Let’s go back 100 years to take a ride on a Show Boat

Published 3:19 pm Monday, November 16, 2020

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This column is usually sports-related, so pardon the detour. I have been thinking about the idea of a floating theater since I saw in it the Historic Port of Washington’s 2021 calendar.

To me, the HPOW folks saved the best for last as the December photo shows a large riverboat-like structure docked on the waterfront near where it was constructed at the old Chauncey’s shipyard where the Mac Hodges Festival Park gazebo now stands.

I have no idea why I am so interested, because the last word my friends and family would use to describe me is “artsy.” I can’t sing or play the first note and the idea of going on stage to perform is terrifying. However, I love music and enjoy movies and plays that are to my taste.

The James Adams Floating Theater was built here in Washington in 1914. It was a 128-foot-long, 34-foot-wide barge also called a scow. It didn’t have any power, so tugboats had to tow it to its next destination. No electric motor, no steam engine, no groups of many men rowing like crazy on either side — nothing but a tugboat and the current.

James and Gertrude Adams were circus aerialists and built the floating theater after operating vaudeville tent shows became unprofitable. Adams designed the theater himself and the finished product featured beams that ran the length of the boat without scarfs, heavy 32-foot planks across the bottom and a skin four inches thick that was drift bolted every two feet with 27-inch bolts.

The idea was to put on multi-act plays with vaudeville skits in between, six nights a week April through December. The plays usually ended happily, and the bad guys always got theirs by the final curtain. Admission was a quarter for adults and a dime for kids. Remember, this was a hundred years ago.

There was a 10-piece concert band and a six piece orchestra. The crowd could enjoy a mini-concert after the show for an extra dime. The cast doubled as the crew and the eight dressing rooms doubled as sleeping quarters.  The main auditorium was 30 x 80 with enough steel folding chairs to seat 500. One “luxury” box with room for five was on either side of the stage. The balcony sat 350 with two more boxes. The stage was 19 feet long with the orchestra pit in front.

The theater traveled up and down the east coast, with stops in Maryland, Norfolk, Edenton, Belhaven, Beaufort, Wilmington and Washington. The boat often pulled in with little advance notice and left with the box office receipts started to dwindle. It wintered in Elizabeth City.

New York city writer Edna Ferber caught up with the floating theater in Bath in 1925 and spent two weeks traveling around with the cast/crew. Her resulting book, Show Boat, later turned into one of the first, most famous and longest running Broadway musicals.

Amazingly, the floating theater sank four times over the years and survived. The last, in 1938, came near the end. The Adams family had sold the boat long ago and the last curtain call came in 1941. The latest owner was towing it to a Georgia port to make it into a cargo barge when it caught fire and burned to a total loss.

A fascinating tale reborn through a newly published photo.

You can find the Historic Port of Washington 2021 calendar at the Harbor District Market on Main St. in Washington. At $15 they make a perfect holiday gift. The group only printed 250, so get yours soon.

Most of the above information came from Jack E. Fryar Jr.’s online article. I thank him for doing the heavy lifting.