Saturday, December 14, 2013

Play, Doc Pay Tribute to 'Captain Santa'

The sinking in 1912 on Lake Michigan of Captain Schuenemann's so-called "Christmas Tree Ship" the Rouse Simmons has been memorialized in poems, paintings, song, books and TV programs. There are also this holiday season several versions of stage musical The Christmas Schooner, led by a full-scale version put on by Chicago's Mercury Theater.

The story of a Michigan-to-Chicago boat full of Christmas trees that went down in "The Great Storm of 1912" has become in many ways The Windy City's equivalent to It's a Wonderful Life. The show counts among its fans Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones, who happily reviewed this year's returning Mercury Theater production:

Rolling down Southport Avenue to The Christmas Schooner — a show I've seen more than a dozen times — the weather was pushing 60 degrees. Balmy, for early December. But I found myself weirdly distrustful of this calm night, not unlike one of those freshwater sailors of the inland seas, whom this justly beloved show mythologizes with such irresistible seasonal sentiment...
I know this sweet musical is not the literary equal of those great [Dickens] narratives, perhaps even an absurd comparative, but, heck, Schooner always has worked for me, even though my seeing the show stretches back so far that one of its early child cast members, Cecily Strong, is now on Saturday Night Live.

This year, there is also a new 50-minute DVD doc Chicago's Christmas Tree Ship, made by Wisconsin filmmaker Bob Leff. Other previous filmmaking topics for Leff have included Frank Lloyd Wright and Al Capone.To that cavalcade he has now added Captain Herman Schuenemann.

Leff read a newspaper article last fall about a 100th anniversary commemoration in Two Rivers, WI of the fatal 1912 sinking. That set him on a path to this latest documentary. Per a recent report in Cottage Grove's Herald-Independent, Leff worked closely on the project with Gregory Goodchild, executive director of the Rogers Street Fishing Village Museum:

One of the documentary’s most interesting moments is when Goodchild tells the story of a bottle that was discovered on a beach in Port Washington, about 60 miles from where the Rouse Simmons went down. Inside, the bottle contained a note from Scheunemann.
"He says, ‘We lost two men overboard last night, we lost the life boat, it’s all over for us now… God help us," Leff said.

With this documentary, Leff has joined a rich, ongoing creative tradition that also includes Wisconsin author Rochelle Pennington. His DVD is priced at $24.99.

[Image courtesy: The Mercury Theater]

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