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Here Comes The Showboat!

Here Comes The Showboat!

Copyright Date: 1994
Edition: 1
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Here Comes The Showboat!
    Book Description:

    "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.... Our showboat's express purpose was carrying entertainment to hundreds of thousands of river-bottom farmers along our water-bordered frontier." -- from the book

    Betty Bryant was a river rat. The Floating Theater was her home, and the river was her back yard. While other children were learning to walk, she was learning to swim. She knew how to set a trotline, gig a frog, catch a crawdad, and strip the mud vein out of a carp by the time she was four. In this colorful memoir, Betty shares her own piece of Americana, the small, family-owned showboat of the early twentieth century. Billy Bryant's Showboat plied the inland waterways of the Ohio River watershed from before the First World War until 1942, bringing a blend of melodrama and vaudeville, laughter and therapeutic tears, into the lives of isolated people in rural communities along the way. Betty made her first professional appearance at the age of six weeks when she played a baby in "Uncle Tom's Cabin." In her twenty years of touring, she acted, danced, and grew up in the tradition of "family entertainment, by families, for families."Here Comes the Showboat!is told with the ageless wonder of a child who loved the showboat and the eager audiences its uniquely American entertainment touched. 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4996-7
    Subjects: History, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Series Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)
    Kenneth L. Gladish

    The impact of the Ohio River in the context of the larger American story gained widespread public attention as a result of the “Always a River: The Ohio River and the American Experience” project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the humanities councils of the states of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, with a mix of private and public organizations.

    The Ohio River Valley Series, conceived and published by the University Press of Kentucky, extends the work of the Always a River project through the publication of an ongoing series of books that examine...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-3)

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

    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 itwasa place...

  6. Cast, Bred on the Waters
    (pp. 4-11)

    When I was born, the showboat was tied up for the winter at West Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, on the Monongahela River, about twenty miles up from Pittsburgh.

    In 1922, on the third of March, my mother carried me down the riverbank, over the stageplank, and onto my new home. I was ten days old. She crossed the deck and hurried through the front door to our living quarters.

    My father, Captain Billy Bryant, rushed in just as she deposited me in the top tray of a prop trunk. In later years, mother would tell me that he looked at me and...

  7. Home Sweet Showboat
    (pp. 12-18)

    All showboats were built on approximately the same floorplan and ours was no exception. From the pilot house to the hull, it looked like a little square box on top of a shoebox that was built on a flat-bottomed barge.

    Roofed decks which we called porches, both upstairs and down, extended from each end, and between them, little walkways known as guards ran along the entire length of the boat on either side of the auditorium. Posts that rose from the lower deck to the roof were spaced along these guards and held protective horizontal planks called guardrails.

    Windows were...

  8. Lady Violet
    (pp. 19-24)

    Grandmother called herself “Lady Violet” and that is how she was addressed by actors and crew members. She took great pride in her American citizenship papers, but she spoke the King’s English until the day she died. It was fascinating to listen to her adding and subtracting H’s indiscriminately.

    Violet was built like a pouter pigeon, and each morning she slipped into a pleated or draped dark silk dress and added a brooch or a rope of pearls. On her feet she wore pumps of soft kid or patent leather with Cuban heels. After carefully applying her makeup, she spent...

  9. The Four Bryants
    (pp. 25-31)

    According to Violet’s recollections, when the family left New York in the medicine show wagon, none of them realized they were starting a trip of several years which would take them as far west as New Mexico.

    During that time they would do a “high pitch” in the small towns, with Violet drawing a crowd by playing her guitar and singing. Then Sam would mystify them with a few feats of very bad magic. His best and most reliable trick was called a “sucker box.” It consisted of a small, black wooden box with two hinged doors in one side....

  10. The Play! The Play!
    (pp. 32-35)

    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 theModern 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...

  11. The Actors Have Arrived
    (pp. 36-43)

    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...

  12. Willie
    (pp. 44-51)

    I can honestly say that as a child on the showboat I never met an actor I didn’t like. They were all very patient with me and extremely supportive of my young career. They were never too busy to answer my questions and would spend hours teaching me their specialties. Of course, I learned dancing, acting, and directing from Dad, but a long line of thespian tutors contributed generously to my theatrical education.

    Besides those who introduced me to slack-wire walking, hoop rolling, and the wonderful world of magic, I remember fondly Vic Faust, who taught me how to play...

  13. Dead Men Tell No Tales
    (pp. 52-55)

    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.”

    They usually came on board, ate like a carp, worked for a while, and then left for various reasons. A few succumbed to homesickness, others just drifted off to different jobs, and at least one young man fled for his life.

    Our cook that year was a professional chef who dressed the part. He had white shoes, white pants, a white...

  14. Up the Monongahela
    (pp. 56-63)

    Our season opened in April, and the first month was spent going up and down the Monongahela and the Allegheny. The spring thaws always turned the banks of the southern rivers into a sea of adhesive mud, but the shale-covered shores of the coal mining territory assured the customers a firm footing.

    The Monongahela was lined with forges, foundries, and coal tipples, ugly, black structures rising out of the equally ugly black, barren-looking earth. Everything was covered with coal dust, and even the steel-colored sky seemed to be permeated with the fine black film. At night, when the mills turned...

  15. Perennial Pals
    (pp. 64-71)

    It had been over twenty-five years since the Four Bryants had made their first tour of the Ohio River onPrice’s New Water Queen, but the river was basically the same. Willow-lined shores, sleepy little towns with friendly people, steamboats puffing past, and here and there a shantyboat tied to a cottonwood tree.

    At almost every town we played, some boy always seemed to be waiting on the top of the bank, and as we came into sight, he would throw his hat in the air and run along the horizon shouting, “HERE COMES THE SHOWBOAT!!!!!”

    Dad would take the...

  16. Screeching Pipe of Pan
    (pp. 72-78)

    In the early years, before I was born, the only form of advertisement showboats had was handbills the captain would mail ahead to the postmaster, along with a few passes to the show. The postmaster would tack up one bill among the “Wanted” posters and take another to the feed store. The rest he would give to his mail carrier to deliver along the rural route.

    As more and more showboats came along, with no idea of each other’s schedule or whereabouts, it wasn’t unusual for two boats, one headed up stream and one down, to “day and date.” They...

  17. Down by the O-HI-O
    (pp. 79-88)

    We started our annual tour on the Ohio by playing the Pennsylvania towns of Sewickley, Freedom, Shippingport, and Empire. Then on to New Cumberland, West Virginia; Toronto, Ohio; Mingo Junction, Ohio; Short Creek, West Virginia; Tiltonville, Martins Ferry, Pipe Creek, Powhatan Point, and Clarington, Ohio.

    Mother made a note in her journal one season at Clarington. “Thought Betty had the measles but it was heat rash from playing on the sand pile.”

    At that time, there was a large industry in dredging sand and gravel from the riverbed. After screening and washing it, the dredgers would sell it to contractors...

  18. Put Them All Together, They Spell “Huckster”
    (pp. 89-97)

    Ripley, Ohio; Higginsport, Ohio; Augusta, Kentucky; Boudes Ferry, Ohio; Utopia, Ohio; Chilo, Ohio; and Moscow, Ohio. We usually arrived in Moscow on a Sunday and stayed till Monday when we did the show. We always had dinner that Sunday at the home of a lady friend of mother’s, who served heavenly chicken dinners to paying guests. In the back yard she had a huge rose arbor that seemed to go on forever.

    Mother was an outgoing person with an effervescent personality and a legion of friends. If she went to someone’s home for a visit and they had a piano...

  19. Then There Was Dad
    (pp. 98-110)

    In all of his writings, speaking engagements, and interviews, Dad invariably credited his parents with the success of theBryant’s Showboat. It is true that, in the beginning, their fortitude, diligence, and courage was what kept the family together and on the road to success. Sam built their first little houseboat as well as thePrincess, and Violet kept him on course and supported the family while they realized their dreams. But, onceBryant’s New Showboatwas launched, Dad immediately became the driving force behind its operation.

    He was co-owner, general manager, producer, and captain. Everyone called my grandfather Captain...

  20. Phone It In
    (pp. 111-116)

    After Moscow, we would play New Richmond, Ohio. Then we would steam past Cincinnati without a second thought, never dreaming what a great part the Queen City was to play in our lives.

    Each season we traveled the same route, but occasionally we would add a town or two. Sometimes, we passed up a regular stop because of unusual circumstances, such as weather conditions, flooding, or quarantine. In October of 1918, during the terrible flu epidemic, Mother lost a brother and a sister within three days of each other. When she went home, a newspaper reported it: “Mrs. Billy Bryant,...

  21. Vic Faust
    (pp. 117-123)

    Some of the showboat impresarios played the show straight through and then followed it with an olio of vaudeville. My father preferred to give the audience time to dry their tears by putting the vaudeville in between the acts.

    All of the actors did specialties. Perhaps the villain, standing in front of illustrated lantern slides, would warble “She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage,” or the leading lady might render her version of “After the Ball Was Over.” Man and wife teams would sometimes dance, play musical instruments or do tumbling. Graham and Golden did a clever racetrack bit...

  22. That Old-Time Religion
    (pp. 124-128)

    Mother came from an Irish Catholic family named Costello (pronounced Cos-low) and married into an English Protestant family named Bryant. From that day on, she never ceased brandishing her religion at the swarm of WASPs she had elected to join and was fanatical in her determination to raise me in the Catholic faith.

    Along our route, Catholic churches were scarce, but occasionally a priest, like a circuit rider in frontier days, would arrive at a landing to baptize babies, bless marriages, and say Mass. On those occasions, Mother would stock up on supplies so she always would have a goodly...

  23. The Season Ends
    (pp. 129-133)

    By now, summer had begun to wane. Rockport, Indiana; Owensboro, Kentucky; Evansville and Mt. Vernon, Indiana; and Uniontown, Kentucky; Elizabethtown, Illinois; Bay City, Illinois; Paducah, Kentucky; and Metropolis, Joppa, and Mound City, all in Illinois. Then we came to Cairo, Illinois, and our boats shot out into the turbulent Mississippi like a cork out of a champagne bottle. We turned upstream and the towns were even farther apart. We traveled several hours each day and bypassed some towns. Our object was to reach Alton, where we always turned off the Ohio to go up the Illinois River, which was one...

  24. Sweet Bird of Youth
    (pp. 134-138)

    Thus passed my first seven years. The summers were spent traveling up and down the Ohio and its tributaries with occasional trips up the Mississippi and the Illinois. During that time, I made countless friends who kept in touch with me for many years. I also received an invaluable education in theater that would stand me in good stead for the rest of my life.

    The winters were divided between visits to New York or Chicago and a few weeks in West Elizabeth. I have many fond memories of the time we spent in that little town. In my mind,...

  25. The Right Place at the Right Time
    (pp. 139-142)

    When the Showboat Age began to wane, the giants were the first to go. Between 1916 and 1919, seven of the grand old floating theaters were lost. TheHippodrome, theDixie, theIllinois, Greater New York, French’s New Sensation,theCotton Blossom,and theWonderlandwere all destroyed by wind, ice, or fire. High operational costs and diminishing routes put some of the others out of business.

    In the twenties, some showboats were still being built. But they were, like ours, smaller boats, and they roamed the hinterland, catering to the rural population, and playing every mile on every navigable...

  26. Cincinnati
    (pp. 143-149)

    We closed at Cincinnati that fall and went back to West Elizabeth for the winter. The next year we opened on the Monongahela and followed our usual route as far as Cincinnati, where we tied up for the summer. It was to be the second year of a run of thirteen years.

    Requests for favorite melodramas started coming in and we changed shows every four weeks. Besides the old standards ofTen Nights in a Barroom, Uncle Tom’s Cabin,andEast Lynne, we did classics likeTempest and Sunshine, Her Dead Sister’s Secret, Thorns and Orange Blossoms,andOver the...

  27. A Lady and a Queen
    (pp. 150-156)

    Our showboat was tied up at the foot of Lawrence Street, two blocks east of Broadway. Broadway was the site of the public landing where steamboats, packets and excursion boats docked. Two of our finest aquatic neighbors were moored there, theGreene Lineand theIsland Queen.

    TheQueenwas a beautiful, sidewheel excursion boat that carried passengers to and from Coney Island, an amusement park situated ten miles up the river on the Ohio side. She had a capacity of four thousand people and a dance floor made of twenty thousand square feet of polished hardwood. At one end,...

  28. Lure of City Lights
    (pp. 157-166)

    At the end of the 1930 season, we tied up to winter at West Elizabeth for what was to be the last time. In the spring of ’31, Dad received a letter from a Pittsburgh friend by the name of George Sharp. Sharp said he was in the throes of producingTen Nights in a Barroomfor a one-week engagement at the Shubert Pitt Theater in Pittsburgh and was having difficulty casting a little girl for the part of Mary Morgan and the comic, Sample Swichel. He knew Dad had done Swichel on the showboat for years and I already...

  29. Olio
    (pp. 167-172)

    Nineteen thirty-one was also the year that Dad decided to change our winter quarters from West Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, to Henderson, West Virginia, a little village directly across the Kanawha River from Point Pleasant. Both towns lay at the top of a high stretch of riverbank that afforded boats excellent shelter during the winter storms.

    This also altered our route. We no longer played the Monongahela or the upper Ohio. Instead, we went up the Kanawha to Charleston, West Virginia, in the spring. The people there, as in the other cities we now played were delighted with our brand of escapism...

  30. Raininʹ and Risinʹ
    (pp. 173-183)

    During the time we wintered in Henderson, West Virginia, we would often row across the Kanawha River or walk across the Point Pleasant-Henderson bridge to get our mail at the Point Pleasant Post Office. On Saturday nights we would go over to see the movies. For a few weeks each year I went to junior high and high school there, and every spring I would walk through the plowed fields looking for and sometimes finding arrowheads.

    I have always loved Point Pleasant. It’s a lovely, friendly, old river town that sits right on the point of land where the Big...

  31. Where Have All the Showboats Gone?
    (pp. 184-190)

    Except for a pause during the Civil War, showboats traveled the rivers for over a hundred years as an integral part of our cultural history. They reached their zenith a little after the turn of the century. They came into existence to meet the early settlers’ demand for formal entertainment, and they disappeared when the need was gone.

    A few of them operated into the early 1940s, but one by one they disappeared. Some were sold, to be converted into wharf boats or floating clubhouses, others were dismantled and broken up for firewood. A few were beached to lie among...

  32. Showboat Chronology
    (pp. 191-193)
  33. For Further Information
    (pp. 194-194)
  34. Index
    (pp. 195-202)