The Calvert Marine Museum is pleased to announce the opening of their newest mezzanine exhibit, “The Happiest of All Showboats: The James Adams Floating Theatre.” This exhibit showcases the beloved institution that brought live entertainment to communities all along the Chesapeake Bay in the early 20th century.
The James Adams Floating Theatre was the only showboat to traverse the Chesapeake Bay, and its popularity began in the mid-19th century when riverboat crews played music to entertain crowds gathering to meet ships at port locations along rivers and smaller tributaries. Entertainers purchased flat-bottomed boats with shelters, where performances could take place. Between 1831 and 1939, there were 53 major showboats in the United States, the majority along the Mississippi River.
In April of 1925, American novelist Edna Ferber boarded the theatre in Bath, North Carolina, in order to do research for her novel Showboat. This novel became a Broadway musical in 1927, and the subsequent 1936 film adaptation starring Irene Dunne and Paul Robeson introduced the classic song “Ol’ Man River.” The showboat’s fame spread globally and helped to popularize the American musical.
Dr. Patricia Samford, former site director of Historic Bath, researched the theatre and Edna Ferber providing local lectures about the theatre as part of the 2003 celebration of the Town of Bath’s 300th anniversary of its incorporation as the oldest town in the state. Continuing her research in Maryland as the director of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, Dr. Samford pursued a lecture series locally in Calvert County. The popularity of her lecture and interest in the floating theatre led to an exhibit collaboration with the Calvert Marine Museum (CMM) for their newest exhibit, “The Happiest of All Showboats: The James Adams Floating Theatre.” Dr. Samford’s journey to Maryland is full of adventure and intrigue, including her research discovery of the James Adams Floating Theatre!
The James Adams Floating Theatre performed at Solomons 24 times between 1914 and 1940 and was the only stop the theatre ever made in Calvert County. The Calvert Marine Museum would like to thank several organizations and individuals for their support and dedication to the history of the James Adams Floating Theatre. Without their support, enthusiasm, and expertise, this exhibit would not be possible: Calvert County Board of County Commissioners, Dr. Patricia Samford, Isle of Wight Museum, Mariner’s Museum, Museum of the Albemarle, Steamboat Era Museum, St. Mary’s County Historical Society, and the talented staff and volunteers at CMM.
“The Happiest of All Showboats: The James Adams Floating Theatre” is a wonderful assemblage of local history, regional influence, national interest, and global fame. The exhibit will be open through 2024 and is included with museum admission. Visitors can step back in time and experience the live entertainment that brought joy and wonder to communities along the Chesapeake Bay.