I’ve always had a fascination with river boats, especially the old-fashioned paddlewheel kind. Think showboats such as regularly cruised the major U.S. rivers between 1830 and the 1870s.
Unfortunately, the first showboats didn’t resemble the Cotton Blossom made famous in stage and movie adaptations of Edna Ferber’s novel of the same name. They were long, flat-roofed barges pushed by a small tugboat. Folks along the river paid in produce as well as money to be transported into another realm by the company of actors and actresses who lived on the boat.
A British actor, William Chapman, Sr., birthed the first showboat in Pittsburgh in 1831. During the Civil War, these floating theatres suffered a brief decline but revived again in 1878 to entertain with melodramas and vaudeville acts. In 1926, Edna Ferber’s novel hit the American scene, and the next year Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II adapted it as a stage musical. Three movie versions followed: 1929, 1936, and 1951, the latter possibly being the one most remembered today. Not all of the productions were true to the original story line, but each tugged at the heartstrings of the theatre-going public.
Probably the song most associated with the musical Show Boat is “Old Man River”, and Paul Robeson told a story in song in 1936. William Warfield’s outstanding rendition in 1951 still echoes.
My first experience with a river boat resembling the Cotton Blossom came in the summer of 1967 when I traveled up the Congo River to do summer school for a group of missionary children. However, the two-night trip reminded me more of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as I stood at the rail watching the village fires in the distance.
Later, my boys enjoyed a short excursion on the Mississippi River on a boat docked in Vicksburg. It doesn’t run anymore. But it was in Branson, Missouri, when I enjoyed a dinner theatre evening on the Branson Belle as it cruised Lake Taneycomo that I thought again of Magnolia, Gaylord Ravenal, Cap’n Andy, and the tragic Julie LaVerne.
Thus was born The Showboat Affair (authored as Gwyneth Greer). Jean and Nick remain close to my heart, though in truth they didn’t sail away to the rising strains of Hammerstein’s magnificent music. It was a fun write and, I hope, a fun read.
Judy Nickles/Gwyneth Greer
Vintage Romance/Romantic Suspense/Cozy Mystery
"...a good clean read"