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A showboat, or show boat, was a form of theater on a riverboat that traveled along the waterways of the United States, especially along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. A showboat was basically a barge that resembled a long, flat-roofed house, and in order to move down the river, it was pushed by a small (and misleadingly labeled) towboat, also known as a pusher, which was attached to it. It was difficult to put a steam engine on it and still have a large theater, since the engine would have had to be placed right in the auditorium.
Since the box-office success of MGM's 1951 motion picture version of the musical Show Boat, in which the boat was inaccurately redesigned as a deluxe, self-propelled steamboat, the image of a showboat as a large twin-stacked vessel with a huge paddle wheel at the rear has taken hold in popular culture. Two earlier film versions of Show Boat and most stage productions feature a historically accurate vessel, rather than the kind built for the 1951 film, and Edna Ferber, in the novel on which the musical is based, gives a description of the "Cotton Blossom" that accurately reflects the real design of a nineteenth-century showboat. Modern-day showboats, however, with their more advanced technology, are designed as steamboats, with engines and auditorium.
During the American frontier era, populations of potential audiences were widely scattered about the area that is now the United States. These people depended on rivers such as the Mississippi and the Ohio for food, supplies, and entertainment. “[The rivers] brought life and at the same time, brought means of sustaining life…[people were] dependent on the rivers and inevitably became a part of what they were” (Graham 1-3). Actors traveled to America from England, and theatre venues as well as touring companies were developed. In 1816, Noah Ludlow purchased a keelboat for $200 and named it Ludlow's Noah's Ark. Ludlow and 11 associates climbed aboard and traveled down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, stopping to perform whenever they could.
British-born actor William Chapman, Sr. created the first showboat, named the Floating Theater in Pittsburgh in 1831. He and his family of nine, along with two other people, lived on this boat and performed plays with added music and dance at stops along the waterways. The price of admission was anywhere from a peck of fresh vegetables to 50 cents a person. The acting was said to be far better than average, stemming from Chapman's British acting background. After reaching New Orleans, they got rid of the boat and went back to Pittsburgh in a steamboat in order to tour down the river once again the following year. In 1836, the family was able to afford a new, fully equipped steam engine with a stage. In 1837, it was renamed Steamboat Theatre. Chapman died on board in 1841.
Showboats had declined by the Civil War, but began again in 1878 and focused on melodrama and vaudeville. Major boats of this period included the New Sensation, New Era, Water Queen, and the Princess. With the improvement of roads, the rise of the automobile, motion pictures, and the maturation of the river culture, showboats declined again. In order to combat this development, they grew in size and became more colorful and elaborately designed in the 1900s. Newer boats included the Golden Rod, the Sunny South, the Cotton Blossom, and the New Showboat.
In 1914, circus actors James Adams and his wife launched the James Adams Floating Theatre, a showboat that would tour the Chesapeake Bay and bring theatre to audiences in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. The James Adams Floating Theatre is the only showboat that was visited by Edna Ferber, who stayed on board for a week in 1926 in order to write her famous novel (Haynie, 1950). This novel is what inspired the award winning Kern and Hammerstein Broadway hit, Showboat. The famous musical, which is still staged, gave the term “showboat” a whole new meaning.
Based on the supposedly gaudy look of showboats, the term "showboat" also came to mean someone who wants his or her ostentatious behavior to be seen at all costs. This term is particularly applied in sports, where a showboat (or sometimes "showboater") will do something flashy before (or even instead of) actually achieving his or her goal. The word is also used as a verb. British television show Soccer AM has a section appropriately named Showboat, dedicated to flashy tricks from the past week's games.
Oft-cited examples of showboating include Leon Lett's grocery-bag-carrying of a recovered football (which was then swatted out of his hand before the goal line) in Super Bowl XXVII; Bill Shoemaker's standing in the saddle before the finish line of the 1957 Kentucky Derby, costing him the win (some sources say he merely misjudged the finish line, with the jockey ahead of him not standing up then); Lindsey Jacobellis's grab of her snowboard which caused her to crash right before the finish of the Snowboard Cross final at the 2006 Winter Olympics, costing her a first-place finish and a gold medal (she got a silver medal instead); Usain Bolt pumping his chest before winning the 100m final at 2008 Summer Olympics, likely adding one or more tenths of a second to his world record time of 9.69 seconds; and Mario Balotelli missing a shot on (soccer) goal when he unnecessarily tried it backheel. Showboating is likely to get this sort of attention when, as a result, the contestant doing it encounters a problem in the still-in-progress competition.
In boxing, showboating often takes the form of taunting, dropping one's gloves and daring an opponent to throw a punch, or engaging in other risky behaviors while the match is ongoing. Notable boxers well known for their showboating style include Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roy Jones Jr. and Floyd Mayweather Jr.
- "Floating Theatre". Encyclopædia Britannica. 2011.
- Haynie, Miriam. "Newspaper Article: James Adams' Floating Theater." Editorial.
- "James Adams' Floating Theatre". Richmond Times-Dispatch. September 1950. Retrieved 23 Jan 2011.
- Graham, Philip (1970). Showboats: The History of an American Institution. Austin, TX, USA: University of Texas Press.
- "Smash Hit Broadway Musical SHOWBOAT Inspired by the The James Adams Floating Theatre !" James Adams Floating Theatre. Web. 23 Jan. 2011.