Showboat on the Bay . . .
By Miriam Haynie
Summer evenings bring to the older natives of the Chesapeake Bay country nostalgic memories of thrilling hours spent, many years ago, on board the James Adams Floating Theater. Long before Edna Ferber brought the showboat to the attention of the world, the people who lived along the bay and its various little and big tributaries were well acquainted with this form of entertainment.
Back in the days when the petite Beulah Adams, captioned as the "Mary Pickford of the Chesapeake," wore long auburn curls, and Charles Hunter was the Prince Charming of every rustic lass, inhabitants of the Tidewater viewed these annual visits of the Floating Theater with a mixture of ecstacy and alarm. Some high-ranking church members looked upon it as a menace, even calling it a "hell-hole of iniquity," while backsliders, riff-raff, colored folk, children and lovers of the drama were irresistibly fascinated.
Despite these varying viewpoints, there is little doubt that the arrival date of the Floating Theater was, each year, a big event for all. When the owner, James Adams, was first experimenting as a salt-water showman he didn't care about publicity because he feared rivals might enter his waterways. Lacking the aid of the press, he had figured out a way of advertising locally. As soon as he arrived, he loaded the orchestra on one of the two tugs which powered the boat and sent it off to make the rounds of the numerous inlets.
At the first blare of the trumpet the colored people would leave the fields and children of all degrees their play to line the banks and wharves, palpitating with excitement, as the tug and her music-makers came puffing along. Seldom before had such life and gaiety found those little inlets.
At night music floated over the water again and the youth of the countryside was lured from anxious mothers by the enticing and wicket strains of "When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose." Evidently there were plenty of sinners, for in spite of the warnings of the preachers and the bribes to the children of ice cream cones and croquet sets, the theater was always crowded. The seven hundred seats were filled, predominantly with watermen and farmers and their families--even infants. The latter cried at inopportune moments and had to be taken out.
The musicials played the "Anvil Chorus" with a lot of fire. They made sparks fly from a real anvil, blew a bugle for the hounds and shot off a pistol in just the right place. Adams and Hunter played the leads in such favorites as: "Tempest and Sunshine," "Sui-San," "The Little Lost Sister," "Lena Rivers," "St. Elmo," "East Lynne," "The Balloon Girl," "Pollyanna," "A Thief in the Night," "The Mystic Isle," "Smilin' Thru," "The Rosary," "Jesse James," and "The Trail on the Lonesome Pine."
The play with a tear was always popular. As Charles Hunter, who was stage director as well as actor, once said: "Villains and villainesses are necessary, for how could virtue triumph if there wasn't something wicked over which to triumph. But wickedness must be nice." If that which is called art was sacrificed the audience didn't care.
The bill was changed each evening during the week. Not only different dramas were given but the specialties which made up the vaudeville bill at the end of the play were new each night. The many quick changes from hero, heroine or villain to comedian, songstress or ventriloquist, did not daunt the company of the Floating Theater. They were troupers of the old school and there was much of the real atmosphere of the theater to be found in that 122 by 34 feet of space which made up their world from April until the end of November, when the boat was laid up at Elizabeth City, N. C., for repairs and renovations.
Hunter preferred actors and actresses who had trouped in the West or Middle West. He had found through experience that the New York actor was not happy on the boat and could not adjust to the seemingly lazy pattern of existence. There were no matinees and the players had the entire day to do as they pleased. Some owned cars and followed the theater by land but the majority contented themselves with fishing and swimming. While their salaries were not large, they lived on the boat and were under little expense except for furnishing their own wardrobes.
There were eight bed-dressing rooms at the back of the stage, four in front and a dining room. Meals were served each day at 10 A. M. and 4 P. M. The food, which was bought locally, was fresh and of the best quality, and was prepared by an excellent chef. After the show there were after-theater suppers, with coffee, sandwiches and salads made in the various dressing rooms.
James Adams and Mrs. Adams were themselves old troupers. At one time they had been partners in an aerial act in a circus. Next, Adams tried a circus of his own which he gave up for a small-time vaudeville show with which he toured the South. While in showboat country with the vaudeville show, he conceived the idea of a floating playhouse in new territory--the Chesapeake. He started his showboat in 1914 and by 1925 he was able to retire, dividing his time between his yacht and a home in Philadelphia. He transferred active interest in the conduct of the theater to his brother Selba Adams, as business manager, and to Charles Hunter, who had been with him since circus days and was husband of his younger sister, Beulah Adams.
Hunter, besides acting as stage director and leading man, also adapted the plays for the theater. He knew his public and kept them satisfied. Hunter had spent much time on river boats and was able to furnish Edna Ferber with most of the background material for her famous book, "Show Boat." She spent a week on the Adams Theater while working on this book which appeared in 1926.
After this close brush with fame, the Floating Theater changed her name to Show Boat and startled the natives of the Tidewater when she appeared with a rakish coat of scarlet paint, like a dowager, just out of a beauty parlor. Her nightly audience became more sophisticated, with a liberal sprinkling of city folks who thought the Show Boat "a quaint adventure." Pillars of the church reserved seats close to the orchestra, feeling no qualms of conscience.
The show boat met with misfortune in the latter part of 1927. A broken-off trap stake rammed a hole through her bottom and she sank in the Lower Chesapeake. However, she was again floated, repaired and ready to fill her engagements the following season. She continued to operate until the middle 30's when her career came to a permanent end, due to the increasing number of automobiles and encroaching movie houses.
Beulah Adams and Charles Hunter remained drawing cards to the very end. After the demise of the Show Boat, they returned to their same audiences the next year with a tent show. This venture was during the depression and was not very successful. Charles Hunter died shortly after this final episode.