'Show Boat' sails anew in revival of bay prototype

October 06, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

The voice on the phone was emphatic. No seats available to the new production of "Show Boat" unless you'll take row X on the side. $75 each, please.

I decided to pass up the New York revival of the fabled musical. "Show Boat" is selling out once again, delighting audiences one more time with its panoramic story of life on the Mississippi ages ago.

Except, of course, the real show boat, the one that called at Baltimore and other Maryland and Virginia towns, lived most of its life on Chesapeake Bay and the Choptank, Chester, Nanticoke, Elk, Susquehanna, Potomac, York, Rappahannock and James rivers.

I'm not kidding.

Writer Edna Ferber, who wrote the novel "Show Boat," used this local prototype, one that was a familiar sight on the Chesapeake and its tributaries from 1914 through the 1930s.

Jerome Kern, who composed the operetta's glorious score, visited this floating theater barge in Chesapeake City in Cecil County. Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote the libretto, accompanied him. In their soaring score, Kern and Hammerstein gave the American theater such classics as "Ol' Man River," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "Make Believe," and "Bill."

Edna Ferber is not read much today. But she was a big name in the 1920s and 1930s. One of her jobs was as a newspaper reporter. She covered the 1912 Democratic Convention at the 5th Regiment Armory.

She later became the prolific novelist who wrote "Show Boat," "So Big" and "Giant." It was she who created such characters as Cap'n Andy, Parthy, Magnolia, Julie, Gaylord Ravenal, Queenie and Joe.

The show boat idea caught Ferber's fancy nearly 70 years ago. She began some inquiries. She found one, the James Adams Floating Theatre, a barge pulled by tug boats. It was tied up at a landing at Crumpton in Queen Anne's County.

Thanks to the methodical research of C. Richard Gillespie of Towson State University, we have a clear picture of the saga of this beloved theatrical legend that brought plays to small tidewater towns and landings.

Dr. Gillespie wrote "The James Adams Floating Theatre" that was published three years ago by Tidewater Press in Centreville. The book's about how Charles and Beulah Hunter were the personalities behind this floating playhouse.

It sat 442 people and, in the warm weather months, sailed from the Carolinas to Port Deposit.

Among other places, it called at Havre de Grace, North East, Elkton, Georgetown, Betterton, Rock Hall, Stevensville, Denton, Easton, Trappe, Crisfield and Cambridge.

For a quarter, villagers and farmers could see a night's drama performed on a small stage.

During the fall of 1939, it had a long stay in Baltimore, tied up in today's Inner Harbor. Back then it had a rather lowly berth next to the Power Plant, which was then ingesting coal and generating electricity.

The floating theater was built in 1914. On several occasions, it put into Redman and Vane's shipyard in Baltimore for repairs.

Unlike the more fanciful "Cotton Blossom" of Ferber's imagination, this show boat was rather plain. There were no big paddlewheels or fancy Victorian-styled porches. It resembled a big ark.

Ferber's novel was optioned for the stage by Florenz Ziegfeld, who also signed Kern and Hammerstein for the score and libretto. On Nov. 10, 1926, they arrived at Chesapeake City and saw a performance of "George Washington Jr." on the floating theater.

They dined on rabbit and partridge and were then driven back to a train that connected to New York. Their collaboration made its Broadway debut on Dec. 27, 1927, after a premiere at the National Theatre in downtown Washington the previous Nov. 15.

A touring company reached Baltimore in 1930.

Hollywood has made three versions of what has become an unsinkable classic of the American musical theater. The current New York revival, directed by Hal Prince, received high praise on opening night Sunday.

Our show boat did not fare so well. By the end of the 1930s, the floating theater was deeply troubled.

Beaten by several hurricanes, it had run aground many times and sunk in shallow water twice.

A 1941 fire finally put an end to it in Savannah. One of the last productions was "You Can't Beat the Irish."

But thanks to the Ferber-Kern-Hammerstein collaboration, the floating theater just keeps rollin' along.

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