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New film floats old memories

Movie tells the story of Detroit's Boblo Island and its Boblo Boats. It is a story that mirrors that of Crystal Beach and the Canadiana.

DETROIT — For many Western New Yorkers, Crystal Beach and the boats you could take to get there hold fond memories. 

What you may not know is that the city at the other end of Lake Erie has a similar story. 

It is a story told in a new movie that premiered last week in Detroit called "Boblo Boats: A Detroit Ferry Tale". If the boat looks familiar, it is not your imagination. In fact, one of those boats is here in Buffalo, undergoing years of restoration along the Buffalo River at Silo City. 

For generations, the Canadiana, and her sister ship the Americana, were the magical transports to a far away land of fun, called Crystal Beach. 

Well Detroit had it's own version of that, Boblo Island and the Boblo boats. The boats were named the Ste. Claire and the Columbia, the latter of which is in Buffalo.

For film maker Aaron Schillinger, this was his directorial debut. He wanted to capture the emotions still attached to the park, happy memories, along with enduring sadness of it's closing 30 years ago. He did that by giving the boats a persona. "We decided to write the narration from the perspective of Columbia, the Boblo boat herself." He also wanted to capture the childhood magic of Boblo Island, along with the boat ride over. "Having a magical narrator, to transport people back in time and to another place, which is what we want to do with any movie, you know, we want to transport you."

To do that he called in a magical voice, Motown legend Martha Reeves. She, along with her back up singers the Vandellas put 25 hit singles into the Billboard top 100 in the 1960's. Martha remembers performing on the Boblo boats back in the early days, but she remembers the days before that, when she was just one of the kids going out for a day of magic.

"The Boblo boat was a special thing. It was almost like going on holiday, but you didn't have to go far, you didn't have to spend the night." She also recalls the sense of community. "It was also a way to unite with other races. That was the most important thing I think, it didn't matter who you were and what you had going for you, when you got on that Boblo boat, you are sailor and you were going over to the park to have a good time."

But it wasn't always a haven for all races. In 1945, a young woman named Sarah Elizabeth Ray was removed from the Columbia because of the color of her skin. She, along with the NAACP took the case all the way to the highest court, represented by none-other-than Thurgood Marshall. 

Detroit City Historian Jamon Jordan says her victory paved the way for other landmark cases, including Rosa Parks. "It is a major Supreme Court case that is an international case in scope that happened in the City of Detroit, fighting for racial equality on the Boblo boat. And it's not led by some of the people we're used to thinking about when we think about civil rights, it's led by a young woman." 

Ray's story, along with restoration efforts of her former home, are part of the film and members of her family were in the audience for the premiere.

Courtney Thompson, Sarah's great-nephew says they never knew about his great-aunt's civil rights stand until very recently and after her passing. "I don't know if I have the words for it just yet, I mean this is all of a sudden for all of us, the limelight and the variety the recognition. We're all just trying to take it all in right now, but we're all very proud of her."

Another story line in the film revolves around Columbia's sister, Ste. Claire.

Restoration efforts have been going on for years along the Detroit River. Detroit Dr. Ron Kattoo owns the ship, his brother-in-law, Stephen Faraj is the ship's restoration manager. The project has had many stops and starts, including a devastating fire in 2018. But, Stephen says they are now seeing light at the end of the tunnel. He says that repowering the ship is still way off in the future, but he feels if they can get a permanent dock site, he may be able to open it as a floating museum in the next year or so.

The restoration efforts of both Columbia and Ste. Claire are just one of the many plot lines in the film. 

The overriding theme is the rekindling of memories. Patt Taylor Braxton was in the packed audience at last Thursday's premiere at the Emagine Theater in Royal Oak, a Detroit suburb. "I remember how the boat felt moving up-and-down on the waves." The 74-year-old Detroit native told 2 On Your Side's Pete Gallivan through teary-filled eyes that the film brought her right back to when she was 10 years old. "It was the beginning of a wonderful adventure of a lifetime that I started on the Boblo boat."

Schillinger says that his film will certainly resonate with Buffalonians because of the similarities to the Crystal Beach experience. He says Western New Yorkers will soon get to see the movie. It is showing in the Buffalo International Film Festival on Saturday, October 8th at 3pm in the Burchfield Penney Art Gallery.

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