Edna Ferber on show time

Edna Ferber's 1926 novel ``Show Boat'' was made into a musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein 2d, then became a movie three times - in 1929, 1936 (with Paul Robeson singing ``Old Man River''), and 1951. Here, a scene from Magnolia Ravenal's show-boat childhood.

By six o'clock a stir - a little electric unrest - an undercurrent of excitement could be sensed aboard the show boat. They came sauntering back from the woods, the town, the levee. They drifted down the aisles and in and out of their dressing rooms. Years of trouping failed to still in them the quickened pulse that always came with the approach of the evening's performance.

Down in the orchestra pit the band was tuning up. They would play atop the show boat on the forward deck before the show, alternating with the calliope, as in the morning. The daytime lethargy had vanished. On the stage the men of the company were setting the scene. Hoarse shouts. Lift 'er up there! No - down a little. H'ist her up. Back! Closer! Dressing-room doors opened and shut. Calls from one room to another. Twilight came on. Doc began to light the auditorium kerosene lamps whose metal reflectors sent back their yellow glow. Outside the kerosene searchlight, cunningly rigged on top of the Mollie Able's pilot house, threw its broad beam up the river bank to the levee.

Of all the hours in the day this was the one most beloved of Magnolia's heart. She enjoyed the stir, the colour, the music, the people. Anything might happen on board the Cotton Blossom Floating Palace Theatre between the night hours of seven and eleven. And then it was that she was banished to bed. There was a nightly struggle in which, during the first months of their life on the rivers, Mrs. Hawks almost always won. Infrequently, by hook or crook, Magnolia managed to evade the stern parental eye.

``Let me stay up for the first act - where Elly shoots him.''

``Not a minute.''

``Let me stay till the curtain goes up, then.''

``You march yourself off to bed, young lady, or no trip to the pirate's cave tomorrow with Doc, and so I tell you.''

Doc's knowledge of the gruesome history of river banditry and piracy provided Magnolia with many a goose-skinned hour of delicious terror. Together they went excursioning ashore in search of the blood-curdling all the way from Little Egypt to the bayous of Louisiana.

Lying there in her bed, then, wide-eyed, tense, Magnolia would strain her ears to catch the words of the play's dialogue as it came faintly up to her through the locked door that opened on the balcony; the almost incredibly naive lines of a hackneyed play that still held its audience because of its full measure of fundamental human emotions. Hate, love, revenge, despair, hope, joy, terror.

``I will bring you to your knees yet, my proud beauty!''

``Never. I would rather die than accept help from your blood-stained hand.'' Selection from SHOW BOAT by Edna Ferber. Copyright 1926 by Edna Ferber; copyright renewed 1953 by Edna Ferber. Reprinted by permission of Harriet F. Pilpel, trustee and attorney for the Ferber proprietors.

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