Showboats were a specialized venue that flourished on America’s major rivers (especially the Mississippi and Ohio) from around the 1830s to a century later. Like medicine shows, they brought entertainment to mostly rural audiences. And like the landlubberly theatres of its day, the showboat presented a mix of melodramas, minstrelsy and the kind of variety entertainment that would come to be associated with vaudeville. Contrary to the popular image, showboats were not those big, picturesque paddle wheel vessels (uh like the one above). They were actually more like barges which needed to be pushed long by tugboats. the space where an engine should be was filled by a theatre, you see.
Major performers who got their start on showboats included Moe Howard of the Three Stooges, Red Skelton, Benny Rubin and Charles Winninger, who later went on to play the original Cap’n Andy in the original stage and screen version of the musical Show Boat.
Like all live entertainment, show boats took a nose dive after the first third of the twentieth century, although I believe here and there some nostalgia/ touristy type vessels have sprung into existence. A place of especial local interest for New Yorkers is the Waterfront Museum and Showboat Barge in Red Hook. Run by David Sharps, it’s not only a museum, but a venue of shows of all types. In 2007, in association with the Theatre Museum’s Showboats ‘Round the Bend exhibition, the American Vaudeville Theatre presented a couple of vaudeville shows on that barge, as well as the old time melodrama Ten Nights in a Bar-Room, directed by Ian W. Hill.
By the way, the curator of Showboats ‘Round the Bend, Mary Habstritt, now runs another floating museum/ venue, the Good Ship Lilac.
To learn more about the variety arts past and present, including showboat entertainment, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.