One particular distinction of this vessel is that in 1925 Edna Ferber visited the James Adams to do research before writing her novel Show Boat. “Those four days,” she wrote, “comprised the only show-boat experience I ever had…” She worked aboard and interviewed the captain, director, and leading man Charles Hunter. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II later sought her out and convinced her to allow them to develop a play around her beautiful story. That play changed American theatre forever. It also went on to inspire three cinematic versions as well.
The Floating Theatre was an important part of the people’s lives. The company entertained in 94 ports all around the Chesapeake Bay during its 27 year run from 1914–1941. The show boat’s effect is demonstrated by the number of museum exhibits about it in many of the ports visited. There are the Steamboat Era Museum in Irvington, Kinsale Museum, Reedville Fisherman’s Museum, Kilmarnock Historical Society, Essex County Historical Society and Museum in Tappahannock. Many other locations in Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina still celebrate the importance of the show boat’s yearly visits as well.
Listen to what other Northern Neck neighbors had to say:
Fae Fisher reminds us that “During this time, the people were still experiencing the “Depression of ’29” and the average family had very little money for pleasure or entertainment. Many people tried to save enough out of their weekly wages to attend at least one or two nights of the week. Many of the young men at this time, if they were fortunate enough to have a job, were making (only) $1.25 per day.”
“It was the thing to do in those days, the social event of the season.” Halley Tubman tells us. “It played at Nomini first, where the canning factory was and where Charles Davis’ property is now. They went to McGuire’s afterward.
Sometimes the band played there at the Palmer House Hotel after the show, when the boys would get enough money together to pay the band. I went every night every time. It was here a week. I would go with my mother, sometimes, I’d take a lady with me. It was very nice. It was like a normal theater, the theater itself was very well done.”
Betty Banks Arnest exclaims, “I absolutely loved it. It was the most excitement we had in Kinsale that day and age. I lived from one summer to the next for the Floating Theatre.
People got all dressed up. I can remember Nelly Bailey dressed up in a green evening dress walking down the path to the boat. They had the play and then they had the concert. The concerts stood out more than their plays, the singing and dancing, and sparkles.
I had always wanted a pony, and one summer Papa said he’d found one. He said he’d buy that pony for me, but I would have to choose between the pony and floating theatre. Well. I couldn’t see giving up the floating theatre. So I didn’t get the pony.”
“Each night in the week, they repeat the same type of play,” John Stafford Efford recalls. “…high comedy, tragedy, melodramas, “Madame Butterfly,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” that sort of thing. Sometimes you were sitting on the edge of your seat. Beulah Adams would be tied to a railroad track and the hero would save her.
Most everybody would stay for the concert, a vaudeville sort of thing. In the interim between the play and the concert, they had people hawking candy and stuff in the aisles. The actors, the musicians and the stagehands were all part of the whole business. Everybody did three things.
You know, there is a lot of difference between live theatre and the movies. There’s nothing like the stage. The only way that live acting was available was from the drama groups of the communities. There’s much less live theatre in the communities now. We would see three or four live presentations every winter in the schools. The state never spent a dollar on the schools, the communities did it. They’d serve a supper and have a drama to raise money for the schools and drama groups would take their plays to other areas. But the Floating Theatre was on a higher level, they were the only guide the drama groups had of how it should be done.”
Yes, it is very true that there is nothing that compares to experiencing a live performance. All too often today we come home and plop down in front of the television, or log onto our computers. Whether for work or fun, these are poor substitutes for getting out, being with others from your community, and sharing your lives and experiences. So get out and support organizations like the Westmoreland Players1, the Lancaster Players, Tidewater Shakespeare Company, etc. Supporting the arts in your area will not only lift your spirits and/or make you think, but it’s good for the local economy. Supporting the effort to return the Floating Theatre to entertaining coastal communities is an excellent way to help your local economy. This was even true in the early 1900s.
Deborah Bramble Conklin tells us, “I was always glad to hear the theatre was coming. That was a fun time when they came in. Everybody was excited. Most people around here went by boat, not too many had cars. My daddy, Lewin Bramble, did a lot of work for them when they would come. He would run errands for them. We raised vegetables in our garden and he’d carry them up and sell them. If they needed something at the store, he’d go get it. …Jennie Butler did the laundry for them. My daddy got money from the vegetables and we had eggs and chickens and I guess that’s the way we paid our way in them days.”
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to experience live entertainment, music, and variety acts in the historic surrounding of this show boat? You can’t visit the original floating theatre because it was totally lost to fire in 1941. But, you can join with other concerned citizens working to “Bring Back Our Show Boat.”
Once built, it will tour the Chesapeake Bay for 35 weeks a year, to many of the ports visited by the original. The vessel will operate as both a museum and as a performance space. Musicals and light comedies will be presented, perhaps even some vaudeville and a melodrama or two. The intent is for the show boat to add to cultural and heritage tourism and aid the economic development in the areas visited.
Help Bring the Floating Theatre to YOUR Town!
Hundreds of volunteers are needed to help spread the word. Maybe you know someone who would donate artifacts for interpretive exhibits. Or, do you have a relative who remembers the floating theatre and might offer an oral history?
Unfortunately, grants do not fund new construction. In order to return this lost national treasure to serving coastal communities, we, the citizens, will have to step up ourselves. Help is needed from individuals, small companies, large corporations, towns, counties, states, fraternal organizations, arts organizations, and anyone who wants to see the Floating Theatre return.
For more information check out the website at: http://FloatingTheater.org. There you will find more about the show boat’s history, more memories, and the initiative to rebuild the Floating Theatre. You will even find ways to help without costing you a single penny. It’s estimated that if only 2% of the population of the coastal counties around the bay give as little as $20 each, rebuilding a new James Adams Floating Theatre would become a reality. An important priority is the acquisition of a good sea service barge, approximately 140’ x 40’. Once funding is secured we could see this lost national treasure back on the bay in just a few years. It would be great to see it there by the 2014 centennial of its launch.
If bringing the James Adams Floating Theatre back to the waterways is of interest to you, tell your friends, relatives, local businesses, and government representatives that their support is needed in order to make the James Adams Floating Theatre a reality again. Be sure to join us on Facebook. Be a Friend of the James Adams Floating Theatre.
What would the recreated James Adams Floating Theatre bring to the communities of the Chesapeake and its tributaries? Americans for the Arts3 offers these facts:
Nonprofit arts organizations and their audiences generate $166.2 billion dollars in economic activity every year—$63.1 billion in spending by organizations and an additional $103.1 billion in event-related spending by their audiences, proving that the arts are an economic driver in their communities that supports jobs, generates government revenue, and is the cornerstone of tourism.
The arts are a cornerstone of tourism, economic development, and the revitalization of many downtowns. When we increase support for the arts, we are generating tax revenues, jobs, and a creativity-based economy.
The typical attendee to a nonprofit arts event spends $27.79 per person, per event (excluding admission) on transportation, lodging, and other event-related costs. Nonlocal attendees spend twice as much as their local counterparts ($40.19 vs. $19.53). Thirty-nine percent of attendees are nonlocal. Few industries can boast this kind of event-related spending.
According the Travel Industry Association, cultural tourists spend more ($631 vs. $457), are more likely to use a hotel (62 percent vs. 56 percent), travel longer (5.2 nights vs. 4.1 nights), and are more likely to spend $1,000+ (18 percent vs. 12 percent) than the average traveler
Public art and a vibrant cultural community beautifies and animates cities, provides employment, attracts residents and tourists, complements adjacent businesses, enhances property values, expands the tax base, attracts well-educated employees, and contributes to a creative and innovative environment.
Our business is to manufacture entertainment and amusement. We bring our factory and workers with us. While in your town, everything they need for their comfort is purchased from you. Food as well as little luxuries, gas and service for their cars and small purchases that cannot be enumerated means money spent in your community. We pay taxes in the way of town, county and state licenses and dock rent.
The Floating Theatre has a drawing radius of from forty to sixty miles. This brings hundreds of people to your town which is bound to be of some benefit to your merchants as well as advertising your community.”
By Duane E. Mann and Karen Costanzi
Photos courtesy of The Mariners Museum, Newport News, VA