained nationwide recognition. And in her days of glory, she saw some great talent, including William Warfield, the famous voice of Ol’ Man River, among others. The pilings would groan under 70 costumed chorus members stomping their feet to “Mississippi Mud.” She was a self-sustaining community arts organization with dozens of volunteers, and she made bank. Fifty cents of the profit from every ticket even went to build the new Myles Reif Performing Arts Center in town.
In recent years, however, a shy dozen performers huddled at center stage for fear of breaking through the platform’s decayed edges. In the last decade, for reasons internal and external, speculative and certain, the organization and its audiences had declined. The thousand-seat amphitheater, once standing-room-only, was now happy to see one hundred a night.
What happened? When did Mississippi Melodie become Mississippi Maladie?
So that her final voyage has purpose, I hope these six lessons left from her wreck will help other volunteer arts organizations avoid the same end.
1. Maintain the Logs
It is critical to keep record of the organization’s records—particularly the financial ones. This concept should be obvious, but sometimes the things under your nose are what go assumed and unnoticed. Finances are not what define a show or an organization, but they are certainly essential in keeping it sustainable. In ten years, Showboat went from a fat checking account and several $25,000 CD’s to flat broke with bills unpaid. Besides declining audiences, this was primarily due to mismanaged funds, including grants. Grant money was received and at times wasn’t used as designated or tracked properly.
Keeping accountability and consistency can be difficult for a volunteer-driven organization like the Showboat. Busy lives and board turnover can let a lot of things fall through the cracks. So, especially when navigating without an executive director, an organization needs to hire an outside, unbiased bookkeeper.
2. Chart the Course
A mission statement is critical to moving an organization forward. Our organization had a mission of entertaining audiences with a show recreating 1860’s-1950’s variety. The only problem was that it had lost its variety, and it was no longer very entertaining. Many of the dresses in the collection felt more like a 1980’s prom than an 1880’s production. In song, spectacle, and substance, much of the show digressed from capturing a vaudeville-era revue, so it didn’t stay true to the ethereal mission that it claimed.
3. Reinvent the Paddlewheel
It’s important to Chart the Course and abide by the mission, but time also will change the terrain; sometimes old maps don’t work with new captains. An organization must be able to reinvent itself, hand-in-hand with maintaining its mission. This doesn’t mean all tradition and vision must be abandoned, but a repeating show needs to stay fresh. Our production went stale. As a result, the community became apathetic to the show--knowing it was there, but not seeming to care.
During one more recent three-summer run, a young director tried to refresh the show. During and after his run of artistic leadership, the board mumbled and grumbled that his style wasn’t “Showboat.” That ol’ favorite song of “This is how we’ve always done it!” is an ominous tune that has sunk many a ship. Not only does this discourage new, creative talent, but the gossip created an atmosphere of division in an already-decaying organization.
In its final summer, a new group of creative young people brought forth a new show that maintained many of the hallmarks of “Showboat” but did so in a completely different spirit, with new packaging. This raised outrage! And people bemoaned on social media that it was the new changes that killed Showboat. On the contrary, it was the lack of change and adaptation that killed Showboat. Change is inevitable but if an organization doesn’t change by design it will be changed by apathy, entropy, and attrition.
4. Don’t Stick Your Smokestacks in the Water
Smokestacks go in the air; the paddlewheel goes in the water. Every part of a boat has a function and they perform best when put where they should be.
The same goes for the team members of an organization. Put the right people with the right skills in the right positions. In the past decade of our sunken organization, there were many people doing (or trying to do) things they were not suited to do. Members of the board were micromanaging directors’ creative decisions of the show. Books were mishandled by unequipped volunteers. If there were any clear boundaries on roles, they were being crossed over consistently. Collaboration and cross-training is good, but effectively maximizing peoples’ strengths is invaluable.
5. Fix The Hull Before You Paint the Boat
First things first. Although Showboat disbanded because it lost its lease to city-owned property, that was merely the final nail in the coffin. A contributing factor to the eviction is that the site had become a liability and public safety issue. The stage had become treacherous, some of the back risers’ floor boards had rotted out, and necessary repairs had been ignored for over a decade.
Yet, somehow there were always thousands of dollars allocated to the “absolutely necessary” fireworks display concluding each performance. I’m not claiming that had the facilities been maintained better, the attendance would have soared and the organization would have kept its lease indefinitely; but had there been a better process of prioritizing, I have no doubt the organization would have had a better shot at sustainability.
6. Let a New Captain Take the Wheel
Everyone seemed to have their own channel as to what our late founder and organizational mother Lois would have wanted. Having been a youth under her direction, and having had her as my church choir director and organist, even I had my own presumptions. There was also some ethereal and arguably inconsistent concept of what “Showboat” was: a moving target that no successor could hope to achieve. Passion is necessary and loyalty to tradition is commendable, but with the departure of a leader there needs to be acceptance of a new one(s) and a new era.
I believe Mississippi Melodie Showboat could have risen above its challenges and weathered the storms had it been more visionary—able to hold to its traditions while also reinventing for a new era. I would hold fast to the argument that it ended at 60 years because in its final decade Mississippi Melodie Showboat was run only as a social club for people sharing memories of the “good old days” and playing dress-up, hoping people would come and watch. That is fun and nostalgic, but it isn’t sustainable.
The end of a great, outdoor performing arts tradition is sad; but the local theater life will continue through a thriving 50-year community theater in town, the Grand Rapids Players, and with a newly remodeled venue, The Myles Reif Performing Arts Center. The physical Showboat will be reborn with a new life downstream in the town of Aitkin, where she will be hauled this spring to serve as a new, dry-docked outdoor venue.
Until then, the boat sits mournfully on land among the tall pines of her old venue, where I can visit, reflect, and still find poetic inspiration:
retired, she waits
in mid-winter snow
until she embrace
new city, new show.
So the cycle continues. Just as every show must have a closing night, eventually so does every venue and every organization.
I do hope her lessons can help other organizations thrive for at least 60 years of their own, and her voyage had that much more meaning in the end. And so as every night of Mississippi Melodie Showboat ended with its familiar closing tune, we will belt it out altogether once more:
Roll on you, Mississippi, Roll on!