New Bern, NC – The documentation available on the history of showboats is scant. Most of the information you'll find on the internet is from plays, movies, and a famous work of fiction by Pulitzer Prize winning author Edna Ferber. Ferber wrote the book after extensive research, which included a four-night stay on a famous showboat, the James Adams Floating Theatre. The boat was making stops on the Pamlico Sound in Bath and Belhaven North Carolina. It's Mrs. Ferber's story that's really created the legacy of this unique aspect of early entertainment.
The dazzle that the movie business instilled into popular culture overshadows the flat roofed houseboats that floated down the Mississippi, Ohio Rivers, and extensive portions of the Atlantic Coast. The movies of the 30's based on the lives of showboat performers might've caused people to think the idea was based on imagination, but from the early 1800s until the mid 20th century showboats were providing entertainment equivalent to a circus.
A typical showboat resembles a prop off a movie set, or the mind of an adventurer with dreams of building a house that never stops moving. It's filled with some of the most passionate actors of the time, many of them families. One the first recorded showboat appearances came by a Great Britain born actor, who moved with his family of nine and with them entertained up and down the waterways of the American frontier. Inside one of these barges you might think you'd been transported to a city theatre.
Showboats were more appreciated in fishing towns, places within the deep and narrow confined waterways of the east coast's estuary system, what Assistant Manager for Historic Bath, Bea Latham, refers to as the "guts" of the river.
"We find the barge style showboats being very prevalent on the eastern shore from about the area of the Susquehanna River South because the way those boats were designed were able fairly easily to ply up and down the small little guts off rivers and creeks, which made them very popular."
Circuses were very popular in America in the 1830's, when the first showboats appeared. In 1825 the circus tent was created which allowed the circus to travel from city to city and put on one-night shows. The 1830's brought the railroad system, which further increased land travel efficiency. Even though the circus was more popular, showboats bore little resemblance, and had a somewhat forgotten audience in the hard to reach towns that circuses could not compete with. Unlike the tents we all know from the circuses, showboats were built on the same scale and with similar techniques as a mansion from that time would've been built. And unlike the pyrotechnics and animal tricks that entertained the circus audience the showboats are mostly known for their play productions and concerts. The showboat more resembled the traveling European shows of Shakespearian times.
The circus and floating theatre institutions struggled with the dawn of the movie industry in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Latham believes the early silent movies worked well for the typical showboat schedule.
"At those times I think the showboat ability and the silent movies went hand in hand for a period of time. The silent movie type atmosphere would've been able to provide entertainment during all times of the year. The showboat was really only able to provide their entertainment from the April to September time period and then they were put away for the winter and then work was done to them as needed or upgraded."
In the early 1900's the showboat business started losing prominence in the entertainment industry. As a result, a number of new showboats surfaced that were bigger and more extravagant. It was these showboats that caused people later to use the term "showboat" to refer to a person that excessively shows off a skill or talent. One of the most famous of the show boats built was the James Adams Floating Theatre.
In 1913 a circus operator named James Adams was interested in building a showboat. In 1914 after a stay in Washington, NC Adams completed his boat. It was a four hundred thirty six ton, one hundred twenty eight foot long, and thirty-four foot wide barge. It soon came to be called the James Adam's Floating Theatre and was built in Washington, NC. For most of its off-season in the winter it docked at Elizabeth City. It traveled the Pamlico Sound. It also went further north into the Chesapeake Bay, and its tributaries in Virginia and Maryland.
Latham quotes A Washington Daily news article from March 14, 1914, that describes Adam's early success.
"The Adams floating theatre played to a packed house each of the five nights in the Saturday Matinee on the Maiden Introduction of floating entertainment to Beaufort County. The Washington Daily News of March 5, 1914 even estimated the crowd to have been about 7 to 8 hundred the previous night. General Admission was 10 cents. There were 100 choice reserved seats at an additional twenty-five cents, with another two hundred reserved seats for fifteen cents extra. Following the stint in Washington, Adams took his novelty to Greenville for one week, and then back to the Beaufort County ports of Bath and Belhaven."
Other North Carolina towns the James Adams Floating Theatre visited were Middletown, South Mills, Hertford, Edenton, Columbia, Plymouth and Winton, among others. They were less visited towns, and the appreciation they received was proof.
One unique aspect of the boats is that their size prevented them from having any control over the boat. They used tugboats as a means to maneuver and get around, something that the famous Showboat movies overlook. If they'd used steam engine wheels, the piece would've had to sit right in the middle of their main theatre. According to a book on the James Adams Floating Theatre by Richard Gillespie there was tension between the entertainers and the tugboat crew on Adam's boat. While the tugboat crew was trying to sleep the actors and actresses were practicing late into the night, and in the mornings, when the crew was getting the barge on route the performers were trying to sleep.
Despite the conflicts aboard such a confined place of work, Adam's theatre became quite popular.
"The way the James Adams operated as I'm sure other showboats did as well they usually stayed in a town for five to seven days and they provided a different play each of those days."
Every night their show would be a different genre of entertainment. Adam's said that most popular were the shows that could shed a tear but would have you leaving with a smile on your face. A leading historian of the boat, Richard Gillespie, describes in his book, The James Adams Floating Theatre, a typical schedule at any one of its stops. Monday, an extravagant, comedy filled show, at the same time heartwarming that would be just short of satisfying the towns people for the rest of the week. Tuesday, was a comedy for the whole family, Wednesday, a play that was entertaining but held back on any subject matter too serious, Thursday, a play with a dramatic story line, one that could be compared with the first nights show, Friday, a light comedy or something heartfelt, and Saturday, a riotous comedy.
Latham reads from an old magazine article that interviewed R.H. Carson from Urbana, Virginia. Latham quotes Carson speaking of the months leading up to the Floating Theatre's arrival.
"The real highlight of the year was the floating theatre, which always came around the middle of August, which always came for a one-week stay. People came in droves, some from as far as Richmond, which was seventy miles of dirt road from Urbana. But what I recall best of all was the yearly arrival of the advanced man. Some three or four weeks before the arrival of the floating theatre, he would arrive on the steamer from Norfolk. He arranged for the dock rental, for advertising in the local paper, and for young and eager 16-year-old boys to tack up signs on nearly every tree and telephone pole within a twenty-five mile radius."
There's currently a non-profit out of Indian Head, Maryland, set to build a replica of the James Adams Floating Theatre, that might even travel and entertain along the same routes as did Adam's and his crew. If you're interested in the experience of the floating theatre take a ferry ride over the Pamlico Sound from Aurora to Bath and try to imagine children chasing the boat on its way in or the sound of instruments across the water showcasing its imminent arrival. You might also read Ferber's book Showboat, and maybe then you'll see that the history of showboats is better off as part myth.