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Time finally blows the whistle

The Newport Beach landmark Reuben E. Lee has had several identities. Upkeep costs are forcing its demise.

July 01, 2007|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

Pity the Reuben E. Lee. The boat was intended as an ingenue: comely for its intended two-decade lifespan, relegated to the dumpster once it creaked and groaned with age.

That hasn't eased the ache of Southern Californians who had long mooned over Newport Beach's kitschy smokestack riverboat, which cheated its certain annihilation for 20 extra years.

Last week, workers began to dismantle its beige veneer -- the Reuben E. Lee had run out of tricks.

The city has bade goodbye to local landmarks before, such as John Wayne's old homestead and the Rendezvous Ballroom, where big bands once played. But few familiar sights along the coast have struggled so long to beat back their demise as the faux paddleboat.

The site of countless graduation dinners, stolen kisses and "I do's" has reinvented itself as Anthony's Riverboat, Riverboat Restaurant and Charley Brown's, and has promoted lounge singers, amateur thespians, premium bourbons, model boat races and, most recently, the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum.

Sentimental locals have reminisced in newspapers and online forums about post-prom dinners aboard the oddball landmark, just off East Coast Highway near Jamboree Road. But no one -- not the guy with the Corona dude ranch, not the Florida man who suggested dragging it through the Panama Canal -- rowed to its rescue when the museum decided to sell.

Built in the 1960s, the faux vessel was but one dining option in John McIntosh's gastronomical empire. At one point, the Corona del Mar businessman's chains -- Reuben's, Coco's and Snack Shops -- dished grub for 45,000 customers a day. The moniker of McIntosh's floating, though not seaworthy, restaurants meshed Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and McIntosh's middle name, Reuben.

In Newport Harbor, the paddler serves as an architectural antithesis to sleek neighboring yachts. A stack of beige squares with red trim, it resembles a wedding cake, though with twin black smokestacks and a red paddle wheel.

John Broussard, a retired financial planner whose powerboat is docked near the Reuben E. Lee, dined there in the mid-1960s with his family, who had driven at least 50 miles from their home in Colton. The line was lengthy, the attire haughty. "It wasn't cheap," he said with a chuckle.

Bill Bodamer, a broker at nearby Orange Coast Yachts, attended a wedding reception on the vessel, admired the tall ships often tied up at its dock and blew hours on a sportfishing video game, a feature installed after the paddle-wheeler was reborn as a museum. When customers asked for directions to the yacht brokerage, Bodamer told them: Look for the riverboat.

On OCThen.com, other folks have chimed in with eulogies:

"When the Newport Beach fire boat zoomed past, the whole restaurant would rock and sway. I never saw any plates slide off tables, but the patrons would stare intently at their coffee or water glasses."

"Remember driving by ... and seeing it tilted to one side. My husband stopped the car and we watched while the fire department tried to figure out how to get a VW bug out from UNDER it."

Business ebbed over the years, however, and the restaurant's various owners turned to magicians and palm readers. A dinner theater called "Dinner You'll Die For." A dance floor. A production of "Treasure Island." Some of the cuisine changes were hard to swallow. During the Riverboat Restaurant era, a Times critic dismissed the Southern fare as "heavy on Louisiana, light on Texas and equal parts nostalgia and hokum."

In 1995, the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum commandeered the Reuben E. Lee. Over the years, it boasted a 3,000-volume maritime library, a 58,000-photo archive, and, atop the men's room urinal, the business end of a shark -- jaws open.

The floating museum drew up to 20,000 visitors a year but proved too costly to operate. Metal rusted, wood rotted, paint chipped, ramps sagged. The Reuben E. Lee sapped at least $200,000 a year from the museum, said David LaMontagne, a museum trustee.

While the museum relocated to the nearby Balboa Fun Zone, the Reuben E. Lee proved more obstinate.

LaMontagne, who headed the sale efforts, began advertising it last year on eBay and LoopNet.com, a commercial real estate site, initially for $250,000. At least 100 people responded: restaurateurs, hoteliers, other nautical museum officials and folks "who love Newport Beach and its icons and had excess cash."

Someone envisioned the Reuben E. Lee as a jazz club. A guy from Corona pictured it as a dude ranch saloon. Folks pitched moving it to the Orange County Fairgrounds or Sarasota, Fla. -- via the Panama Canal.

But no one could figure out how to move the almost 45-foot-wide, 190-foot long, 65-ton behemoth. Museum officials consulted one man who had moved spacecraft and another familiar with lifting heavy things with military helicopters. Both deemed the Reuben E. Lee impossible to move. After a year or so of searching for a buyer, the museum gave up.

In about a month, the Reuben E. Lee will be gone, its wood and steel recycled, its Victorian chandeliers and oak doors auctioned off, and the museum somewhat richer from the salvage operation.

In recent days, a few folks meandered into the parking lot and simply stared. It was their way of saying goodbye to a vessel whose last incarnation was as the Pride of Newport.

--

ashley.powers@latimes.com

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