“Ol’ man river, That ol’ man river
He must know sumpin’, But don’t say nothin
He just keeps rollin’, He keeps on rollin’ along.”
Those lyrics, famously crooned by Paul Robeson in the 1936 movie musical Show Boat, may have been referring to the Mississippi River, but it seems that the song found its origins on board a vessel that cruised the waters of Chesapeake Country.
From 1913 to 1941, the James Adams Floating Theatre was a beloved diversion for the towns dotting the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Named for its creator, the James Adams Floating Theatre visited 142 different locations in the Mid-Atlantic, primarily stopping on the shores of towns that otherwise didn’t have their own access to the entertainments of the cities.
Residents of Maryland towns like Solomons, Tilghman Island, Annapolis, Chestertown, and many others, would look forward each year to a week or two of revues featuring vaudeville acts, music, and dramatic performances. This very show boat, in fact, is the one that author Edna Ferber boarded—first in Crumpton, Maryland, then later in Bath, North Carolina—as research for her novel Show Boat, which later went on to inspire the stage adaptation and subsequent films.
While Ferber’s novel was set in the Mississippi basin, which at one time hosted as many as 21 different show boats, the James Adams Floating Theatre was the only such boat to tour the Chesapeake area.
Adams, his wife Gertude, and sister Beulah, were all performers on the carnival and vaudeville circuits; they founded the Floating Theatre and equipped the whole operation on a 128-foot barge that was transported along the waters by its trusty tugboats Trouper and Elk. The auditorium inside had room for up to 850 audience members at a time, and the company would perform different acts and shows each night during their stay.
About 25 people made up the crew and performing company of the Floating Theatre, living onboard the ship in private rooms. After sinking three different times, switching ownership, and competing with the growing movie theatre industry, the James Adams Floating Theatre–eventually renamed the Original Floating Theatre–went out of business for good in a blazing fire on its way to Savannah, Georgia, in 1941.
While the original vessel was lost to fire and water, those interested in learning more can head to Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Maryland, to explore a brand new exhibit about the Floating Theatre. Featuring vintage photographs and memorabilia, models of the James Adams Floating Theatre, and multimedia elements, “The Happiest of All Showboats” exhibit is located in the mezzanine of the museum through 2024 and is included with the cost of museum admission. The exhibit was inspired by Calvert County’s connection to the Floating Theatre—Solomons was visited 24 different times—and a recent popular lecture on the topic given by Dr. Patricia Samford, director of the archaeological lab at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum.
For more information about the exhibit, visit calvertmarinemuseum.com. For more information about the James Adams Floating Theatre, visit floatingtheatre.org.