Show Boats - A story of on-board entertainment
The history of the show boat
I am giving you a short history of the show boat. But before this I need to establish that the American rivers, for example the Ohio, the Mississippi and the Missouri, were very important, but ambiguous: the river was a means of danger and life, pirates and trade, gambling, alcoholism and theater. This was essential for the very first, accidental, show boat performance in 1817. Imagine this scene: the American theatrical commonwealth company, lead by Noah Ludlow, travels from town to town on the river and comes to the so-called “Gold Coast” of Natchez-under-the-hill. This town is notorious for violence and captain Ludlow is afraid for his actresses being hurt. Therefore he spontaneously relocates the play onto his boat. This evening could be defined as the first show boat performance in American history. But we should take this with a grain of salt, because Noah Ludlow sold his boat five days later and that was the end of it.
The realization of the show boat idea was done by William Chapman and his family a decade later. The Chapmans were an English family of actors. They migrated to the US because of the famine back home. In 1827 they ordered a drifting boat and four years later they used the so-called Floating Theatre to travel the river towns. They did a curious thing: they traveled from Pittsburgh on the Ohio and the Mississippi to New Orleans. In New Orleans they sold the boat and used a steamboat to get back to Pittsburgh to build another, a better vessel. In 1836 they thought up something different. Instead of a raft, they bought a steamer, which could turn around in New Orleans and head back to Pittsburgh.
In the following decades many show boats tried to imitate the success of the Chapman family with a bunch of different sorts of entertainment like lectures, plays, sketches, museums and circus performances. But not everybody was lucky, in 1847 Sol Smith bought the Floating Theatre and performed as comedian for exactly one day till the boat sank. Others took to the river, like the steamer Banjo with “n-word shows” in the north. Later on, medicine boats, and other frauds damaged the image of the showboat.
During the civil war 1861 to 1865 there were no show boats, but after it there was a show boat renaissance. Notable for this is Augustus Byron French, who built five show boats called new sensation from 1878-1901. He lived a greater part of his life on a show boat and could play the banjo and perform magic tricks.
W.R. Markle of Steubenville paved the way for the transition to the show boat industry. His first boat in 1901 was bigger and better than anything before. It had a nice looking exterior as well as a gorgeous interior. There were no more benches and candles but opera chairs and electric lights. It was air conditioned and had rich musical and sensational performances, comedy and moving images. Business was so good that he became sole owner of the show boat and tow boat and ordered another even bigger show boat with 1200 seats in 1905. This second boat tried to appeal to a more distinguished audience by playing more serious dramas and musical plays. The advertisement promised only the best of actors, shows and morals. The third boat of his had seats for 1400 people. Everytime he built a new boat he sold the old one. Markle’s luck ended after many accidents and wreckings of tow boats in 1913.
Maybe you saw that the show boat in the musical is called Cotton Palace. There were some boats bearing a very similar name; Cotton Blossom. Some even had a baseball team on board. One, The Cotton Blossom No.1 operated till 1931 with the help of its owner, a guy called Hitner, and his whole family. The cotton blossoms played full-length drama and vaudeville in a 3 hour show.