Street corners. Tourist traps. Flatbed trailers. Any place is fair game for an entertainer to ply their craft as long as there’s an audience. Or even if there isn’t. When I was with the Continental Singers, we once did an impromptu mini-concert in an old folks’ home in Nebraska while waiting for our bus’s air conditioning to get fixed. We were a big hit, if I do say so myself.
Something else that used to be a thing in America were traveling steamboat shows, or showboats, capitalizing on the busy riverboat culture and taking theater productions to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to experience them. This practice sort of started in 1816, when a man named Norman Ludlow bought a keelboat and traveled up and down the Mississippi, stopping to perform at various locales. It’s unknown if the shows took place on land or on the boat, though, so Ludlow may or may not have been the Neil Armstrong of the showboat world.
What we do know is that in 1831 the first real showboat set sail from Pittsburgh. According to Encyclopedia.com, it was run by the Chapman family, who did literally everything from acting to managing the stage to piloting the boat. Their showboat put on Shakespeare plays and featured the hit tunes of the day. It started a phenomenon that would continue after the turn of the twentieth century. Until movies took over in the early thirties, showboats were the giants of the entertainment world.
One of the most famous and longest running showboats was the Floating Theater. Owned and operated by entrepeneur James Adams and his family, the boat hosted variety shows in an 850-seat theater, and for ten cents guests could behold the spectacle. The Floating Theater sailed up and down the Chesapeake and Ablemare Bays from 1914 until 1939, when it was retired and sold. Two years later, the boat caught fire and then ran aground while being towed across the Savannah River.
The day of the Floating Theater might have been gone, but she lives on in the Edna Ferber novel, Show Boat. The online magazine, My Outer Banks Home notes that Ferber lived with the Adams family for four days and shared in their work. Her novel, published in 1926, details the life of the Hawks family on their showboat, the Cotton Blossom.
It’s a rather sordid tale, with performers Steve and Julie accused of miscegenation and a handsome scalawag of a singer named Gaylord Ravenal who has a gambling problem. There’s also the Hawks’ daughter, Magnolia, who’s the victim of a broken relationship, and her performing in seedy nightclubs. Magnolia does eventually make a name for herself before passing the torch to her daughter, Kim. Meanwhile, the titular showboat has its day before falling into disrepair, and all through it the river runs, showing the passage of time with its changes and constants.
Ferber’s novel was a tremendous success, and it was naturally ripe for adaptation. In 1927 it appeared as a musical written by Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein, and P.G. Wodehouse. Its producer, Florenz Ziegfeld, was unsure how its story would play with audiences, so before landing Show Boat on Broadway, sent it on a tour of the Eastern Seaboard. He shouldn’t have worried–the show went over like gangbusters, running on Broadway for a year and a half. With superb production values and a cast that included Charles Winninger as Cap’n Andy, Edna May Oliver as Parthenia Ann Hawks, Norma Terris as Magnolia, and Helen Morgan as Julie, they were shoo-ins. The songs were instant classics as well–in particular, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Make Believe,” and “Ol’ Man River” were standouts. If the Tonys had existed back then, Show Boat probably would have won armloads of awards.
Of course, Hollywood immediately began sniffing around. The first film iteration of Show Boat came out in 1929, starring Joseph Schildkraut as Magnolia’s scoundrel husband, Ravenal and the lovely Laura LaPlante as Magnolia. According to Criterion, there were two versions–one as a silent film, and one featuring the new musical numbers. However, it wasn’t what Criterion called a “pure musical.”
That came in 1936. Once again made by Universal, this version starred a raft of performers from the Broadway show, which was in the midst of star-studded revivals and roadshows. Charles Winninger was Cap’n Andy again, Helen Morgan was Julie, Hattie McDaniel was Queenie, Allan Jones was Ravenal, and Irene Dunne was Magnolia. Yes, Irene Dunne. She had been in the touring company of Show Boat for a year, and brought her Magnolia to the big screen. Dunne was a youthful thirty-seven going on thirty eight at the time, but that didn’t stop her from playing the teenage Magnolia. Even if her love interest, Allan Jones, was eight years younger than she was.
Show Boat got another send-up in 1946 with the release of the MGM film, Till the Crowds Roll By. The highly fictionalized Jerome Kern biopic included six songs from his breakthrough musical, including Frank Sinatra singing “Ol’ Man River” and an uncredited Lena Horne singing “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”
Speaking of Lena Horne, she aspired to play Julie when MGM filmed the entire musical, which was released in 1951. Horne even recorded several songs, hoping to be cast. Alas, it was not to be, as the current laws forbade interracial romance onscreen. Instead, the part went to Horne’s good friend, Ava Gardner, who, incidentally, used Horne’s record to rehearse her part. At the last minute, however, it was decided to use Annette Warren’s voice instead.
There were loads of other changes, too. Unlike the previous films, the garishly colorful 1951 movie is considerably shorter in terms of time passing. Screenwriter John Lee Mahin replaced most of the original dialogue with his own, making what some might consider an unrecognizable story compared to the earlier films. Spoiler alert: Unlike its predecessors, the 1951 movie ended with the showboat sailing off into the sunset, still bright and active instead of broken-down and decrepit.
Knowing what was happening at MGM during that time, this seems ironic, like a willful grip on relevance by the studio. In 1948, studios were divested of their theater chains, which deprived them of assured income, and in 1951 they were beginning to feel it. Just as the showboat owners found, though, the industry couldn’t stop the changes that were happening, and what had been a thriving Atlas of moviemaking would have to limp along until its handlers figured out how to operate in the new world. MGM never quite did, though, and the rest is history.
Today, showboats are passé, although a very few still exist in some form. As a musical, though, Show Boat is still revived on a continuous basis around the nation and around the world, albeit with some revisions. While its creators meant it to be anti-racism, some of the language is too uncomfortable for today’s audiences. However, its pro-family and pro-integration sentiments are still very much appreciated, as is its deeply personal, full-throated music. Some things change, but others never do.
Another Shamedown is coming next week. Thanks for reading all…
Graham, Phillip. Showboats: The History of An American Institution. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. 2014.
That’s Entertainment! III. Directed by Bud Friedgen and Michael J. Sheridan. Performance by Lena Horne. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1994.