The Md. showboat that inspired the book that inspired the show

BOOKS & AUTHORS

June 30, 1991|By James H. Bready

Cap'n Andy's showboat was a figment, but from 1914 to 1941 Chesapeake Bay and the North Carolina coast were home to the quite real James Adams Floating Theater. For people living by the water, this 128-foot barge (with its tugboats) and its 800 seats represented, from April into November, entertainmen--nay, glamour.

More than that, this lit-up, barnlike boat set authors to imagining. Edna Ferber first visited the James Adams Floating Theater at Crumpton on the Eastern Shore in 1924; two years later, Woman's Home Companion began serializing "Show Boat" (forerunner of a stage musical and at least two movies, all of which substituted the Mississippi River as setting). Earlier, Hulbert Footner set a bay novel, "Country Love," aboard a mythical Orlando Jolley's Floating Theater. In 1956, John Barth drew upon his Cambridge childhood and upon A. Aubrey Bodine photos of life on board for "The Floating Opera," Mr. Barth's first novel.

Adams, an old carnival operator, was from Michigan; later owners renamed his craft the Original Floating Theater. Now, 50 years after its end by fire in Georgia, once again the showboat's at the landing, in C. Richard Gillespie's "The James Adams Floating Theater" (Tidewater Publishers, $28.95). Mr. Gillespie is a playwright, director, photographer and longtime Towson State University professor. His book, surely the definitive treatment, pictures the male and female performers, the repertory (comedy, melodrama, vaudeville, musicale) -- even, year by year, the itinerary. Crisfield, Deal Island, Cambridge, Secretary, Trappe, Oxford, St. Michaels, Stevensville, Queenstown, Chestertown, Rock Hall, Georgetown, Chesapeake City, North East, Port Deposit, Baltimore (!), Annapolis, Galesville, Solomons, Wynne, Leonardtown -- once, their world was a waterborne, 25-cents-a-seat stage.

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The rarest title in the Orioles bibliography is "Pennant Souvenir: Baltimore Base Ball Club: Season 1894," a paperbound, 66-page book brought out in a hurry after this city's first-ever pennant championship. It consisted of player biographies by a Sun staff member, D. Dorsey Guy; player caricatures by J. Carrell Lucas of the Lucas Bros. family; and several dozen display ads. It cost 10 cents.

As that famous victory's centennial nears, the only known copy of "Pennant Souvenir" is the copyright one, on deposit at the Library of Congress. But Clark Evans of Frederick, a reference specialist at the library, has brought out a replica edition (paper, $6.50 postpaid, Triple Play Press, 1196 Schaffer Drive, Frederick 21702).

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In the absence of Alexander Hamilton, 18th century Annapolis physician, the $1,000 prize won by his three-volume "History of the Ancient and Honorable Tuesday Club" goes to its modern-times editor, Robert Micklus. This is the annual Maryland Historical Society prize for the new book it judges to have added most to knowledge and understanding. The 1750s' "Tuesday Club" is a comedic extravaganza (University of North Carolina Press, $150).

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Is Josephine Jacobsen more interested in poetry, which established her nationally (the U.S. poet laureate, except that back then they called it "consultant in poetry" to the Library of Congress), or in short stories, which she has been publishing to great effect lately?

One answer awaits in "The Confidence Woman" (Eve Shelnutt, editor; Longstreet Press, Atlanta, Ga., $17.95), in which 26 female writers discuss their writing. In "Lion Under Maples," Mrs. Jacobsen's chapter, poetry is a lifelong experience -- and her title for a poem.

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The 1991 prize winners, as crowned by the Baltimore Writers' Alliance (first place $50; second $30; third $20):

Fiction: Ann Curtin, Franklin Mason, Crystal Hubbard (judge, Gary Wilson).

Non-fiction: Donna Bickley, Ann Curtin, Diedre Powers (judge, Karen Yengich).

Poetry: Roberta Tubis, Richard Franklin, Robert Hale Sr. (judge, Rae Rossen).

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Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, acclaimed for her "Mencken and Sara," will be providing that special honor -- a new book -- come September and Mencken's 111th birthday. "The Impossible H. L. Mencken" (Doubleday, $27.50) is a selection from his 3,000-plus newspaper pieces.

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