Saturday, January 23, 2010

Edna Ferber and Beaufort County, NC

Research for Show Boat

"I heard of a show boat that was headed for a little village in North Carolina. The James Adams Floating Palace Theater, it was called. … I dashed down to Carolina, arrived at a town called Washington and engaged a colored boy with a Ford to drive me the thirty miles out to the little landing where the boat lay. …I'll never forget that Ford. Its original structure probably derived from the well-known brand after which it was named. But its owner had, perforce, supplemented it with bits and pieces of old metal, wire, canvas and wood, held together, seemingly by chewing , spit and faith. Every bolt, joint, hinge and curtain shook, rattled, squeaked and flapped. I, in the back seat, was busy trying to hold he thing together. As a door swung spectrally open and I sprang to shut it a curtain would strain and threaten to tear loose from the cotton thread that held it to the body of the car."

Edna Ferber had determined to write a novel about show boats when a friend mentioned such a boat, describing it as "… a floating theater. … They'd come downstream, calliope tooting, and stop at the town landing to give their show. The actors lived and slept and ate and worked right there on the boat. The country people for miles around would hear the calliope screeching and they'd know the show boat folks were in town." Ferber spent the next year happily researching show boats. When she heard of the James Adams Floating Palace Theater, she dashed down to Washington, Beaufort County, NC where she met Charles Hunter and his wife, Beulah Adams who was the sister of James Adams. But, unfortunately, the theater season was over. She had come too late. She arranged to join the boat the following April—1925, at Bath, Beaufort County, NC— their first stop.

When April came I went as eagerly as a lover to meet the show boat. …Bath, North Carolina, turned out to be a lovely decayed hamlet on the broad Pamlico River. In the days of the Colonies Bath had been the governor's seat. Elms and live oaks arched over the deserted streets. Ancient houses, built by men who knew dignity of architectural design and purity of line, were now moldering into the dust from which they had come. The one hotel or boarding house in the town was a fine old brick mansion which had been the home of the governor of the North Carolina colony in the days before 1776. Its rooms were large, gracious and beautifully proportioned. In the main room was a fireplace so huge that a room was built inside it. A message awaited me from the Hunters. The show boat had been delayed and would be a day or two late. I could expect them at the landing next day, or the day after.

My heart sank as I ascended the broken stairway behind my large and puffing landlady. In the heel of each stocking, above the open back flat slippers, was a hole the size of a silver dollar. She opened the door of my room. In contrast with the fresh April air outside the room smelled of mice, mold and mankind. My eye leaped to the bed. Then, boldly, I crossed to it and turned down the dingy covers. My worst fears realized, I turned an accusing glare upon my landlady.

"What's the matter?" she demanded.

"The sheets."

"D'ye mean you want them changed?" she asked, with that touch of irritation one might show if a guest were to demand why her own monogram did not appear on the hotel bed linen.

"I do," I replied with dignity and finality. "It is, I believe, customary."

Grudgingly she began to strip the bed under my stern eye. She muttered as she worked. "Only been slept in by my own daughter, and she only used 'em once. She teaches school and comes home, sometimes, Saturdays. Only slept in 'em last Saturday night, fresh."

"Nevertheless—" I said, firmly.

That night I slept practically suspended in midair, defying the law of gravity. … Little icy-footed mice skipped back and forth and chattered vixenishly in the wainscotings. I was up, haggard, to greet the April dawn. Breakfast was a grisly meal. A slab of indefinable blue meat floated in a platter of greenish grease. The black liquid mud in my cup was flanked by a tin can labeled Klim. My dulled senses finally conveyed to me the realization that the word was really milk spelled backwards. Leaving this lethal collation virgin as it had been set before me I wandered off to the little crossroads store a quarter of a mile distant that I had noted on my arrival. The musty little shop, as its doorbell dingled, assailed your nostrils with the mingled odors of kerosene, mice, broom straw, tobacco juice and dampness. But I bought a slab of milk chocolate, well covered, a box of dampish crackers and a bag of last winter's apples. I surveyed the cheese and decided quickly against it. Fortified with this provender I made out very well for that day and part of the next.

And next morning the James Adams Floating Palace Theater came floating majestically down the Pamlico and tied up alongside the rickety dock. Here began, for me, four of the most enchanting days I've ever known.

There, on the lower deck near the ticket window, stood Charles Hunter, his eyeglasses glittering, his kind face beaming, and there stood Beulah Adams Hunter, the Mary Pickford of the rivers, with her fresh gingham dress and her tight little curls and her good and guileless face, for all the world like a little girl in a clean pinafore. Show folks. My heart leaped toward them; like Tiny Tim I loved them every one, from Jo, the colored cook, to the pilot of the tugboat. …

I lived, played, worked, rehearsed, ate with the company. I sold tickets at the little box-office window, I watched the Carolina countryside straggle in, white and colored. …

Charles and Beulah Hunter gave me their own bedroom, … a large square bright room, with four windows looking out upon the placid river and the green shores. Crisp dimity curtains flared their pert ruffles. There was a big square wooden bed, a washbowl and pitcher, a low rocking chair, a little shining black iron wood stove. …

The playing company numbered ten, including the Hunters. …It seemed to me a lovely life as we floated down the river. Sometimes, the Hunters said, they played a new town every night; sometimes, if the countryside was a populous one and the crops good, they stayed a week.

They rehearsed in the daytime, they played at night. …I sold tickets at the box office; I watched rehearsals and performances; I played a walk-on; I chatted with the audience. Sometimes, after the show, they pulled anchor and went down river that night; sometimes they waited until early morning. …

The audiences' ancestors lay now in the little North Carolina Church yards, with beautiful English names engraved dimly on the tombstones and the vaults inside the crumbling churches. I had wandered through the churchyard at Bath. The old, old inscriptions were in Early English script … . All the hardships and tears and hopes and fears of the struggling American Colonies could be pieced together from the reading of those weather-worn annals. …

Many of these towns were twenty, thirty, thirty-five miles from a railroad. As I watched the audiences I saw, in the dim-lighted auditorium, faces that might have stepped out of a portrait two hundred years old. …

It was early on the morning of my fourth day that Charles Hunter and I settled down in the quiet sunny corner bedroom, he with a pack of cigarettes, I with a chunk of yellow copy paper and a pencil. He began to talk. It was a stream of pure gold. I sat with my eyes on him and my pencil racing across the paper, and wrote and wrote and wrote. Incidents, characters, absurdities, drama, tragedies, river lore, theatrical wisdom poured forth in that quiet flexible voice. He looked, really, more like a small-town college professor lecturing to a backward student than like a show-boat actor.

By the time he had finished I had a treasure-trove of show-boat material, human, touching, true. I was (and am) in his everlasting debt.

The result of this research by Edna Ferber was her famous novel, Show Boat, which was also made into a musical play featuring the unforgettable Jerome Kern songs, "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "Ol' Man River," "Make Believe," and "Why Do I Love You?"

This story was published in The Connector, newsletter of the Tar River Genealogical Society in the Spring 2001 issue. It was taken from Edna Ferber's autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure, 1939.


  1. Thank you for the wonderful insight into the history of eastern North Carolina. I appreciate the effort and the outcome.