Edna Ferber and “Show Boat”: From Small Town Bath to The Lights of Broadway.

Edna Ferber and “Show Boat”: From Small Town Bath to The Lights of Broadway.

Suz Suz January 18, 2023 0 Comments History, Latest News

The musical version of Edna Ferber’s novel Show Boat had its Broadway premiere at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City on December 27,1927. Composer Jerome Kern and Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II adapted Edna Ferber’s 1926 eponymous novel to the stage. But the inspiration for Show Boat started far from New York. Edna Ferber’s story of Show Boat was actually inspired by the time she spent on the James Adams Floating Theatre in Bath. 

For many Show Boat was considered the first great American musical. The story  featured a strong plot and incorporated lyrics into the staging. Show Boat encompassed the lives, loves, and heartbreaks of three generations of riverboat show folks as they brought the magic of the theatre to remote towns located along the waterways. Its classic songs like “Ole’ Man River,’ “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “After the Ball” were further popularized by soprano and Winston-Salem native Kathryn Grayson in the 1951 film adaptation.

The James Adams Floating Theatre

Like everything else along the waterway, entertainment was also delivered by boat. But there was nothing quite like seeing the pomp and glamour of the James Adams Floating Theatre travelling up the river toward you.

The Floating Theater was the brainchild of a seasoned entertainer and vaudevillian, James Adams, who had made his fortune in the travelling carnival business. In the late 19th century, when showboats were showing up  throughout the rivers of the Midwest, Adams discovered that the East Coast was wide open to the opportunity.

Once a lumber-hauler, Adams had the James Adams Floating Theatre converted in 1913 in Washington, North Carolina. The 128-foot double-decker barge was outfitted with a 522-seat theatre plus balcony seats for non-white patrons. Thirty-two staterooms housed the actors and musicians, while stagehands slept in the dressing rooms. This floating theatre navigated the many waterways with the help of tugboats. For almost three decades James Adams visited watertowns and brought culture and entertainment to the inhabitants of waterfront  communities. 

James, along with his wife, owned the floating theatre. James’ younger sister Beulah became the showboat’s leading lady. His brother and sister-in-law also helped manage the business side of the production. It was truly a family affair. 

When a showboat was dockside, crowds grew with anticipation and small-town hosts could look forward to a week of nightly entertainment, from plays and musicals to concerts. 

Edna Ferber’s Trip to Bath

Edna Ferber, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, learned of the James Adams Floating Theatre, a family-operated showboat that worked the mid-Atlantic coast.

Intrigued by the idea of a showboat, Edna Ferber left New York in 1924 for North Carolina. When she arrived in Bath she referred to it as a  “lovely decayed hamlet”  and was delighted to see the James Adams docked in the river. Ferber met the productions’ top stars, Charlie and Beulah Hunter. Beulah, already a fan of Ferber’s novels, invited her to join them on board the James Adams to gather details for her story.   

Taking up Beulah’s offer to spend time on the James Adams, Ferber traveled back to Bath in April of 1925. The James Adams was tied up on Bath Creek near the Harbor Motel during those days. During her 4 days onboard she lived among the actors and crew, observing rehearsals and evening shows. She even helped sell tickets at the box office window, charging 35 cents for the 8PM show.

This opportunity gave her insight as to how the lives of the people surrounding a river showboat were all interconnected.  

According to  “The Hidden Treasure Of Bath Town”  Ferber alienated many of the people of Bath during her visits. In a Ladies Home Journal magazine article Ferber was less than flattering when speaking of her stay at the Ormond Hotel in Bath. In addition to her insulting words she was apparently very chintzy in payments to people who helped her why she was in town. 

Show Boat – The Novel and Musical

After her time in on-board the floating theatre, Ferber returned to New York and with the notes and adventures of her time in Bath the novel Show Boat was created. The story took place on the fictional Cotton Blossom Floating Palace Theatre on the Mississippi River. The story was both controversial and widely popular.  The story was then adapted and turned into the musical Show Boat which made its debut on Broadway in 1927.  Show Boat scored enormous success not only as a musical (revived in 1994) but also in three movie versions.

The James Adams Floating Palace Theatre was the last working show boat in the American South, as motion pictures grew in popularity and competed with the live shows. The massive barge caught fire twice, finally coming to rest in the Savannah River in 1941.


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