Faith, passion, and the holiday spirit are alive and well this season at Memories Dinner Theater, as it honors the 100th anniversary of The Christmas Tree Ship that sailed our very own Lake Michigan shorelines with the holiday musical written in its honor, "The Christmas Schooner," playing weekends December 7-16, 2012.
It may seem hard to believe as you peacefully admire your towering faux balsalm pine Christmas tree, its pre-lit LED lights glittering brightly as it happily spins on its rotating “Holiday Tree” stand, but long before the days of big box stores and guaranteed overnight shipping, outfitting your home with a Christmas tree wasn’t something you could take for granted.
Back in the early 1900s, as Christmas trees made their way into American pop culture via influence of German immigrants, local shipping captains supplemented their income by harvesting pine trees from the Upper Penninsula. Risking wicked November storms, they’d sail their cargo across the treacherous Lake Michigan to urban families along the Great Lakes shorelines.
One such captain was Herman Schuenemann. He had purchased a share in a three-masted schooner called the Rouse Simmons, built by Milwaukee’s Allan, McClelland and Company, and developed it into “The Christmas Tree Ship.” Every year, he would load his cargo hold with thousands of trees, and risk the potentially deadly journey to Chicago. His arrival was eagerly anticipated by residents, who would watch for the ship by the Clark Street Bridge. They would know it by its electric Christmas lights and Christmas tree proudly strapped to the mast.
Families would climb aboard to select their perfect tree, or a wreath handmade by Schuenemann’s wife and three daughters. A generous man who would often donate trees to needy families, Schuenemann was known throughout Chicago as “Captain Santa.”
Exactly one hundred years ago, in 1912, Schuenemann loaded the cargo hold with over 5,000 trees. Some said this was too many for the old ship, and rumor has it that some of the crew even abandoned the mission before it set sail.
The very first night of the one-week journey, a vicious storm struck the Christmas Tree Ship. Two crew members, several trees and a small boat were launched into the freezing lake when winds sent a giant wave crashing over the bow. By morning, the storm had cast a silvery spell over the schooner- coating the water-logged trees in a heavy sheet of ice and weighing down the already overloaded Rouse Simmons. The sails were shredded and the Schooner was in peril.
A hastily written note, stuffed in a bottle, corked with a scrap of pine tree, then tossed overboard, read, “Friday… everybody goodbye. I guess we are all through. During the night the small boat washed overboard. Leaking bad. Invald and Steve lost, too. God help us.”
The Rouse Simmons was spotted with its distress signal flying high, the ship lying low in the icy Lake Michigan waters, but by the time a rescue boat arrived, the ship was gone. Aside from some Christmas trees that periodically washed up along the shore, the ship disappeared for the next 59 years, until her remains were discovered by a diver off the shores of Two Rivers.
Memories will honor this tale of bravery and dedication with a musical based on this true story called “The Christmas Schooner”,. Written by John Reeger with music by the late Julie Shannon, and directed by Joe Feustel, it features a similar cast of characters onboard a fictional ship, “The Molly Doone.” Dinner theater tickets are $32 with show-only tickets running $20.
To make reservations, call Memories at (262) 284-6850 or buy online at www.memoriesballroom.com.
Memories is “Your Live Entertainment Destination,” boasting a variety of activities, from dinner theater and audience-interactive murder mysteries to its famous “Chicken Comedy” nights featuring nationally-renown comedians. Its dazzling 2500-square-foot solid maple dance floor, rustic tamarack log ceiling and twin stone fireplaces also make it an enchanting hall for weddings, holiday parties, fund-raisers, meetings and reunions. Memories offers a combination of exquisite charm and bona-fide elegance you will find nowhere else.
Memories is conveniently located off Hwy 43 in Port Washington, just 30 minutes north of downtown Milwaukee.