Of all types of American theaters (let alone floating ones) none is as steeped in racially-fraught nostalgia as the show boat. From the antebellum period into Jim Crow years, up to two dozen “floating palaces” at a time skirted the banks of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, up the Illinois and Missouri, too. A myth emerged that movies robbed the show boats of their audiences, but this explanation hides the constant place moving pictures had aboard the floating palaces in the early 1900s. Piloting the rolling boundary between North and South, East and West, the floating theater brought entertainment and amusement—and cinema—to the rural riverside of the American interior. At many stops, the first movies locally shown were aboard a show boat, following an itinerant route entirely apart from other circuits of cinema.
Philip Graham’s definitive history of this “genuine folk institution” proposed movies and the automobile doomed the floating theater in the 1920s. “Governments were opening new and better roads even into remote river districts. Moving picture theaters, affording gaudy glimpses of sophisticated life at low prices, sprang up in both the city and the small town” . In short, he wrote, “the showboat could no longer find isolated communities that welcomed its small stage and its second rate performers” . Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel, Show Boat, was quickly dramatized as a radio drama, a year before Ziegfeld opened the 1927 stage musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. Universal made an early sound film in 1929, another in 1936, and MGM released its technicolor spectacle in 1951. Yet, even before the show boats’ faded legacy was cemented by Ferber’s book and its adaptations, two decades earlier at the height of their appeal, the boats themselves—with names such as the 'Cotton Blossom' or the 'Sunny South'—began to wrap their appeal in the revisionist folklore of Reconstruction’s racial segregation.
The show boat, in its day, was a metropolitan force, bringing big-city variety, music, and drama to places accessible only by river. Moving pictures were part of the bill for the first decade of the 1900s, similar to family vaudeville theaters in cities anywhere else in the U.S. In 1912, The New York Sun stated “of course the big river show boats all carry moving pictures these days” . Captains A.B. French and E.A. Price were “among the very first to purchase one of the new machines and exhibit what was then styled ‘animated pictures.’… Others, patterning after the pioneers, invested in similar amusement equipment and became lively competitors'' . Swallow & Markle launched their 'New Grand Floating Palace' in 1901, integrating moving pictures with newer forms of African-American music and dancing. Occasionally, specific film titles were featured in advertising, especially thrillers such as 'The Bold Bank Robbery' (1904) and 'The Train Wreckers' (1905) . An early review noted their show was “clean and bright and far away” superior to the old-hat minstrel shows. “They finish the act with a medley of coon songs quite different from any heard yet. Two pretty and petite girls do an excellent cake walk and sing some ragtime songs. The next and last act was a number of dissolving and moving pictures” . Perhaps the movies even added a sense of novelty to the newer Black performance styles?
On stage, show boats used melodrama to attract, “aided by a calliope and a brass band,” as they traveled to thousands of riverside towns. Characteristic of Jim Crow laws of the time, racially-segregated seating prevailed when the boats docked, at least on one side of the river. “On the southern end of the circuit, seats are sold ‘black and white,’ no colored people being allowed to buy seats on the floor. Up North there is no color line.” And yet, at times the show boats’ unique capacity for traversing the boundaries of systemic racism and polite tolerance was self-evident: “French’s floating theater, one of the originals, presented ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ on the very river over which Eliza escaped on the ice.” Even the signature tunes of the squealing steam organ played with the color line on approaching each stop: “the day of the show, the calliope fills the air with ‘Mr. Dooley’ or ‘Dixie.’ Plantation songs are drowned half sung, and everyone pauses to watch the theater, glistening whitely in the sunshine, coming up the river” . In these ways and more, floating palaces coyly played with floating racial signifiers of the South. Black performers, songs and styles were there on stage, and Black spectators in the segregated audience. Early moving pictures were part of the draw as the specialty between acts, but constrained within a romanticized, white imaginary.