The Original Showboat
Residents of small towns along Mid-Atlantic waterways excitedly ran to the dock when the massive two story James Adams Floating Theater slowly glided into view behind its two tug boats.
This was as close to the Great White Way as many of them would get and they eagerly looked forward to the arrival of the 436-ton barge with its spacious theater. As soon as the barge was securely fastened, local workers and children raced on board to perform various tasks in return for tickets to the shows.
The theater was also the inspiration for Edna Ferber’s novel Showboat which was made into a Broadway musical and two movies. Standards like “Ol’ Man River,” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II have kept the romance of showboats alive.
James Adams commissioned the WM Chauncey Marine Railway in Washington, NC to build the 128-foot barge in 1913 for the sum of $8,941.42. He christened it Estelle but changed its name to James Adams Floating Theater after the Coast Guard required him to paint the vessel’s name on its white superstructure.
For over twenty years, the theater traveled to small towns in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina bringing melodramas and vaudeville acts to rural communities along the Chesapeake Bay and Albemarle Sound. For ten cents, patrons could sit in one of the general admission seats in its spacious 500 seat gold and blue trimmed theater.
For ten cents, patrons could sit in one of the general admission seats in its spacious 500 seat gold and blue trimmed theater.
Like most public spaces during this time period the theater was segregated and there were 350 seats for African Americans in the balcony. In addition to the large seating area, the theater had space for a 10-piece concert band and a six-piece orchestra. The 25 performers and crew lived on board, so there were dining and sleeping quarters too. It was also equipped with electric generators to provide light for the performances.
Tryouts for the first season were held in Elizabeth City. During its 40-week season in 1914, the theater performed in small hamlets from Washington, NC to St. Michael’s, MD with two to five day stops in the Northeastern North Carolina cities of Greenville, Bath, Aurora, Belhaven, Elizabeth City, and South Mills.
The James Adams was able to visit these small towns because it had a fourteen-inch draft, ideal for shallow water ports. It returned to Elizabeth City for the winter and often came back to the Elizabeth City Iron Works for repairs between seasons.
Records from the first season show that a variety of plays were produced by the itinerant performers, including Under Western Skies, The Girl Ranchman, Tempest, and Sunshine. Specialties such as singing, dancing, juggling, and tumbling were performed between the acts while scenery was changed and refreshments were sold, and vaudeville routines concluded the evening.
Showboats were very popular during this period in the Midwest and South because rivers were the primary mode of transportation. The James Adams Floating Theater was the only one of 53 showboats to work in the Albemarle and Chesapeake Bay areas from 1831 to 1939. Her owner previously traveled with vaudeville and circus acts in the Midwest and knew he would have no competition in the Mid-Atlantic region because showboats were more expensive to operate than carnival shows.
Adams, his wife Gertrude, sister Beulah and her husband Charlie Hunter, brother Selba and his wife Clara were regulars on the ship. Beulah, known as the “Mary Pickford of the Chesapeake,” always received a warm welcome from audience members when she came on stage.
Adams usually found cast members through theatrical trade papers. He allowed couples to be part of the cast but no single women were allowed.
The James Adams Floating Theater was the only one of 53 showboats to work in the Albemarle and Chesapeake Bay areas from 1831 to 1939.
The James Adams was part of the Repertoire Theater movement of the early 20th century. These companies employed actors and actresses who performed in six or more plays at each of their stops. Charlie Hunter and Harry Van were the ship’s advance men and they drove a car from one town to the next so that playbills could be posted before the theater arrived.
Adams’ theater was immortalized in Ferber’s 1926 novel after she came on board while it was in Bath, NC to observe life on a showboat. During her four day visit she helped with ticket sales and talked extensively to Adams, taking copious notes on the life of the showboat and its crew. She then left to write her famous novel, which was followed by its successful debut on Broadway in 1927.
The shallow draft that served the vessel well to reach small towns also caused it to run aground numerous times. After it was refloated each time, it was towed back to Elizabeth City for repairs.
By the late 1920s, the tide was turning against showboats and the James Adams’ time was drawing to a close. Movies, the Depression, and high taxes at some ports put a strain on the finances of the enterprise. In 1932, Adams put the Floating Theater up for sale.
It was purchased in 1933 by Nina B. Howard who renamed it The Original Show Boat and painted it red. The stops remained similar to those followed by Adams. In 1938, disaster struck once again and the barge sank in the Roanoke River while it was en route to Williamston. It took two weeks to raise and tow it to Elizabeth City for repairs.
Under Mrs. Howard, the Showboat played at larger cities like Alexandria, VA and Baltimore, MD but it still returned to Elizabeth City and some of its original ports. Revenues dropped as the size of the audiences shrank and Mrs. Howard sold the Original Floating Theater in 1941 at public auction for $6,000.
Shortly before Pearl Harbor, the ship was being towed across the Savannah River when it caught fire and was eventually grounded when the tide went out, thus ending its 27 year run in spectacular fashion.
Photos courtesy Museum of the Albemarle
Jane Elfring, a freelance writer and photographer, lives in Elizabeth City. She writes about the history and life in Northeastern North Carolina.