Gems of the Backlist: ‘Here Comes the Showboat!’

Here at the University Press of Kentucky, we recently completed an initiative to digitize all of the books that we’ve published since our founding in 1943. It was a lot of work going through more than 1300 books, but it’s been a process full of fun surprises and astounding discoveries. Best of all, every now and then, there was a book that we just couldn’t put down—a book so good we just can’t resist sharing it with you again:

Except for a pause during the Civil War, showboats traveled America’s inland waterways for over a hundred years, and the months between the spring thaw and the first frost were their province. They came into existence to meet early settlers’ demand for formal entertainment, reached their zenith a little after the turn of the Twentieth Century, and disappeared when the need was gone.

9780813118628Betty Bryant grew up on her father’s showboat, which plied the many branches of the Ohio River watershed from before the First World War until 1942. In her memoir,  Here Comes the Showboat! she tells her story with the ageless wonder of a child. It is a treasure trove of humorous anecdotes, touching remembrances, and delightful photographs of Betty, the three generations who ran the family showboat, miners, musselers, shantyboaters, farmers, merchants, and actors whose lives intersected along the Ohio River.

Enjoy an adapted excerpt from this charming book below and enter here for a chance to win a copy of Here Comes the Showboat!:


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Captain Billy Bryant

My father was Captain Billy Bryant and I was raised on his showboat. The floating theater was my home and the river was my backyard.

While other children were learning how to walk, I was learning how to swim, and I knew how to set a trotline, gig a frog, catch a crawfish, and strip the mud vein out of a carp by the time I was four.

Dad called me a river rat.

I always become homesick whenever I hear the song “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” for that’s where I used to live. And it was a place where troubles melted like lemon drops, and where “dreams that you dared to dream” really did come true!

I was born at the tail end of a unique and delightful era and raised on one of the last showboats to struggle for survival against the devastating crunch of progress.

Showboats came formally into being in 1831 when the Chapman family from England launched their first Floating Theater at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Their heyday was in the first decade of the twentieth century when, along with a dozen or more smaller craft, huge boats like the New Grand Floating Palace with a thousand seats, the Sunny South with twelve hundred seats and the Goldenrod with a capacity of fourteen hundred were plying the inland streams.

Featuring a medley of melodrama and vaudeville, they brought laughter and therapeutic tears into the humdrum lives of isolated people who looked forward to their annual arrival as an excuse for an undeclared holiday. As one of the too few bits of indigenous Americana that we have in this country, it’s a pity that the showboat’s image has become so distorted. When thought of at all, it seems to be remembered as a near mythical craft which is part packet, part excursion, and part ferry boat.

It’s surprising to many people that a typical showboat had no power of its own, no stern wheel, side wheel, motor, or engine. It was pushed from town to town by a steamboat tied to the stern. Equally surprising is the fact that it carried no paying passengers or freight. The only people who traveled on board were members of the family, cast, and crew.

A showboat was exactly what its name implies: a theater, built on a flat-bottomed barge for the express purpose of carrying entertainment to hundreds of thousands of river-bottom farmers along our water-bordered frontier. The larger municipalities had theaters, opera houses, and music halls, but between the cities were long stretches of rolling hills and deep green valleys, dotted with little hamlets and surrounding farms where the only social events were barn raisings, quilting bees, and corn huskings. These affairs, which in reality were merely difficult chores made lighter by sharing, were widely separated by weeks of back-breaking labor. Every day, each member of the family rose before the sun and went to bed soon after its last rays left the sky, often to dream, not surprisingly, of the showboat. These lighted giants were glorious interruptions in the monotony of their work-filled lives, and sometimes farmers and their families followed them up or down the river for two or three performances, loath to have the magic slip away.

Eventually, nearly a dozen gigantic, ornate, and costly showboats were in serious competition with each other, and their mad scramble for choice locations and larger audiences resembled nothing as much as a feeding frenzy of sharks. In trying to best each other, they had outpriced themselves. Some of them began playing larger towns to meet their soaring operational costs, but when they met with only modest financial improvement, many of their owners thought the showboat era was over.

They had forgotten one very important fact. The showboat was originally intended for the hinterland, and the smaller ones, like ours, would continue for many more years, floating along at a leisurely pace totally out of tempo with the rest of the world.

Even when radio and motion pictures would begin to compete for audiences, the little boats, being a good ten years behind the times, would continue to exist. They would draw back, like forest creatures, deeper into the sanctuary of weeds and willows that lined the banks of the cool, comforting backwaters.

Mainly family-operated, with low overheads and modest prices, they would go on for some time delivering the wholesome product that they advertised as

“Family entertainment, BY families, FOR families!”

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The auditorium in Bryant’s New Showboat filled to capacity

Until the end of the nineteenth century, showboat programs consisted mainly of vaudeville offerings which included singers, dancers, comics, and novelty acts. Occasionally, a short sketch would be added, but the pattern of a three-act drama with specialties instead of intermissions was not established until 1900 when E.E. Eisenbarth, at the insistence of his wife, presented two plays on board the Modern Temple of Amusement.

The new policy proved to be such a success that by the end of the year most of the showboats were presenting full-length plays. Sometimes scripts were purchased but more often they were borrowed and copied by hand. Others came from performers. An actor applying for work might write: “Have complete wardrobe for drawing room, western, Rube and Tom. Also have scripts for The Plunger, A Builder of Bridges, and Girl of the Golden West.”

The scripts were usually written on legal size paper, bound in oilcloth with the rough side out and with the title printed in bold letters on the front of the cover.

Most scripts called for a cast of five men and three women. The male parts consisted of a heavy, or villain, a juvenile lead, a comic, a character man, and “General Business,” a heading that covered such parts as partner to the villain, pal to the lead, or brother to the heroine. The women’s parts were leads, ingenues, a soubrette who played opposite the comic, a villainess, and sometimes a character woman. Anything beyond these limits was handled by doubling. That is, one actor doing one part in the first act, then donning a wig and mustache for another character in the second act, and sometimes another in the last act as well.

The plays were extremely moral. Good was good and bad was bad and there were no gray areas. The leading man, after being falsely accused of murder, might temporarily drop from sight at the end of the first act, but he would invariably return with proof of his innocence in time for the final curtain.

In the true spirit of the old ballad “She’s More to Be Pitied Than Censured,” good women were allowed to fall, even so far as to produce an illegitimate child, but only in supporting roles.

The heroine was often forced to struggle through the bulk of the seemingly under a cloud of guilt, but she must eventually be proven pure as the driven snow. Periodically, she would face her accusers and the audience and deliver lines such as,

“I’d rather DIE than say ‘yes’!”

“You would not say that, sir, if JACK were only here!”

“If this be aristocracy, thank GOD I’m a country girl!” and my favorite,

“Rags are royal raiment when worn for virtue’s sake!”

Villains were either city bankers who wore mustaches and carried mortgages or unshaven, brutish clods with uncombed hair and heavy eyebrows.

The leading man was either a parson or a country boy with a slow drawl and broad shoulders bulging under a blue flannel shirt worn open at the throat. Known to actors as a “blue shirt lead,” he would, at the drop of a villain’s sneer, flex his pectoral muscles, draw himself up to his full height, and say, “Sir, you are speaking of the woman I love!” [ . . . ]

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The sawmill scene in “Jack Dalton’s Revenge”

Most of the showboats tied up for three months during the winter at various protective landings. Point Pleasant, West Virginia, was a favorite spot, as was Paducah, Kentucky. Until 1931, we wintered at West Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, and then moved to Point Pleasant.

In November, at the end of the season, the actors would bid us a reluctant farewell with promises to return in the spring. They would go by train to various towns or cities to join stock companies or tab shows. The crew would stay on board long enough to take the boats to winter quarters and then they too would go their separate ways. The family would stay a few weeks and then head for New York or Chicago. Only a watchman remained on board. After a sabbatical of three months, the members of the steamboat crew, last to leave in the fall, were the first to come aboard in the spring. Scrub and paint brushes were brought out, decks were caulked and the roof freshly tarred. Then the actors began to arrive.

They would scramble down the riverbank a week before the opening, waving and shouting. After exchanging greetings with everyone on board they’d head for the steamboat to select their staterooms and unpack. Then, they would gather in the galley to drink the strong, hot coffee that was always available and to talk excitedly of the season ahead.

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A visiting relative learning to use the draw bucket

We carried, besides the family, a leading man, a villain, a juvenile, a character man, and occasionally a man and wife general business team. Single actors lived on the Valley Belle in tiny staterooms. Each room was furnished with a bunk, a washstand, and a mirror. On top of the washstand sat a pitcher and bowl and beneath it was a bucket with a long rope attached to the handle. This “draw bucket” could be thrown over the side and brought up filled with cool, clear and, at that time, unpolluted water for washing. A coal oil lamp was bracketed to one wall, for while a generator furnished electricity for the evening’s performance, it was turned off after the show.

By today’s standards, their accommodations were practically primitive, but the actors were a happy lot. Compared to their lives on shore a showboat season had much to offer. While their contemporaries on land struggled on and off trains carrying props, scenery, and baggage, made sleeper jumps while sitting up in a day coach, and did two to ten shows a day in damp, dirty theaters, showboat performers, by comparison, lived the life of Riley. With no thought to packing or catching a train, they ate, slept, and traveled on board, gliding dreamlike between willow-lined shores to wake each day in a different town, with their theater a stone’s throw from their sleeping quarters.

An actor on the road lived with the ever-present fear of finding himself stranded a thousand miles from nowhere as the result of a show being canceled or an unscrupulous manager absconding with the funds. The showboat actor gloried in the guarantee of a full “play or pay” season, secure in the knowledge that his salary would be waiting in the box office each Saturday with the regularity of a Swiss watch.

Fifteen dollars a week sounds ludicrous, but with no agents’ fees to pay, no traveling or living expenses, in fact, no place to spend money if you wanted to, it was not unusual for an actor at the end of a season to head home with six hundred dollars in his grouch bag, or twelve hundred for a man and wife team. The overland thespian who received much more than that per week rarely found it possible to save anything near that amount.

In addition, the showboat actor enjoyed a minimum of labor and a maximum of love from his adoring fans. One performance a night, never on Sunday and no matinees, a week’s rehearsal in the spring, another in the summer, and the rest of the time was his own.

Afternoons were often spent strolling through the village where they were warmly greeted by the friendly farmers and their families. Other long, lazy days were filled with writing letters and reading. Some went exploring and others swam, but it was a rare actor who didn’t take advantage of the ever-present privilege of casting a fish line off the fantail of the steamboat, over the protective guardrail that ran the full length of the outside of the showboat, or even from the end of a long, cane pole, right out through the door of his stateroom. [ . . . ]

Unlike the actors, cabin boys and deckhands were expendable breeds who seldom stayed for a whole season. They were young, fast-growing farm or shantyboat boys with appetites that prompted Dad to declare, “I’d rather pay ’em than keep ’em.”

One season we were doing a Civil War play which, in one scene, called for a brief and silent appearance by Abe Lincoln. Our deckhand was tall and slender and had high hopes of becoming an actor, so Dad assigned him the part.

The young man became so involved with his first role he spent the entire season perfecting his character. He grew a beard, scrounged a tall hat, foulard tie, and shawl from country stores, and kept old envelopes and a pencil stub in his pocket.

In the afternoon, when his chores were done and any sensible deckhand would curl up for a well-earned nap, our hero would change from his overalls into his costume and stroll up the riverbank and into the village, where he created quite a stir.

One day he left the boat, climbed the riverbank and paused at the top. He took out an envelope and made a notation on it. My grandfather was on the front deck with Dad. He watched in silence as the deckhand strolled toward town. Then he turned to Dad and said, “Billy, that boy isn’t going to be satisfied until somebody assassinates him!”

One summer, Dad bought a trained bucking mule named January from a circus. January was a big gray beast with a short bristly mane and a disposition to match. His tail looked like a rope that was coming unraveled, and, according to his mood, his remarkably long ears stood up like a rabbit’s, drooped like a bloodhound’s, or laid back flat against his skeletal head.

Dad offered a five-dollar prize for anyone who would come up on stage and ride him for thirty seconds. We always held the contest at the end of the show, and Mother, at the piano, would pound out some lively music while the actors struck the set. Props and set pieces were hurriedly taken off to the greenroom, the backdrop was folded, and the wings were leaned against the bare back wall.

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January, the bucking mule

First, our deckhand would demonstrate how gentle the animal was. After unobtrusively giving January’s left ear a twist as a cue to behave, he would mount and ride him around the stage, docile as a lamb. Then, members of the audience would be invited to do the same. Young men, anxious to show off for their ladies, would rush up through the box seats and wait in line. When their turn came, they would leap onto January’s back, only to be tossed high and wide. Sometimes, a particularly lightweight boy would sail clear across the orchestra pit into the first row of seats.

No one ever finished the ride, until we took him up the Monongahela River. Dad had forgotten that mules were used in the mines. The first night seven contenders held on for the full time. It cost Dad thirty-five dollars in prize money. January did his best and he knew a lot of tricks. He bucked and kicked, twisted and turned, sat down, shook his head, bared his teeth and hee-hawed all the way through. He rolled his eyes, spun in circles, tried to bite their legs, and got down on his front knees. But those boys stuck on his back like cockleburs. After that we never held the contest in the coalfields. Those miners sure knew their mules.

As we came off the Monongahela onto the Ohio and headed downstream we moved between walls of apple-green willows, broken occasionally by stretches of pebbled beach. By now, the play was running the actors were settled in their staterooms, and life had taken on the lovely, lazy pattern that could be found only on board a showboat in the spring.

For me, the day began before dawn as I woke to the sounds of shouted orders, running feet, and the creaks and groans of the stage plank, a gangplank that was rolled out to shore at each landing, being hauled aboard. I leaped out of bed, gave my face a token splash of cold water and struggled into my clothes. Then I walked quickly around the guard that ran the full length of the outside of the boat.

The cook always had a doughnut or a hot buttered biscuit ready for me and a little enamel bucket with a lid filled with coffee for my Dad, already in the pilot house. Clasping the handle of the bucket in one hand and wolfing the pastry as I ran, I retraced my steps to the showboat, hurried up the back stairs to the second deck, and gingerly climbed the ladder to the roof.

The pilot house sat close to the front of the boat, and the 120-foot walk over the tar paper roof was always a bit frightening. I never got close to the edge but stayed right in the middle with my eyes glued to Dad’s back where he stood at the wheel.

Seemingly in response to my gaze, Dad·would turn and wave, and as I climbed the four steps leading into the pilot house he would tie down the rudder by slipping a loop of rope, which was anchored to the floor, over one of the spokes of the pilot wheel. Then he would lift me up and set me on the high pilot stool. Putting his captain’s hat on my head, he would take the coffee bucket. Then he would free the rudder and turn the wheel over to me with instructions to “keep ‘er nose right on that point.”

He would turn away with a false air of confidence, to pour his coffee into a mug while I kept a death grip on the wheel and trembled with delight. Then he would turn back to me and “She’s driftin’, honey. Pull’er down right.” He’d walk to the other side of the wheel and with one hand, help me move the giant four-cornered swan.

On the right front corner of the roof, with a flag at its tip, a long pole called a jack-staff stood tall and slender. It was used as a guide in steering. By spotting a landmark on shore, and lining up the jack-staff with it, you could plainly see when you were moving to the right or left. My spine always tingled when I saw the mammoth boat respond to the wheel.

Our trips usually took from two to three hours, but the time spent in that pilot house was never long enough for me. It was my very own magic carpet, my castle, my playhouse, my school. It was there that I first came to grips with arithmetic, learning to count the buoys that floated in the river to mark the outline of the channel and the government beacon lights along the bank. Every now and then Dad would slip me a dose of history, sweetened with a teaspoon of legend. there,” he’d say. “That’s where Chief Blackbird is buried, sittin’ straight up on the back of his horse!” or “We’re comin’ into Ripley, Ohio. That was one of the most important stations of the Underground Railway during the Civil War.”

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The Bryant Family (left to right): Josephine, Violet, Sam, Florence, Billy and Betty

Of course, my favorite subject was the river itself. Dad knew every creek, crossing, slough, and sandbar from the head of the Alleghany to the upper Mississippi. He could even read the ripples in the water and tell by its color and waves its depth and rate of speed. Just above Dog Island, at the mouth of the Cumberland River, he’d say, “Now watch, honey. You put your jack-staff on that big sycamore tree and keep your stern on that little red schoolhouse, and it’ll take you right through this Old Maid’s Crossing.” My head swam with names of sandbars and gravel bars like Petticoat Ripple, Sunfish Bar, and Owl Hollow Run.

Twice year we passed Bryant’s Landing, just below Manchester Island, and though I knew it wasn’t named in my personal honor, just having Dad point it out was enough to set my dreamer’s mind afloat and make me beg for stories about our family and how we came to the rivers.


For more delightful tales of a life spent performing on the waterways of the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest, pick up a copy of Here Comes the Showboat! by Betty Bryant.
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