James Adams Floating Theater

James Adams Floating Theater

Prompted by Svetlana’s Paul Robeson post. I posted a video of Robeson singing Ol’ Man River in the 1936 film “Show Boat” on Clark’s Picks, yesterday. This got me thinking about the origin of “Show Boat,” which is a local story, not about the Mississippi River, but here, on the Chesapeake Bay.

In 1925, novelist Edna Ferber spent four days aboard the James Adams Floating Theater, which was a 128 foot long barge with a 522 750-800 (?) seat theater built on it. Theatrical entrepreneur, James Adams had his floating theater built in South North Carolina in 1918 and took it, using a pair of small tugboats, on tour up and down the Chesapeake Bay each summer, with a repertory theater company on board. Ferber collected enough character and atmospheric information during her four day visit to write a novel entitled “Show Boat,” about a fictional version of the James Adams, which was published in 1926.

Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein took Ferber’s book, moved the setting to the Mississippi River and created a Broadway musical that opened in 1927. Paul Robeson played the part of Joe, one of the two sets of romantic leads in the play and in the 1936 film version.

The James Adams used to tie up at the town dock at the end of High Street in Chestertown, walking distance from my house. There is an interesting and informative book, by C. Richard Gillespie The James Adams Floating Theater, which has many original black and white photographs, including the one above, tells the story of the theater and details Edna Ferber’s visit.

Another fictional version of the Floating Theater figures prominently in John Barth’s novel “The Floating Opera,” in which the protagonist, a local Cambridge, MD lawyer, down the bay a few miles from here, decides to commit suicide by blowing up the theater with gas from it’s kitchen range, located down in the bilges, but changes his mind a the last minute. It is a classic Barth novel in which high drama, colorful characters and the Eastern Shore interact for several hundred pages and, in the end, nothing happens.
There have been several attempts to revive the floating theater, thwarted by the trouble and expense of meeting current Coast Guard, State and local safety standards for a theater on the water. The latest attempt, by Chesapeake Bay Floating Theatre, Inc is expected to open soon at the Indian Head Center For The Arts in southern Maryland.

Strikethroughs and corrections couresy of new information provided by Duane Mann of the James Adams Floating Theater Project. The Floating Theater Project is still in the early stages of planning, apparrantly. I will post updates on this blog, occasionally as the project progresses. I have replaced the originally posted photo with one from the Floating Theater Project website, which I encourage you to visit.