By Marilyn Kinsella and a whole crew of friends who shared their memories - 2007
Let’s do a little time travel…let’s go back to the fifties. Some of you may remember this oldie but goodie that was a number one hit...sung by, none other, than Doris Day. Please join me in singing the refrain:
Que Sera, Sera, Whatever will be will be
The Future is not ours to see
Que Sera, Sera
When I was just a little girl I ask my mother, “Are we going on the Admiral again this year?” And this is what she said to me, “What will be…will be.”
But, I didn’t need to ask. We always went on the Admiral. It was a summer ritual. My mom belonged to the mother’s club at my church. Throughout the year, they went on “outings”. One of their many outings was a day trip on the Admiral.
On the day of the excursion my mom got out the hamper. I don’t know…she never used the term “picnic basket”…it was always the “hamper.” Because, you see, aboard the Admiral you could bring your own food! Oh, my mom made delicious sandwiches. This was my mother’s idea of a sandwich back in the 50’s – two slices of white Wonder Bread – helps build bodies 12 ways, don’t you know; slather it with Miracle Whip; add a thick slice of Bologna and wrap it up in wax paper. She added a bag of Kas Potato Chips and Old Vienna Corn Curls. Then, my favorite, a thermos of green Kool-Aid and a box of Fig Newtons…mmm-mmm, that was goooood eatin’!
We met the ladies at the church parking lot and car-pooled to St. Louis. We traveled to Edgemont and then alllllll the way down State Street in East St. Louis stopping at every red light and inevitable train until we reached the Veterans' Bridge (this was before the blessed interstates). As I crossed the bridge, I could look down and see the mighty Mistress of the Mississippi - her stainless steel hulk gleaming in the sunlight with the word “ADMIRAL” emblazoned in bright red letters along her side. She was five decks high and a city block long. In fact, for her time, she was the world’s largest, inland excursion boat, carrying over 4000 passengers on her two-hour tour.
The ladies parked the cars along Laclede’s landing. We stumbled our way across the cobblestones until we reached the wooden plank As we crossed the plank, we were ready to enter the inner sanctum of the ship.
A blast of hot, dry air swept our faces, and our ears were filled with the empty, hollow, mechanical sound of five huge engines and a paddle wheel revving up for the big trip down the Mississippi. On the first deck was the penny arcade, but our ladies were on a mission. They wanted to get their favorite table. So we walked up a sweeping staircase that led to two, blue-padded doors. When those doors opened….whoa…we were met with a cold blast of air…air conditioning! Nobody had air conditioning in the fifties. This was not only a treat, but a real luxury.
We walked into the second deck – the main deck. It had a New York glitzy atmosphere – with an ultra-modern “Art Deco” design – rounded pillars and pink and blue streamlined pipe lighting.. There was huge, wooden dance floor, the largest floating dance floor...in the world, and a big stage where Russ David and His Orchestra played.
And the ladies rest rooms…what a hoot! Not only decorated in art deco, but they also had names…I kid you not…names…like “Greta Garbo,” “Sonja Heine," "Deanna Durbin," and "Glamour.”
There were tables on this floor, but the ladies were on a mission. We made our way up another flight of stairs onto the third deck. It served as the balcony for the second deck.
Finally, the ladies found their “holy grail” – tables next to large windows that allowed one to look out at the passing scenery outside and to, also, look down on the dance floor below.
Oftentimes, a local TV personality like Charlotte Peters hosted the entertainment. The ladies loved Charlotte Peters. She emceed the best of St. Louis talent - Arthur Murray Dancers, Stan Kahn, as well as dance troupes and baton twirlers. Well, once the ladies had settled in, they reached down into their pocketbooks and gave us kids a handful of nickels and dimes to “go and enjoy” ourselves.
The first place we headed was back down the stairs to the first deck. That’s where the “Kiddy Land” was located. Or, as I liked to call it... kid heaven! The room was set up like a penny arcade. There were pings, and whistles, and pops coming from every direction. There was every kind of pinball and Skee Ball machine imaginable.
There was this one game that had a Ray-o-lite gun. A bear ran across the screen, and we shot the bear with a red light. If we hit the bear, it stood up on its hind legs, raised its paws, dropped down, and skittered away across the screen. Who knew shooting endangered species could be so much fun!
If you didn’t care to play the games, there were plenty of other ways to spend your nickels and dimes – a novelty stand with salt and pepper shakers, snow globes, giant pencils. and even a captain's hat...all with “SS Admiral” printed on it. There was one machine that stamped out silver life preservers about the size of a half dollar. You fed it your money and typed in your name. On one side it read “SS Admiral” and the other side had your name printed on it. It had a cloverleaf with the words “Good luck” stamped on it. I always found that a bit disturbing…like having this silver life preserver in your pocket could save anybody, if the mighty ship went down!
There was a large vending machine that held small three by five, black-and-white photos of movie stars like Frank Sinatra, Paul Newman and Doris Day or our favorite cowboys like Hop-along Cassidy and Gene Autry. You never knew who were going to get. So, if you got too many Dean Martins, you could always swap to get the one you wanted.
There was one mysterious machine for which my mother never approved – The Mystic Swami. Inside the glass booth was a dark, brooding man with a golden turban on his head and a ruby stone in the middle. His black eyes were mesmerizing. For a pricey sum, the lights would flicker, and The Swami would look into his crystal ball and say something profound, like..."What will be...will be!" Wow! How did he know?
Before we knew it, we spent our money, and we’d have to run up those staircases to the ladies’ tables and beg for more. I do believe the expression “nickel and dimed them to death” was coined aboard the SS Admiral. But, eventually, our cash cow dried up, and we were told to go “amuse yourselves.” You know, our parents said that a lot in the fifties…go amuse yourself. Not every minute was accounted for back then. We kids had to find novel ways to keep life interesting.
So, it was time to hit the top deck.
It was always hot and windy on that deck, but there were multi-colored umbrella tables and Adirondack chairs to sit on to watch the passing scenery. After an exhausting day, we found a comfy place "to chill". Suddenly there was loud earsplitting HOOONNNNKKKK! from the Admiral. It made it rise three inches from our seats! Every so often, the Admiral passed under a bridge. Now, you have to remember how tall the Admiral was…five decks, and, as a bridge approached, we thought, if we jumped high enough, we could actually touch the bottom of the bridge. Thank goodness, we never did!
Picture on the top deck with my cousin, Don Klein (5), my brother, Chris Niemann (12) and me (5) circa 1954
Another fun thing to do on that observation deck was to stand on the bow. Unlike other ships that had a pointy bow that plowed through the water, the Admiral had a curved bow. This allowed her to seemingly glide over the water...drinking in the water instead of pushing it off to the side. If you stood there with your arms outstretched, you felt like you were flying!
Every summer I went on board the SS Admiral, but I remember one time in particular, when I was just out of eighth grade. My best friend, Rosemary and I went together. By that time, we thought "Kiddie Land" was little beyond us, but we hung out there anyway, because that was where our new-found interest lie...boys! Unfortunately, they were too busy trying to beat the highest score on the pin ball machine to even give us the time of day.
However, we found something else new aboard the SS Admiral that year. There was a booth where you could have your picture taken...right there...instantly (what would they think of next?). We sat inside the booth, put our money in the slot, and we posed...smiling our prettiest...FLASH! Making rabbit ears...FLASH! Making silly faces...FLASH! Until it spit out a strip of four pictures. Somewhere in my house today...somewhere...are those pictures.
Glory BE! I found it! Hidden away upstairs in an old photo album. On the left is Rosemary and there I am on the right - two pre-pubescent beauties, if I do say so. Notice how we "dressed up" to go on the Admiral. No shorts or even jeans. We dressed to the nines. Circa 1961
But that wasn’t all. That year, there was another booth called "The Voice-o-graph" where we could actually have a 45- record made. You have to understand…this was the fifties. There were no cassette recorders. We had never heard our voices. Besides our choir teacher always said we had great voices. This was just too cool. Now, there were no lyrics or background music like there is on the Karaoke machines of today. No, we had to sing a capella and, what ever words came out of our mouths, were it. So, we argued back and forth until finally we decided on the Doris Day, number-one hit “Que Sera, Sera.” We pooled our money together. I mean it cost a whole dollar! And, we began to sing:
“Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see…Que sera, sera.”
All four verses! We couldn’t wait to get home and try it out on our 45- record player. We thought we gave Doris a run for her money. We played that record over and over until the threads were bare.
When I became a teenager, the rules aboard the Admiral changed. They had always had midnight cruises that were “Adult Only.” But, in the sixties some marketing agent discovered that teens like to go to dances. So, one weekend night was designated as “Teen Night.” They had great bands…Bob Kuban and the In-men and Jules Blattner and the Teen Tones. We got out there on that dance floor to twist and shout, mash potato and Watusi. It was also during this time that I discovered another interesting use for that observation deck…nuff said.
However, the magic of the SS Admiral began to wane somewhere in the seventies. Maybe it was the advent of video games and Six Flags that made the arcade look unsophisticated; maybe the lure of “air-conditioning” wasn’t such a big deal…after all everyone had air conditioning; maybe the art deco design became passé. Whatever, the SS Admiral was
beginning to show her age. She left St. Louis for awhile and came back with a face lift of sorts…now she was a gambling ship called “The President’s Casino.” She was permanently moored onto the landing as scores of gamblers went overboard in hopes of quick money. But, when other more elaborate casinos arrived, well, our ship was once again abandoned.
Still today, when I cross the Veteran’s Bridge, I see the Grand Dame. Her stainless steel façade is tarnished; her bottom deck boarded up. I wonder what will happen. Will she make her resting place on some scrap yard somewhere…or will some young entrepreneur come along and give her a much-needed, extreme make-over? Who knows?
It’s like the old song. Please join me once again…
“Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see…Que sera, sera.”
SS Admiral, I salute you!
Unfortunately, the mighty ship sailed her last voyage in the summer of 2011. She was taken downstream where she was stripped every useable part and the rest went to a salvage yard. They can take our Mistress, but they can't take our memoires.
Sail on over to these sites for the Mighty Mistress of the Mississippi
Bygone Days Aboard the Mississippi Riverboat - some great pictures!! SS Admiral - Wikipedia -more trivia
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