Tracing the voyages of the Floating Theatre

July 16, 1991|By Winifred Walsh | Winifred Walsh,Evening Sun Staff

Between 1914 and 1941, a boat known as the James Adams Floating Theatre and later the Original Floating Theatre, toured the Chesapeake Bay bringing live melodramatic theater to the small towns that lined its shores. The popular barge also traveled the mid-Atlantic and Southeast, taking performances to Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

To shed light on these halcyon days of early 20th century American theater, C. Richard Gillespie, professor of theater at Towson State University, has written an entertaining and informative book, "The James Adams Floating Theatre" ($28.95, published by Tidewater Publishers, Centreville, Md.).

The 288-page hardback is complete with photographs of thbuilder and operator, James Adams (a former circus and carnival man), his parade of colorful actors and maps of the boat's various routes.

Gillespie, who founded the theater department at Towson State University in 1961, has traced the history of the barge from its beginnings to its demise in 1941. The old boat, destined by its last owner, E.H. Brassell, to be used as a cargo ship, caught fire and ended its days in a blaze.

The author's documentation includes other fires, three sinkings, a shooting, arrests and even deaths.

In 1931, for example, Jack Johnson, a musician, died from burns he received in a fire while on the Floating Theatre. In 1939, Mrs. H.C. Merritt, sister of the second owner, Nina B. Howard, died aboard of a heart attack.

The showboat was a success because its plays, created by the resident playwright Robert J. Sherman (he wrote 300 plays between 1918 and 1938), had broad comic appeal.

"It was the same kind of popular appeal that the sitcoms on TV have today," says Gillespie. "The broad style, with its morality and sentiment, appealed to small-town people. The acting technique of the repertory theaters was similar to the style executed in the early movies."

Some of the plays performed on the Floating Theatre in its heyday were: "Yokel Boy, "The Old Grouch," "She Knew What She Wanted," "Cheating Woman," "Love And Politics" and "My Gypsy Sweetheart."

"The company performed six evenings a week. They rehearseduring the day and enacted a different show each night," Gillespie says, "followed by a vaudeville type entertainment called a 'concert.'

"The James Adams was not the only successful showboat," he notes. "There were about 30 others along the tributaries of the Mississippi."

Gillespie visited 15 states to interview people associated with the boat as well as gleaning important information from several unpublished diaries. He says the whole James Adams project became an obsession with him.

"I spent $15,000 on travel, stamps . . . and research in 100 newspapers from 1914-1941. I checked Billboard Magazine from its origins and tracked down people, posters, pictures, birth certificates, wills and diaries.

"I could spend a week hunting down one thing," he explains.

James Adams turned over the business management of the theater to his brother Selba when he retired in 1917. In later years, the artistic control of the theater was given to Adams' brother-in-law, Charles M. Hunter, an actor and director.

"Charlie was married to Adams' sister Beulah, the lead actress who was dubbed 'the Mary Pickford of the Chesapeake' by the Saturday Evening Post," explains Gillespie.

"Adams owned the floating theater until he sold it in 1933 to Nina B. Howard of St. Michaels, Maryland.

"The Hunters continued on but left the showboat in 1937 because of the innovation of musical reviews which they felt tarnished the artistic merit of their presentations."


"The James Adams Floating Theatre" is available at Waldenbook 1/2 stores. The book can also be ordered from Tidewater Publishers by calling (800) 638-7641.

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