Saturday, June 26, 2010
Floating Theater on Delmarva
In the first part of the twentieth century the Delmarva Peninsula had a number of traveling entertainment shows. They were a combination of carnivals, circuses, and repertory theatre companies and they traveled Delmarva by train or motor vehicle setting up their theatres in rented halls, or performing under tents. Billboard estimated that in 1926 in the United States were 400 tent companies touring. One unique form of traveling show was the floating theatre or Show Boat and the best known one, in our area, was the “James Adams Floating Theatre.” There were a couple of others on the Chesapeake Bay but they only last about a season or two before collapsing.
Between 1831 to 1939 there were fifty-three major showboats built in the United States. Fifty were on the Mississippi; one on the Erie Canal, one on the Hudson River and The “James Adams” was on the tidewaters of North Carolina and the Chesapeake Bay. The “James Adams Floating theatre” is well described in the book “The James Adams Floating Theatre by C. Richard Gillespie. It is a well researched book. The James Adams Floating theatre also has a website.
James Adams was a vaudeville and tent show person who decided in 1913 that anyone could buy a tent and start a traveling repertoire companies but, due to the expense, not that many people could built a boat for a floating theatre. In 1914 he built the “James Adams Floating Theatre” in Washington, North Carolina. The boat was a barge 128 feet long 34 feet wide on which a two story building was constructed. The main auditorium was 30 by 80 feet with a balcony running around the room. The floor of auditorium could hold 500 people and the balcony could hold another 350 people. The balcony was mainly for colored people. The barge was not self powered and was pulled from place to place by tug boat. In addition to the auditorium it had a gallery, an electric plant, and sleeping space for 30 to 40 employees.
From 1914 to 1941 the “James Adams Floating Theatre” entertained people from Florida to New Jersey, but it’s main route was the Chesapeake Bay and the tidewaters of North Carolina. When the “James Adams” started out in 1914 times were good; audiences had money and many hours to spend on leisurely pursuits. The “James Adams” because of her size and shallow, 14-inch draft, played in many less accessible bay towns. Entertainment-starved locals lined up in droves to see a show. Obviously Delmar was not one of the places the “James Adams” performed in, but Laurel and Salisbury were. Since the James Adams drew people from a forty miles range of where it was playing no doubt many people from Delmar went to the floating theatre.
1914 Ad from the Wicomico News
When the circus came to town they would have a parade down Main Street to announce their arrival. The James Adams did a similar thing and as the barge was pulled into town he would have the orchestra up on top playing away. After tie up he would than send a tug boat out with his orchestra (like dinner theatre the actors could also play an instrument and doubled in the orchestra) to the numerous inlets in the area. The excitement of the music made everyone know the “James Adams Floating theatre” was in town. If the boat came to the harbor at night it would be "lit from stem to stern." The theatre would stay for a week at each port of call. It would show a different play each night and do vaudeville between acts or after the show.
Novelist Edna Ferber in 1925 spent time on the “James Adams Floating Theater,” researching material for a book she was thinking about writing. In 1926, her book “Show Boat” came out. The book was later turned into a musical and the setting changed to the Mississippi River and the rest is musical history.
The “James Adams” had a number of problems, sinking being one of them. Several times in it history it would hit a tree stump in the low water it was floating in and sink. The result was having to replace all the furnishing, clothing, scenery etc on the boat – at much expense. But any boat owner can tell you about boat expense.
In 1933 James Adam saw the writing on the wall and sold the showboat to Nina Howard of St Michaels, MD. The great depression was going full blast. Roads were improving meaning it was easily for traveling shows to compete with him and even the smallest town would have a movie theatre. Steamboats were disappearing which meant the wharfs he tied up to were also disappearing. The movie chains used their influence and made it difficult for him to obtain a license to play in some of the towns. After the sale the “James Adams Floating Theatre” name was changed to the “Original Floating Theatre” and Nina Howard continued to ply the towns of the Chesapeake Bay and North Carolina putting on shows.
In 1941 the “Original Floating theatre” was sold to E. H. Brassell for $6,000. He just wanted the tug boats that went with the barge. While being towed from Savannah to Brunswick, Georgia the theatre got fire and burnt entirely, thus ending the era of the floating theatre for the East Coast.
Today there would not be much chance of recreating the floating theatre, too many regulations, OSHA, and coast guard safety requirements. All those college graduates who can’t do manual work and now sit behind a desk thinking up new government regulations have killed this and most American small businesses. In 1965, the Safety at Sea Act barred wooden-hulled vessels from transporting passengers, so unless it is built on a metal hull there is not much chance of it ever being recreated.
From Gillespie’s book, here are some of the Delmarva Towns the floating theatre played between 1914 to 1940;
Tangier Island, VA
Snow Hill, MD
Deal Island, MD
Chesapeake City, MD
St. Michaels, MD
Delasware City DE
Cape Charles VA
Rock Hall MD