One hundred years ago this winter, Captain Herman Schuenemann set off by boat from Michigan's Upper Peninsula to bring Christmas trees to immigrant families in Chicago. On Nov. 23, 1912, a horrible storm sank the ship, taking the crew, along with the 5,500 Christmas trees, to the bottom of Lake Michigan.
That bit of Chicago history became "The Christmas Schooner," a play that dramatizes the bittersweet story of the German family whose yearly tradition was to bring Christmas trees to the people of Chicago. This year, Mercury Theater, which also is celebrating its 100th anniversary in Chicago, will perform the show for the second year.
"We took up the challenge of producing this work last year and it was probably the biggest success," the director, Walter Stearns, says. "So we're making it our annual holiday tradition."
Stearns says the best part about the play is that it's based on actual local history. "This is Chicago's Christmas story," he says. "It's unlike others that are more European, like Charles Dickens' `The Christmas Carol.' This is truly the story of our city and the immigrants who helped to build our city."
The production uses elaborate scene, sound and costume designs to tell the story. "The father in the family gets the idea to bring this to the immigrants in Chicago," Stearns says. "Chicago, at this time, had just suffered the great Chicago fire, and to have a luxurious item like a Christmas tree delivered must have been very magical to the immigrant population here."
And, while the ship does sink, Stearns says the ending is actually very "bittersweet."
"There is kind of a redeeming feeling at the end of the show, because the family who has this struggle gets more united," Stearns says. "There's just a greater feeling in the family for having weathered the storm."
The 2-1/2 hour show is family-friendly, but definitely for children with longer attention spans, Stearns says.
Liz DeCarlo is the senior editor at Chicago Parent.
See more of Liz's stories here.