A bit of twentieth-century American cultural history had its origins in Bath, North Carolina’s oldest town. The scene was the James Adams Floating Theatre, a two-story scow measuring 132 feet long and thirty-four feet wide. Built in Washington, North Carolina, in 1913, the showboat was modeled on those that had plied the Mississippi, although it was never so ornate in appearance. The ship seated 700 and was not self-propelled, being tugged to each new location. The owners were James Adams and his wife Gertrude. The star was Adams’ sister Beulah, billed as the “Mary Pickford of the Pamlico.” Each season’s premiere was at Elizabeth City, and then it was on to such towns as Hertford, Edenton, Plymouth, and Columbia. Through 1930, when it was sold to new owners in Maryland, the James Adams regularly brought melodramas and vaudeville to coastal North Carolina. The Maryland owners expanded its territory into Georgia and Florida. It burned and sank in Savannah in 1941.
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Novelist Edna Ferber in 1924 won the Pulitzer Prize for her book So Big and hit upon the idea of using a showboat as the setting for her next work. Researching the subject, she learned of the James Adams and “dashed down to Carolina.” Arriving in Washington, she hired a driver to take her to the landing where the showboat rested. She got there just as they were putting up for the winter but determined to return the next spring. That she did, finding quarters for her four-day stay in Bath, which she described as a “decaying little hamlet.” She had little good to say of her accommodations in the Palmer-Marsh House. Ferber’s account, published in her 1939 autobiography, reads like that of eighteenth-century travelers visiting backcountry Carolina taverns.
Edna Ferber was much more taken with the James Adams Floating Theatre than the town of Bath. She worked, played, rehearsed, and ate with the twenty-five-member company. “Those four days comprised the only show-boat experience I ever had,” she later wrote. Her novel, Show Boat, was published by Doubleday in 1926 and became an instant bestseller. In time it was adapted into a landmark musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. Three motion picture versions have been made, in 1929, 1936, and 1951.
Edna Ferber, Show Boat (1926)
Edna Ferber, A Peculiar Treasure (1939)
Miles Krueger, Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical (1977)
Michelle Francis, “The James Adams Floating Theatre: Edna Ferber’s Showboat,” Carolina Comments (September 1980), 135-142Ann Wilmer, “The Last Showboat,” The State (November 1988), 10-13
James Adams' Floating Theater