The Mississippi River is about to get a little more crowded.
The Riverboat Louis Armstrong, a floating event and entertainment venue with four decks and a total capacity of 3,000, finally makes its debut Saturday.
The completely rebuilt vessel, which first set sail as an Indiana-based casino in 1995, is now the largest riverboat plying the Mississippi in New Orleans.
It will be commissioned Saturday afternoon during an invitation-only christening ceremony, then open to the public from 6 to 10 p.m. with a free performance by the Free Agents Brass Band.
Boarding is at 1 Poydras Street behind the Hilton Riverside and the Riverwalk’s Outlet Collection, at the dock formerly used by the Flamingo riverboat casino.
Two more public previews are scheduled, with John Lisi & Delta Funk on Dec. 21 and pianist Tom Worrell on Dec. 28.
Going forward, it will not embark on daily sightseeing cruises. Instead, the Louis Armstrong will host weddings, conventions, large-scale parties and other private functions, sailing for some and remaining dockside for others.
Plans also include a gospel jazz brunch on Sundays and occasional stand-alone concerts in the tradition of the long-gone, fondly remembered riverboat SS President.
The boat that would eventually be reborn as the Louis Armstrong was originally named the City of Evansville. It was acquired in 2017 by New Orleans Paddlewheels, part of the Hospitality Enterprises/BigEasy.com family of businesses, led by president Warren J. Reuther Jr., that serves the New Orleans tourism and convention markets.
The Louis Armstrong joins a New Orleans Paddlewheels portfolio that also includes the Paddlewheeler Creole Queen and Jean Lafitte Swamp/Airboat Tours.
At 310 feet long – slightly longer than a football field – and 70 feet wide, it dwarfs its sister ship, the 800-capacity Creole Queen.
The Louis Armstrong is also considerably larger than the 1,200-capacity Steamboat Natchez, owned by the rival New Orleans Steamboat Company, and that company’s new boat, the Riverboat City of New Orleans. A former gambling boat from Illinois, the City of New Orleans is close to completing its Coast Guard inspections, and will likely take its inaugural cruise with passengers in January.
Several years ago, New Orleans Paddlewheels set out to find a boat capable of hosting events that were too big for the Creole Queen, said Emily Blackburn, the company’s director of sales.
They found their bigger boat in Indiana.
Before the City of Evansville began the long cruise to a new life in Louisiana, its hundreds of gaming machines were removed. The towering smokestacks were taken down so the vessel could more easily pass under bridges along the way.
A multi-million-dollar makeover commenced at a drydock in Amelia, outside Morgan City. The process continued in Algiers and, finally, behind Mardi Gras World, where the Louis Armstrong will dock when not in use.
In Louisiana, the boat’s smokestacks were refurbished and reinstalled. The entire exterior was sandblasted and repainted. Engines were overhauled. Safety equipment was updated. The pilot house was adorned with a 12-foot decal of New Orleans-born jazz trumpet titan Louis Armstrong, who also decorates the boat’s sides.
The interior’s transformation was even more dramatic. The three enclosed decks and open-air top deck promenade were redesigned for specific functions, but also for versatility. “We made sure that we can do anything,” Blackburn said.
Walls, ceilings, floors, bathrooms and the former casino boat’s cashier counters were torn out. New electrical and security systems were installed, along with digitally controlled lighting. A stage, new bars and lounges were built. The air-conditioning system was upgraded.
Special attention was paid to the high-tech audio system. The curved acoustic tiles on the second deck’s ceiling are meant to improve concert sound.
The first-floor deck can be subdivided for meeting spaces and dinners. The mirrored tiles along the ceiling are among the few remaining clues to the boat’s casino past.
The third floor is intended for weddings, banquets and other events. It also includes a lounge with a display about the riverboat’s namesake trumpeter.
The second floor is the main concert hall, with a permanent stage, artists’ green room, 40-foot-long main bar and large back bar. Its standing-room-only capacity is 1,000. It can also accommodate 400 for a seated show.
Wayne Lee, who previously worked at the House of Blues and Tipitina’s, is the Louis Armstrong’s talent buyer. He’ll slot concerts around the boat’s schedule of private events.
Dozens of such events are already booked for 2020, Blackburn said. During the College Football Playoff National Championship weekend Jan. 11-13, the Louis Armstrong will dock alongside Woldenberg Park for private parties hosted by the CFP committee and ESPN.
The second annual Ochsner Cardiology Red Tie Affair will be aboard the Louis Armstrong on March 6.
But first comes Saturday’s long-awaited christening. The Louis Armstrong’s launch was delayed for almost a year. The renovation turned out to be more ambitious than originally anticipated. The interior design and materials had to be tweaked to satisfy Coast Guard requirements.
That inspection process was halted by the federal government shutdown in late 2018. High springtime water levels on the Mississippi River then prevented the Louis Armstrong from being moved from Algiers to Mardi Gras World. This week, workers were fine-tuning the sound system and lights.
So when Reuther’s eight granddaughters crack a bottle Saturday on the Louis Armstrong, it will be with a sense of relief.
“It’s going to be very exciting,” Blackburn said. “I might cry happy tears.”