James Adams Floating Theatre
The Last Show Boat
Most everyone has heard of the famous Broadway musical Show Boat, but few realize that the story was based on an actual floating theater from North Carolina. The James Adams Floating Palace Theatre brought entertainment and glamor to remote towns from the Chesapeake to the Savanna River, including the swampy backwaters of Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds.
Converted in 1913 from a lumber-hauler in Washington, North Carolina, the 128-foot double-decker barge was hauled around by tugboat for almost three decades. A “floating palace” it was, outfitted with a 522-seat theater plus balcony seats for non-white patrons. Thirty-two staterooms housed the actors and musicians, while stage hands slept in the dressing rooms. Some of the tugboat crew doubled as musicians.
"Adams' Show Boat was a place for dressing up, so everybody dressed up a lot when they went there," said Cora Mae Basnight of Manteo. "It was a bit of elegance that now is past." When townspeople heard the raucous music of the calliope steam organ, they knew that the show boat was in town!
Loy, Ursula and Pauline Worthy. Washington and the Pamlico. 1976. Washington-Beaufort County Bicentennial Commission.
Tate, Suzanne. Memories of Manteo and Roanoke Island, N.C. as told by Cora Mae Basnight. Nags Head, NC: Nags Head Art, 1988.
Intrigued by the idea of a show boat, novelist and reporter Edna Ferber left New York for North Carolina in 1924. She arrived in Bath, declaring it a "lovely decayed hamlet," and was overjoyed to find the James Adams at its home berth. Ferber met the production's top stars, Charlie and Beaulah Hunter.
“Beaulah,” Ferber wrote, “was known as the Mary Pickford of the rivers.” Although the show boat was preparing to be mothballed for the winter in Elizabeth City, the actors – familiar with the writings of Ferber and a fan of her novels – invited her to accompany them for the first few days of the Spring season.
“When April came,” Ferber wrote, “I went as eagerly as a lover to meet the show boat.” For four days, she lived among the actors and crew, observing daytime rehearsals and evening shows. She even helped sell tickets at the box office window.
“I watched the Carolina countryside straggle in,” she wrote, “white and colored.” The notes she took of her adventure and interviews were eventually woven into her novel Show Boat, which took place on the fictional Cotton Blossom Floating Palace Theatre on the Mississippi River. The story was both controversial and wildly popular, and subsequently made it to Broadway and the Silver Screen.
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.