For nearly three decades a showboat that’s still best known as the James Adams Floating Theatre traveled throughout our region’s waterways bring entertainment to the masses.
More than a century ago in 1913, an enterprising former circus performer named James Adams came up with the idea of creating a floating theater that could easily navigate the waterways of eastern North Carolina and some areas farther north. His idea was to bring a variety of entertainment to the large number of isolated coastal communities that dotted the region.
Traveling entertainment vessels, known as showboats, weren’t exactly revolutionary, especially in the Midwest where they were first popularized during the 1800s. And though James’ floating theater wasn’t the only one of its kind on the East Coast during the early 20th century, it had a certain flair that reportedly made it legendary in short order.
This can perhaps be attributed, at least in part, to the sheer size of James’ ambitions from the very start. He designed and commissioned his two-story, 128-foot-long barge that had to be towed from place to place by two tugboats in Washington, N.C. The auditorium alone (including a balcony area) sat up to 850 patrons at a time, along with a 19-foot-wide stage and an orchestra pit. There was also a kitchen and separate dining room, business offices and at least eight rooms that doubled as dressing areas and sleeping quarters — not to mention amenities such as an on-board generator that provided electricity for lighting, telephone lines and running water.
The spectacle of it all was almost undoubtedly part of the theater’s allure. While James originally called the boat Estelle, he eventually christened it the James Adams Floating Theatre — a name that he boldly painted in large block letters on both sides of the ship in order to comply with Coast Guard regulations for such a large vessel.
This only served to make his floating theater even more recognizable as it approached rural ports with flying flags and trumpet calls on its annual 37-week circuit throughout the Chesapeake Bay and the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds. Posters and newspaper ads were placed in advance to drum up excitement and draw in the crowds. And while some religious community members loudly denounced the theater as sinful, that wasn’t always as effective as they might have liked.
Typically, the theater would dock in one place for a week at a time to perform a different show six nights in a row. The small troupe frequently rotated cast members, aside from leading stars that included James’ sister, Beulah, and her husband, Charles Hunter.
The James Adams Floating Theatre remained wildly popular for almost two decades and served as the inspiration behind Pulitzer Prize–winning author Edna Ferber’s best-selling novel Show Boat.
But changing times started to take their toll. The Great Depression was lengthening and advancing technology increasingly made other forms of entertainment such as movies more widely accessible. James sold his floating theater in 1933. The new owner, Nina Howard, renamed the vessel The Original Showboat and continued to operate for a number of years even though profits continued to dwindle. After being sold one last time, the ship caught on fire and was permanently grounded in 1941, putting an end to this remarkable piece of our region’s maritime history.