Derek Kowal still remembers visiting the Durham Museum with his kids when they saw an exhibit about the sinking of the Bertrand, Omaha’s only shipwreck.
On April 1, 1865, the steamboat Bertrand struck a submerged log on the Missouri River, just north of Omaha. The ship sank in twelve feet of water in less than ten minutes. Everyone on the ship was rescued, and the ship and nearly its entire cargo remained submerged for over a century until it was excavated in 1968.
Kowal was immediately intrigued by the history. And, of course, the story’s promise as a melodrama.
Omaha’s only shipwreck is the subject of the Florentine Players’ Fifty Third Annual Melodrama this May. “If You’re Happy and You Know it, Say Hooray!, or The Untimely Sinking of the Bertrand,” is the brainchild of the show’s director, Derek Kowal, and co-author David Frolio. The annual melodrama celebrates stories set in the historic Florence neighborhood, originally one of the oldest cities in Nebraska (and, briefly, the site of an illegal territorial legislature) until it was annexed by Omaha in 1917. All proceeds from the show go to support the Florence Historical Foundation.
Over the years, the Florentine Players have expanded their season to include year round theater and improv productions, but they are still best known for their summer melodrama. “The Untimely Sinking of the Bertrand” is a classic melodrama, where the audience cheers the hero, Matthew Ogallala McConaughey (played by the aforementioned David Frolio), sighs for Fannie Campbell, the heroine (Kate Simmons) and boos Maximus Butoques, the villain (Chris Perry). It’s fun, interactive, and family friendly. As with any luxury steamboat, the Bertrand has its own band, the Bertrand Banjo Band, which puts a bluegrass spin on popular songs rewritten for the show. The band members double some of the many characters in the cast.
The show is loosely based on the actual sinking of the Bertrand, and some of the characters, including the ship’s captain, James Yore, and Ezra Millard (you may have heard of the town named after him) are real. The story begins as the hero manages to land a job on the Bertrand, just as the villain is hatching a plan to blow up the ship so he can escape with his poker winnings and the heroine’s inheritance. Mayhem ensues in the best melodrama tradition.
You can see artifacts from the Bertrand at the De Soto National Wildlife Refuge near Missouri Valley, Iowa, any time you choose. But your only chance to see “The Untimely Sinking of the Bertrand” will be this May with the Florentine Players. I recommend stopping at Zestos, just two blocks north on 30th Street, and picking up a butterscotch malt on your way to the show.
The Florentine Players production of “If You’re Happy and You Know it, Say Hooray!, or The Untimely Sinking of the Bertrand” runs May 11, 12 and 13 at the Florence City Hall. Curtain is 7 pm, and doors open at 6 pm. Tickets are $10, and only $8 for TAG Members (must show TAG card at the door), Seniors aged 60 or over, and for groups of eight or more. You can reserve tickets by calling (402) 455-6341 or by going to the theater’s website: http://florencetheater.org/tickets/. The Florence City Hall is located at 2864 State Street (29th and State Streets) in Omaha.