- The US riverboat theaters that were an institution for morethan a century, during which flatboats were replaced by steamers andpaddlewheelers. They plied the larger western rivers, such as theMississippi and Ohio, to bring entertainment to the backwoods regionsof the developing country.
Although records exist of river-borne actors performing onshore as early as 1817, the first purpose-built showboat was thatlaunched in 1831 in Pittsburgh by the British-born actor William Chapman(1760 - 1841). His crude 'floating theater' was lit by candlesand poled down the river to New Orleans. During the voyage Chapman'sfamily, including his five children, would perform such dramas asShakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew and Kotzebue's TheStranger. His imitators replaced drama with song-and-dance toattract larger audiences. Before the Civil War interrupted operationsin 1861, the trade produced such spectacular enterprises as the 'FloatingCircus Palace', launched in 1851 in Cincinnati, which carried a largemenagerie and had seating for 3400.
After the war, the new showboats relied on vaudeville.Augustus Byron French managed five boats from 1878 to 1901 and pioneeredthe use of marching bands on shore to drum up business. However thesettling of the frontier, the development of films and radio, andthe Great Depression of 1929, all spelled doom for the big boats.Their numbers fell from 26 in 1910 to five in 1938, the last authenticshowboat being Philip Graham's Goldenrod, which was still runningin 1943.