Photos & Commentary for the Great Steamboat Race of 2006 proudly presents: Bodine Balasco, The Last of the Riverboat Gamblers, blogging live from the Great Steamboat Race of 2006, Delta Queen vs. Mississippi Queen

Welcome to this blogging space, featuring “The Last of the Riverboat Gamblers”, Bodine Balasco. If you ever were on one of the Great Steamboat Races between the Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen, you know Bodine as one of the best close-up and card trick magicians in this country.

Friday, June 23. 2006

Leaving Los Angeles, heading for the Mississippi River!

Yes,it’s Bodine here. It’s about 10:15pm in Los Angeles, Thursday night, June 22nd, and I’ll be “buring the midnight oil” as I get all my fancy vests together & load up several boxes of playing cards for my trip tomorrow to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to board the famous Steamboat Delta Queen, as the “Last of the Riverboat Gamblers,” to entertain, to emcee & to judge the “Great Steamboat Race of 2006.”

We usually get onboard the steamboats in New Orleans, but they still haven’t recovered from Hurricane Katrina, and they won’t let the steamboats come that far down river just yet. So we’re starting the “Great Steamboat Race” from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

I’m excited. I’ll be joined by my beautiful wife, Sandi, who I first met 25 years ago onboard the Steamboat Mississippi Queen. We love the river and the steamboats! And of course, the one & only JOE CAHN will be emceeing the events with me as acting as co-chief judge. He’s quite a character, and when you’re at the microphone with him, as I will be for 11 days as we paddle up river, you’ve got to be on your toes, believe me. No one ever knows what he’ll say next!

Here’s a photo of the three of us from the last steamboat race we were on together two years ago. Me & Sandi & Joe… (I’m the one dressed like a riverboat gambler, I’m certain you can figure out the other two…)

Check back daily, and join us on our riverboat ride up the mighty Mississippi River. I’ll be posting my thoughts & commentary from our adventure, along with photos Sandi will be taking. She used to be a professional photographer before I talked her out of all that to come run my little company with me.

Well… I’ve got lots of packing to do, and I look forward to communicating with you again real soon, probably on Saturday.

To all steamboat lovers everywhere, I say goodbye for now. And I’ll be back online from onboard the legendary Delta Queen Steamboat.

BODINE BALASCO – Last of the Riverboat Gamblers

Friday, June 23. 2006

OK… so packing is turning out to be more important than sleep!

Hello, hello.

I’m testing my wireless connection to the RIVERBOAT GAMBLER BLOG at Time for some sleep, and I will post again tomorrow, from the Mississippi River. This may be the last Great Steamboat Race of all time, so it is wonderful to have a chance to share it with everyone in real time. I’ll report in as often as possible, and load Sandi’s pictures, as well, which I’m certain will be most enjoyable.


Saturday, June 24. 2006

Non-voluntary extended airline adventure!

DATELINE – Houston, Texas – June 24th, 8:50am

Hello, everyone.

I’ve been focused on my destination of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for a little more than a day now; but sadly Continental Airlines does not seem to share my intention with equal devotion. I’m only in Houston! Can you believe it?! They put me up in a modern version of the Bates Motel last night, complete with a desk clerk whose hold on his personal sanity is tenuous at best.

Now this morning, as the rotation of the planet brings another cycle of darkness & sunlight, I crawl back to the hotel shuttle vehicle, which will be packed well beyond legal or physical capacity with my fellow stranded travelers (Continental Airlines is clearly an equal opportunity strander, as I have bonded with many

of my fellow strandees, who come from very racial & ethnic category. Several sub-specie representatives have been present, as well, I might add. Luggage, you ask? Yes, it’s an excellent inquiry, but I myself have presented the question to so many people, virtually anyone I can find with a Continental Airlines logo somewhere on their clothing, and we won’t go into the inappropriate placement of logos at this time… suffice it to say, my luggage inquiry has met with such emotional & intellectual dis-engagement I find I have joined them in not really caring. I feel certain, however, that later today, if I do indeed manage to make it to Baton Rouge, my desire to reconnect with my packaged belongings will return to consciousness. Soon I trust, I will see the Delta Queen & Mississippi Queen steamboat and the demands of this particular airline adventure will begin to fade from memory. Onward, hopeful, with a dreary belief in my ultimate triumph, I head now to my shuttle craft to return to the airpot, and a new series of encounters with my beloved airline employees.

I shall post again once I’m actually onboard the Delta Queen.

Until then, I remain a fellow steamboatin’ devotee, the Last of the Riverboat Gamblers journeying back to the river once again.


Monday, June 26. 2006

Mississippi Queen Steamboat wins the first leg of the Steamboat Race by 20 yards!

Thursday, June 29. 2006

BODINE reports in again from onboard the Delta Queen.

Hello, steamboat enthusiasts!

Its Bodine here, finally able to connect to a wireless broadband tower to report in from the Great Steamboat Grace of 2006.

I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to post on this blog! As it turns out, the lower stretch of the Mississippi river has no wireless broadband towers. I swear, World War III could break out and we wouldnt know it! Of course, that is part of the charm of traveling on the steamboats; being totally disconnected from normal reality.

Were currently tied up at Vicksburg, Mississippi, another location with enough important history to keep a panel of professors arguing for months. The city of Vicksburg is actually now located on the Yazoo river canal. In 1876 the Mississippi river changed its course without consulting anyone as it occasionally does and left the famous city of Vicksburg high and dry. Imagine. The famous Gibraltar of the Mississippi, the town about which Abraham Lincoln once remarked, in the middle of the American civil war, Who controls Vicksburg, controls the Mississippi River, being abandoned by the river itself!

It wasnt until 1903 that the Corps of Engineers managed to build a river canal from the new edge of the river over to the city landing the Yazoo River Canal. And thats where we are right now.

I must tell you we had our first of three real races two days ago, and it was a nail-biter!

I tried to upload an account of that race from an internet caf in Vicksburg, but only managed to squeeze through a misspelled headline. (Its amazing how much interactive feedback that provoked on inbound cell phone calls to people onboard both boats!… I love that… but promise to always use my spell-check feature in the future!)


It is so amazing to see these two beautiful steamboats traveling side-by-side up river.

Mostly we are just sister steamboats paddling along, avoiding the commercial barges passing by us. But during our 11-day Great Steamboat Race experience, three different times we line the boats up exactly, and race from one spot to the next in the river, to determine who is the fastest steamboat of the two and which steamboat has the best river pilots onboard. There’s a real talent to finding the slow-moving water in the river (the slack water, they call it), and some pilots are better than others at doing so.

The boat that wins 2 of the 3 race legs will take proud possession of the golden antlers, symbolic of being the fastest steamboat on the Mississippi. Currently the golden antlers are proudly displayed on the bow of the Delta Queen, just below the pilot house, as she won 2 of the 3 speed races last year.

Well, four days ago, at 2:00pm, it was a gorgeous day on the river, and the captains decided, for the first of the speed races, wed race from Dead Mans Bend to Washout Bayou. Honest. These are actual physical locations on the river. And, of course, as is the case with everything here on the Mississippi river, theres some incredible history involved.

165 years ago, during the heyday of the ramstudginous, rootin tootin steamboat era, the river landings were lawless and often violent places. The most famous of these rough & tumble river landings was Natchez-under-the-Hill, a river landing located just below the beautiful bluffs overlooking the river at Natchez, Mississippi. It has been accurately reported there were brawls and knife fights virtually every day at Natchez-under-the-Hill. It was too violent even for the local city police, who rarely ventured down Silver Street, which stretched from the top of the bluffs down to the rivers edge. It was a bustling commercial stop for the steamboats, and also a hangout for cutthroats, thieves & brazen mustached gamblers. And, with all that violence, there was often a dead body to be disposed of! Mostly they were simply thrown into the river to be washed down stream. Geographically, the sharp turn in the river at Deadmans Bend creates a whirlpool eddy at the rivers edge that would often trap the floating bodies. Many of them were hauled out of the river at that point, with knives firmly stuck in their bodies.

And right there, at Dead Mans Bend, is where we decided to start the first of our three speed races.

The Delta Queen got off to a great running start, and jumped out to an early lead over the Mississippi Queen. The MQ reportedly has much more power but also carries a lot more weight. It can take the MQ longer to get up to speed from a dead stop. The DQs early lead got the crew and the passengers really excited. It doesnt take much, as the Delta Queen is known for its enthusiastic spirit during these competitive proceedings. During the speed race they had the most wonderful party out on the bow of the Texas deck, complete with the jazz band playing outside and the crew members performing as cheerleaders waving blue & white pom-poms.

But, as we approached Washout Bayou, which was the designated finish line, the Mississippi Queen really poured on the steam, took the inside slack water, and moved slowly but surely into a neck & neck position in the final half mile of the race. It was very dramatic and served to rile up the energy & excitement of everyone on both boats. Being the judge of the event, I had to line myself up on the front railing of the bow of the boat to accurately judge who would cross the landmark first.

The Mississippi Queen won by only 20 yards!… the closest speed race between the two in many years.

Losing such a close river race only dampened the party spirit onboard the Delta Queen for just a few minutes. Jazzou Jones, the beloved DQ cruise directory, and Bobby Schad, entertainer & riverlorian, sang some playful and wonderful duets with the jazz band, as we all continued to enjoy an absolutely gorgeous day of steamboatin on Americas greatest river.

Friday, June 30. 2006

Photos from the first Speed Race.

Golden Antlers mounted on the DQ, just below the pilot house.

DQ staff cheering during the Speed Race.

That’s me, Bodine, partying on the DQ while we still had the lead in the Speed Race.

The famous DQ paddlewheel was turning 14 revolutions per minute during the race.

Jazzou Jone, Bodine, Bobby Schad

Friday, June 30. 2006

Notorious Natchez-under-the-Hill

Hello, steamboat enthusiasts around the world!

Its Bodine Balasco here again, your friendly riverboat gambler, reporting once again from onboard the legendary Delta Queen Steamboat.

This particular entry is a brief report from Natchez-under-the-Hill, Mississippi.

In its day, 165 years ago, Natchez-under-the-Hill was the most notorious river landing on the entire Mississippi River. In my last posting I mentioned the knife fights and killings that were part of everyday life at this lawless location on the river. It was also notorious for a row of saloons built on stilts over the river, called trap-door saloons. Nave travelers who wandered into one of these saloons were often clubbed to death and robbed of their belongings; their bodies dropped into the river thru trap doors in the floor of the saloon! Can you believe it?! Strange but true.

One of my favorite bars in the world, where Ive shared many a drink over the years with my friends onboard the steamboats, is right there near the rivers edge at Natchez-under-the-Hill. The Natchez-under-the-Hill Saloon is the last tame reminder of the outrageous history of this once violent and thriving river landing. To this day, at this bar, for $60 you can buy a genuine Bowie knife that is as wicked a blade as I have ever seen. Its a souvenir, of course, but quite a reminder of the history of this place.

It was often the case, during the 1840s & 1850s, if you got into trouble with the law in New Orleans, youd take a steamboat up river to Natchez-under-the-Hill to hide out until it was safe to return to the Crescent City. The police never ventured to the river landing at Natchez-under-the-Hill. It was just too dangerous.

Today its a simple landing for the Delta Queen Steamboats, below the bluffs of the once thriving plantation community of Natchez, Mississippi. The tour of the old antebellum homes of the city of Natchez is not to be missed. The opulence of the wealthy class of the Old South is still on display and is a sight to behold.

While traveling up river yesterday I was invited up to the pilot house on the Delta Queen. Its a very special place; a small little room perched on top of the boat, with windows on three sides. It is, of course, where the pilots steer the steamboat. Captain Harold Schultz was on duty, piloting the Delta Queen up the Mississippi River which is running very low this year.

The first thing you notice when you enter the pilot house is how very calm and tranquil it is, so very peaceful. Its an ambience that allows the pilots to concentrate on their task at hand. I could stay up in the pilot house all day. I love it up there.

In Memphis Ill be transferring to the Mississippi Queen, to entertain the passengers over there. I love boats, but Ill miss the Delta Queen. Its an amazing experience to travel onboard this truly legendary steamboat. I have friendships with some of the entertainers onboard the Delta Queen that have lasted more than 25 years. Many passengers come back over and over again to enjoy the special charms of the Delta Queen and her warm & friendly crew. John & Rita Kunkleman are onboard with us enjoying their 24th ride onboard the Delta Queen. Once experienced, the river and the Delta Queen truly have a way of calling you back.

Friday, June 30. 2006

River photos from the Great Steamboat Race

The Mississippi Queen & the Delta Queen tied up side-by-side at Natchez-under-the-Hill, looking down from half-way up Silver Street.

Tighter shot of the two boats at Natchez-under-the-Hill.

In the pilot house with river pilot, Captain Harold Schultz.

“At the wheel” in the pilot house.

“Up the lazy river”… rocking chairs on the bow of the Delta Queen, on a beautiful river day.

Tuesday, July 4. 2006

Steamboats race into St. Louis on July 4th… Mississippi Queen wins the Golden Antlers!

Hello, steamboat enthusiasts.

It is so nice to be able to communicate again, at last! I’ve been unable to get online since Memphis! I’m on the Verizon Wirless network for my wireless internet connection, and they just don’t have the Mississippi River wired into their system!

Of course, that’s part of the charm, as all of our passengers will tell you… unplugging from the real world is very relaxing. But it makesit virtually impossible to keep a blog up to date while steaming up the Mississippi River.

Moments ago, the Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen raced virtually neck-and-neck up the final leg of the race, into the landing at St. Louis. The Coast Guard stopped the river traffic, so we had no commercial barges to contend with, on this picture-perfect beautiful day. The MQ jumped out quickly, but the DQ pulled up even most of the way. We were virtually side-by-side for most of the race. It was thrilling to see these two steamboats running together so closely on the river!

The Texas deck bow of the Delta Queen was should-to-shoulder with passengers & crew,havinganother one of their legendary bow parties. The passengers & crew of the Mississippi Queen were all along the outside railings, enjoying the race from every vantage point possible.

Being the race judge, along with Chef Joe Cahn, who is over on the Delta Queen for this final leg of our journey, I had to run to the bow of the MQ to judge the finish. Once again, it was very close. The MQ passengers wanted to win this final race leg very badly, and in the final yards of the race they were yelling, “Go – Go – Go!” To their delight, the MQ crossed under the Poplar Street Bridge about 35 yards ahead of the Delta Queen.

I’ve got to emcee the Closing Ceremonies for this extraordinary travel adventure, and then I’ll post some additional photos & further commentary. And when I get home from this trip, I’ll put it all online.

iremain your friendly travel companion, “the Last of the Riverboat Gamblers”…

Bodine Balasco

Sunday, July 9. 2006


Here we all are on the lawn of the courthouse in Cape Girardeau,Missouri. In some states it’s not legal to have this much fun on city property! Our riverboat banjo players risked arrest and incarceration being onstage together at the same time!

It was a beautiful sunny day, with a great breeze… and the shade of the trees was very welcome.

Some of our steamboat race passengers really get caught up in the spirit of the event! If ever there was a classic American event to participate in, the Great Steamboat Race is it. (As you may know, the folks with the red t-shirts are from the Mississippi Queen; and the folks with the blue t-shirts are from the Delta Queen.)

Sunday, July 9. 2006


During the Great Steamboat Race, the passengers from both steamboats are challenged to get a team of creative people together to createand paint a BANNER that commemorates some aspect of the river or Americana. The folks who volunteer to createand paint these banners work for days on their “masterpiece.” Always, both banners are really great, very creative, each truly wonderful in it’s own way.

It is very hard to judge these banners. And it is very emotional for the passengers, particularly those who worked on the banners, because they put so much creativityand time in to making them good enough to beat the banner from the other boat.

In Cape Girardeau, Missouri, with the two steamboats tied up alongside each other, the banners are attached to the outside railing of their respective steamboat for all to see. And then Chef Joe & I, as the “judges” of the steamboat race, are asked to vote for the best banner of the two. To insure a fair ruling, we also asked a former city councilman from Cape Girardeau, Tom Neumeyer,to be a “guest judge,” along with two women from the Cape Girardeau Convention & Visitors Bureau. So… it was five votes in all.

One of the Banners won the contest, by a score of 3 votes to 2.

Here are the two banners. Which one would you cast your vote for, as being the best?



(It was the Delta Queen Banner that won the contest, and helped the Delta Queen win the Commodore’s Cup.)

Sunday, July 9. 2006


Dining on the steamboats while going up the Mississippi River is a wonderful experience. And, the two boats are so completely different, it is hard to compare them.

The Orleans Room on the Delta Queen serves as both the dining room and the showroom, and the atmosphere is as friendly as you will ever find on a travel journey. The dining room on the Mississippi Queen is bigger, fancier, and a room unto itself; the showroom is separate from the dining room on the MQ. I love them both, and so will you… when you choose to take a ride on these extraordinary steamboats.

Here we are having dinner with our two table mates in the dining room of the Mississippi Queen. Our friends are Kerry & Kellie Pollack, from Cleveland, Ohio. They’ve only been married 11 months, so it was like a follow-up honeymoon for them. They had just taken ballroom dancing lessons back in Cleveland, to learn to dance together in the romantic way, so they truly enjoyed dancing to the dance band in the Grand Saloon Showroom later in the evenings. They also reported they enjoyed being “unplugged” from the rest of the world… with no electronic cellphone access or wireless broadband access most of the time.

Riding on the Delta Queen Steamboats provides you with a vacation that is truly relaxing… a real vacation. It’s the kind of vacation you don’t have to come home to recover from!

We had the pleasure of dining with the master of the Mississippi Queen, Captain John Dugger, and his vivacious wife, Janice. What a treat it was to visit withthem over adeliciousriverboat meal. He is one of the most prominent captains on the river, having spent most of his career as the no.1 river pilot for the Corps of Engineers. (I just had topose for a flashy photo with him, after our dinner.)

When I was performing on the Mississippi Queen in the early 1980’s, as “TheLast of the Riverboat Gamblers,”I met a woman onboard who was the most beautiful & alluring creature I had ever seen. I decided the moment I first saw her I wanted to marry her. I can’t explain this in any rational or logical way, as I was a confirmed bachelor at the time! It took me 3 months to convince her to marry me — she later admitted toa great sense of risk in doing so! — and we celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary this year. This is us, having dinner together in the dining room of the Mississippi Queen on Captain’s Dinner Night.

Sunday, July 9. 2006

The Last of the Riverboat Gamblers

Some years ago, I decided I wanted to become a professional sleight-of-hand magician, but I wanted to do it differently. I had always been fascinated by that classic American character of the fast-talkin’, smoothin dealin,’ riverboat gambler with a heart of gold. And so, I decided to create a card-table sleight-of-hand entertainment act as “The Last of the Riverboat Gamblers.”

Well, as luck would have it, Bill Muster, thenChairman of the Board of the Delta Quuen Steamboat Company, saw me performing my riverboat gambling entertainment act at a nightclub in Los Angeles, and put me on the Mississippi Queen for her maiden voyage.

I lived on the MQ for four years, performing onboard with awonderful rotation of 30 days on and 30 days off. I loved that rotation! 30 days on was enough to want to get off; and 30 days off was enough to want to get back on!

These days the only steamboat ride where I perform onboard is the Great Steamboat Race each year. I’ve been entertaining onboard and “judging” the race events for each of the Great Steamboat Races for 12 years now!

But this may have been my last steamboat race. I’m pleased to report I’ve developed a thriving — and very time-consuming! — career as a keynote speaker at meetings & events across North America.

Performing my riverboat gambler card act in the Paddlewheel Bar onboard the Mississippi Queen has been one of the great joys of my life. There are two levels back there, and many times I’ve had 200 people in that room, some of them hanging over the railing of the top section to watch me create magic with a deck of cards.

Sunday, July 9. 2006

Two Great Steamboats traveling up river side by side…

As you may know, the Delta Queenis a National Historic Monument, and I can’t describe in words the feelings I experiencewhen I see her on the river. The Mississippi Queen is an extraordinary sight, as well. The great visual joy of the steamboat race is getting to see both boats on the river, side by side.

The above photo is not from a postcard. My wife, Sandi, took this photo from the port-side railing of the Mississippi Queen while the two boats were racing together. Visually, I just loved this.

Here’s a shot, taken from the port-side railing of the MQ, of the Delta Queen river pilot moving the DQ very close to the shoreline to travel in the slow-moving, slack water. Again, while my wife was using her camera to get this shot, I was just awestruck with the visual beauty of being able tosee this in person.

This photo was taken from the Caliope Bar, upper deck aft, on the MQ. A beautiful river day with the two steamboats steaming up the river together.

I’m wearing a special shirt made for me as the race “judge”, fashioned by sewing together half of a Delta Queen shirt with a Mississippi Queen shirt, to signify, of course, an impartial love for both of the boats during the “judging” of the race events.

I was onboard the Mississippi Queen in 1976, during her maiden voyage. The company called her, accurately at the time, “the biggest steamboat that ever was afloat.”

From a wonderful vantage point on the port-side railing of the Delta Queen, you can see the MQ paddlewheel, and the two layers of windows surrounding the upper and lower levers of the Mississippi Queen’s Paddlewheel Bar. I’ve had more fun in that paddlewheel bar than I will ever be able to recall!

Sunday, July 9. 2006


Recreating the Great Steamboat Race of 1870 between the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee, the Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen raced into St. Louis on July 4th.

It was another gorgeous day. The Coast Guard stopped river traffic for us, so we could have a fair race, and the Mississippi Queen beat the DQ to the finish line by a lot less than a boat length.

We tied the boats up right near the Gateway Arch, had a wonderful dinner onboard, and then went up to the top decks of both boats to watch the St. Louis fireworks display. It’s one of the great fireworks displays in the country, and it lived up to it’s billing once again. It was sensational. What a great way to end a great river travel adventure!

Monday, July 10. 2006


Being the co-judge and co-emcee of the Great Steamboat Race with Chef Joe Cahn was an adventure in itself, believe me! With his big booming voice he doesn’t need a microphone, and I never know what he’s going to say or when he’s going to say it! Chances are, however, no matter what he says, he’s going to make you laugh!

When the Delta Queen Steamboat Company decision makers decided to pair us up 12 years ago as co-judges for the Great Steamboat race of that year, Joe & I had never met each other before. Our mandate has always been to consistently communicate to the passengers of both boats, who are competing against each other all the way up the river, that the whole thing is just for fun!

Joe and I have since become very close friends in the real world. We visit with each other every chance we get; and we regularly talk on the phone. He always makes me laugh!

As you know, I wasn’t able to make regular blog postings while traveling up river. This was a little frustrating from time to time. Even when we arrived in St. Louis I couldn’t get a steady wireless internet connection (!) But as I’ve mentioned, part of the charm of the river is the feeling of being isolated from “the real world.” On the Delta Queen in particular, out there in the middle of the river, time seems to stand still. It’s a place where stopping in the aft cabin lounge to work on a jig-saw puzzle seems totally natural.


I’ve added many photos for you to see, and quite a bit of commentary about the Great Steamboat Race of 2006. It was a pleasure to be part of it, and I thank Franz for the opportunity to communicate to you with words & photos.

All the best.