This year marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Rouse Simmons, also known as “the Christmas Schooner.” Starting Friday, What A Do Theatre in Springfield near Battle Creek will perform a musical based on the famous Michigan ship.
“Christmas Schooner is the true story—based on the true story of the Rouse Simmons, which was a clipper ship around the turn of the century," says Executive Director Randy Wolfe. "One of the Christmas ships that sailed from the U.P. across Lake Michigan in November and December to bring Christmas trees to Chicago. And it’s loosely based on the Rouse Simmons, it’s called the Molly Dune in the script. And it’s about the family who owned the ship—it’s been passed on for generations to do the Christmas trees—and what they went through.”
Peter Stossel, the captain of the Molly Dune, and his father Gustav decide to bring Christmas trees to German immigrants in Chicago after reading a moving letter by Peter’s cousin Martha. But his wife, Alma doesn’t think the trip is worth risking her husband’s life. Actress Betsy King plays Alma Stossel.
“The lake can be completely out of control, she knows. And they’ve lost people. They know from experience from their own lives, people they’ve lost in their community, that this is not something you play around with," King says. "And she’s terrified, terrified from the get go that she’s going to lose him.”
Alma raises her son Carl on her own while Peter and grandpa Gustav are away during shipping season. Gustav annoys Alma because he refuses to become her idea of an American. Gustav Stossel, played by Jeff Stierle, is the German immigrant patriarch of the family.
“I’m trying to make sure the old ways don’t die, especially among the kids, because it’s so easy to forget and then two generations deep you don’t remember anything. You don’t remember where you came from," Stierle says. "And my character and Alma butt heads about that because she’s about assimilation.”
Betsy King and music director Brent Decker couldn’t help but be enthusiastic about the music in the show:
King: “Folk music...”
Decker: “Tunes you can take away with you and just remember and hum along.”
King: “And they have a kind of maritime swing to them a little bit.”
Decker: “There’s even some different…like some German style songs that make it into the show. And very choral based, it’s just piano and vocalists. And I think that’s part of the beauty of this show is that it’s so simplistic.”
The sinking of the Christmas Schooner is an important part of Michigan history. But Director Randy Wolfe says this production marks another anniversary that’s very dear to the cast.
“Last year we opened our first year here in this space with The Christmas Schooner and we literally had four weeks to fully mount it while we were building a theatre to open it up in. So we were rehearsing in hallways, we were rehearsing in the lobby until we could get into the theatre.”
This year, just like at Christmas, almost everyone from the cast will come together to do the show once more. “It was like family home week when we all got back together.”
You can see The Christmas Schooner at What A Do Theatre starting Friday.