When the sidewheel steamboat Horicon II was launched on Lake George in 1910, she was both the longest and fastest passenger vessel to ever sail the lake. Over the next 29 years, she would be used for transportation of cargo and residents around the lake, as well as cruises for tourists.
The construction of a road on the west side of the lake, as well as the region’s rapidly increasing mobility with the introduction of the automobile, brought a dramatic decline in passengers. In response to this trend, in 1932 the Delaware & Hudson Railroad, owners of the steamboats on the lake through the Lake George Steamboat Company, announced that they would not be running boats that year.
To prevent the loss of steamer service on the lake a corporation headed by former Senator Frederick W. Kavanaugh was chartered by New York State. Known as the Lake George Transportation Corporation. This newly formed business then obtained a lease on the Lake George boats Mohican, Horicon, and Sagamore from the Delaware and Hudson Railroad Co.
Kavanaugh and the other directors moved quickly in reestablishing the service and by May 16, 1933 the Mohican was again on the lake to meet the trains at both ends and make stops at all landings in between. The Sagamore followed Mohican onto the lake six weeks later to also carry passengers.
The directors had a much more exciting plan for the third steamer. The Horicon was soon moored at Bolton and reconstruction began to remake the steamer into a Mississippi-style “showboat.” As part of this plan, there would also be entertainment by both nationally known bands and “guest stars from the stage, screen, and radio.” Under the direction of Alvin Seiler, an authority on decorative arts from New York City, over $20,000 was spent over the next month in completing this transformation. With the maiden voyage only a day away, the June 28th edition of the Glens Falls Times gave this description of the elaborate renovations:
“The entire upper deck has been remodeled. The former staircase at the rear of the boat has been sealed over and an entrance placed just aft of the gangplank. This staircase opens at the top onto two marine tunnels. These tunnels are treated in a unique manner. Opalescent marine designs in color are appliqued on black velour sidewalls. The tunnels are lighted in emerald green and the entire effect gives one the impression of being deep down underneath the ocean.”
The two tunnels took guests to another new feature on the boat, the Marine Room. Here, with the same undersea effect as the tunnels, a room the width of the boat and seventy feet long had been opened on what had once been the upper deck of the Horicon. With a dance floor made of beech and stained deep green, the room was topped with an emerald green ceiling decorated with images of tropical fish. The lighting had been replaced with new fixtures that resembled the tentacles of devilfish with illuminated emerald eyes and projected the light downwards. Along the outside walls of the dance, room were placed high-backed benches with marine designs.
At the rear was now an orchestra shell that served not only to house the performers but also amplified their music so it could be carried to all parts of the boat. To complete the experience for the audience, special lighting effects that would synchronize with “the moods of the music,” were installed within the shell. For dinner seating, tables were placed on the sides of the marine tunnels and along the edges of the dance floor with chairs displaying seahorse designs on their back. Before each evening cruise, live music by the orchestra was broadcast on radio through a telephone wire that had been run from the dock in Lake George Village. The half-hour live broadcast aired at 8:30 pm every evening and was carried locally by WGLC in Glens Falls and WGY out of Schenectady, as well as nationally on the Columbia Broadcast System.
St. Mary’s Academy Alumni Society of Glens Falls was the first to enjoy these renovations when on June 28th they held their thirty-sixth annual meeting and banquet on the showboat. Entertained by Huston Ray’s Orchestra, the steamer left Lake George Village at 9 pm, and the alumni feasted on a squab dinner as the boat traveled twenty miles up the lake. Huston Ray, the stage name for Ray Daghistan of Elmira, Chemung County, NY, was a well-known local vaudeville and radio personality. He was a graduate of the Winn School of Popular Music in his hometown where he taught ragtime. Tragically, Ray would pass away at age thirty-eight in California, only three years after his appearance on the showboat.
The next night the Horicon showboat was on out on the lake again, this time for a dinner cruise sponsored by the Lake George American Legion post. With tickets for sale at both Caldwell’s Pharmacy in Lake George and Bennett’s Coffee Shop in Glens Falls, many from the area took advantage of the opportunity of being the first to experience the newly launched enterprise. The entertainment that night was highlighted by Don Bestor and his orchestra, one of the top attractions that the operator of the showboat had promised would be appearing during the season. With Bestor’s orchestra was well-known female vocalist Florence Case.
Bestor and his orchestra were regular features on radio throughout the 1920s and by the time they appeared on the showboat had several records released under the Victory recording label. Bestor did not return the next year to Lake George, and instead began a lengthy engagement at New York’s Pennsylvania Hotel. The orchestra achieved fame later by being the first to play the famous J-E-L-L-O jingle while on Jack Benny’s radio show.
Another big-name act that entertained on the showboat along with Bestor was the dramatic dance team of Perzade & Jetan. These artists, Iparhos Perdikis and his partner Edith Tulloch de Polac performed in formal dress with their faces often hidden behind papier-mache masks that added glamor and mystery to their dance dramas. The pair appeared on stage at the showboat every season from 1933 until 1937, making them the venue’s longest-running performers. The original masks used during their showboat performances were displayed in 2012 at the Lake George Historical Association Museum.
After the Don Bestor orchestras two weeks run as the headliner on the showboat, their place was taken first by Huston Ray’s Orchestra. To finish the season Leo F. Reisman’s orchestra was brought in, a group that was often referred to as “The String Quartet of Dance Bands.” Reisman was a classically trained violinist who turned to band music in 1919. During his career, he had over eighty hits on popular music charts.
When the summer season on Lake George closed in September of 1933 the results showed that business for the steamboats had increased 50 percent over any of the previous ten years. During that summer season, thousands of visitors to Lake George enjoyed the music, food, and dancing that was offered both while docked in Lake George Village and cruising on the lake. The showboat attracted summer residents, tourists, and such notables as Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the President and Edith Louise Lehman, wife of New York Governor Herbert Lehman, as well as well-known figures in the industrial and political world.
Despite praise from civic leaders and the crowds that thronged the showboat all summer the business had lost money that first season. The forty-two thousand dollars that the venue took in was barely fifty percent of the operating costs of seventy-five thousand dollars. In the spring of 1934, the Lake George Transportation Corporation filed for bankruptcy. Within weeks the creditors negotiated a settlement where the president of the corporation, Frederick Kavanaugh, would purchase some of the assets and terminate the bankruptcy proceedings. To continue to operate the showboat, The Lake George Showboat Inc., was created in June of 1934 with a capital of ten thousand dollars.
Hoping to overcome the financial difficulties of the first year, the new Lake George Showboat company opened the 1934 season on Saturday, June 30th with a 2½ hour evening cruise. To increase business revenue, the dining room had been remodeled into what they called an “attractive cocktail room.” This newly remodeled room was arranged so that the floor show on the upper dance deck could be brought into the cocktail room on evenings of high attendance allowing all the passengers to see the show.
To help lower expenses, the floor show would change weekly and rarely featured top-tier entertainers. One example was the first week that featuring the Lake George Show Boat Review, a group from New York City comprised of “top notchers in the entertainment line.” In another cost-cutting move, the new owners reduced the nightly radio broadcasts to once a week.
Throughout the 1934 season, the dance team of Perzade & Jetan continued as featured performers and were often listed prominently in the showboat advertising. Something about upstate New York must have attracted the couple as the year before they had purchased a farm in nearby Washington County. During their time at the showboat, the duo would also perform locally at the Hotel Rockwell in Glens Falls and the Billiken Pavilion on Cossayuna Lake.
On 14th the Lake George Mirror announced the next group of entertainers for the 1934 season with the George Meyer Davis’ Continental Dance Band would be taking the main stage. Thirty-nine-year-old Davis was just beginning a 52-year career that had started when he was a business student playing violin in a family quartet. At the height of his success, he was known as the “Millionaire Maestro,” at the head of a corporation with eighty bands providing music on Broadway in New York City and across the rest of the county.
The article went on to give details of the other performers: “Supplementing the dance band there are to be six high class acts, including the Lido-Venetian Trio, Neapolitan Street singers; Lenora and Santine, the delightful dancing team which has captivated Show Boat patrons; Coly Wirth, the lad who always finishes what he starts; and the Four Shades of Harmony, four boys who have plenty to do and know what they are doing.”
Later in July the Continental Dance Band was replaced by “Red” McKenna and his Boys of the Show Boat Band, soon followed by Lloyd Huntley and his fifteen-piece Isle of Blues Band.
When the annual Gold Cup Races were held on Lake George in 1934, the steamboat company offered a special $1.50 per person 11:30 am cruise that would place the passengers directly along the course of the race. Along with a front-row seat for Gold Cup, music and dancing were to be provided by Lloyd Huntley, and a special luncheon starting at $1.25.
The season ended with a three-day return engagement by the Leo Reisman Orchestra. Unfortunately, the financial woes of the previous year continued to surface with Reisman’s fee of $785 for their last engagement not paid out until December of that year. With only twenty-nine hundred dollars of cash on hand and claims against the company amounting to over fifteen thousand, the showboat business again teetered on the very edge of financial ruin but somehow stayed afloat to open for business the next year.
The 1935 season began on July 27th, 1935, with a special Noon cruise that would take spectators to the site of the 32nd Gold Cup motorboat race where Lloyd Huntley would again be on the main stage. For the rest of the season, Earl Peck and his Showboat Orchestra provided the music for entertainment and dancing. The management of the showboat business was taken over this year by Hoyt Austin, the head of the Lake George Showboat corporation.
The Lake George showboat opened its 1936 season on the evening of July 1st with Hoyt Austin again managing the business and Captain A. A. Fisher at the helm of the craft. The two-and one-half-hour trip that cost one dollar per person offered music, dancing, and meals at that what advertising that year called “nominal prices.” For the rest of the season, the showboat would offer this evening cruise each night except Monday. An additional trip leaving the dock at 2:30 pm was also offered on the weekends.
Mid-August showboat advertising offered daily cruises at 2:30 and 9:30 for what they proclaimed to be the “Believe it or Not” price of one dollar per person. To draw more patrons to their cruises, on August 27th the management of the showboat offered fifty-cent midnight. Other schemes to raise attendance that were also tried that summer were a popularity contest and beauty show with $100 in cash rewards.
To start the 1937 season, on July 15th the Howard LeRoy’s Orchestra played on an evening cruise that also offered a performance by the dance team of Perzade and Jetan and songs by nationally known performer Marguerite Claudet. The showboat, now under the management of Captain G. H. Stafford, in August brought in Vic Lewis and his Continentals as musical entertainment, as well as continuing to feature the dance team of Perzade and Jetan. Stafford had been placed in charge when earlier that year Captain Alanson A. Fisher had taken a job as foreman at the Champlain Transportation Company Baldwin Shipyard. Fisher had been with the Lake George company for forty-one years, the last six holding the rank of captain and pilot of the company fleet.
Even a vessel as large as the showboat was not without problems while cruising the lake. In August Captain Stafford called upon local authorities to stop the practice by speedboat operators who found amusement in following the showboat on its midnight cruise and flashing their searchlights into the boat and blinding the pilot. On the night of August 8th, Constable Sullivan apprehended two youths using mirrors to focus a spotlight on the showboat. The two, who were never identified, agreed to stop and were released by the authorities.
After the 1937 season was over the Horicon was called upon one more time, though not to cruise the lake with dancing and live entertainment. In December, the steamboat Mohican ran aground near Baldwin on the north end of the lake while towing the steamer Sagamore. Little did they realize that this trip would be the last that the showboat would make on the lake. That next summer Captain Stafford announced that the Horicon would not operate on the lake that year. This decision left only the Mohican to serve Lake George, which would continue to make daily trips from Lake George Village to the camps and communities on the lake.
In the fall of 1939, the Horicon was sold for $5,000 to a scrap yard in Troy, NY ending the showboat era on Lake George. During each of the five summers that the showboat cruised the lake, countless residents and seasonal visitors enjoyed first-class music and entertainment. With this change, many of the local restaurants and hotels stepped in to offer the same level of entertainment.
A version of this story originally appeared in Pastimes, the Warren County Historical Society‘s newsletter.