“The Floating Palace of Wonder” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the 1920s, radio station WLS Chicago introduced the WLS Showboat, a variety show that featured performances by a variety of musical guests. During the show, the fictitious showboat would “travel” along the many prominent waterways in the continental United States, taking on new performers and encountering humorous situations. A number of the show’s cast members and performers, including Tom Corwine, who served as the showboat’s second mate and later captain, and singer Bradley Kincaid, who made frequent appearances in WLS programs and later performed on the Grand Ole Opry radio show, would become well known among radio listeners.

Summary Overview

During the 1920s, radio station WLS Chicago introduced the WLS Showboat, a variety show that featured performances by a variety of musical guests. During the show, the fictitious showboat would “travel” along the many prominent waterways in the continental United States, taking on new performers and encountering humorous situations. A number of the show’s cast members and performers, including Tom Corwine, who served as the showboat’s second mate and later captain, and singer Bradley Kincaid, who made frequent appearances in WLS programs and later performed on the Grand Ole Opry radio show, would become well known among radio listeners.

Defining Moment

In many ways, the 1920s marked the birth of the modern United States. During the early twentieth century, many of the country’s most significant innovations–including the mass-produced automobile and the airplane–came into existence. However, much technology remained either in the hands of the military or largely experimental in nature until the 1920s, when inventors and entrepreneurs manufactured many of these innovations and introduced them to investors and consumers alike.

Such was the case with radio. The concept of projecting sound via electromagnetic waves had been introduced during the late nineteenth century, when Guglielmo Marconi invented such devices as the wireless radio and a radio antenna. Other inventors introduced devices that enabled the commercial use of radio technologies, ushering in a new era of private radio use. During World War I, amateur radio activities were curtailed out of fear that they would interfere with US military operations. Still, the military itself used the technology on land, in the air, and at sea.

Following the war, radio took leaps forward. Instead of individual radio operators, radio stations began to emerge, especially after strict wartime radio operation regulations were largely lifted. Among these stations were Pittsburgh-based KDKA, which, in 1920, became the first radio station to broadcast the results of a presidential election. KDKA’s success spurred the establishment of other stations across the country. Radio became one of the United States’ most invaluable news resources, sharing information about politics, business news, and even live sporting events (the station WJZ, for example, “broadcast” a baseball game using information called in from telephones at the stadium).

In 1924, Chicago-based Sears, Roebuck and Company launched its own radio station, WLS Chicago, which significantly changed the direction of radio. In addition to its use as a news outlet, WLS Chicago provided musical and comedy entertainment to its largely rural listeners. In an effort to broaden its appeal, WLS Chicago introduced the WLS Showboat, a program set on a fictional boat described as “The Floating Palace of Wonder.” Airing on Friday evenings, WLS Showboat followed the boat as it traveled along the United States’ major waterways, picking up guest performers along the way.

Author Biography

Best known for its groundbreaking mail-order business and retail stores throughout the United States, the company now known as Sears was founded by watch salesman Richard Sears in 1886 and became known as Sears, Roebuck and Company in 1893, taking the latter part of its name from Sears’s business partner, watchmaker Alvah C. Roebuck. The company expanded significantly during the first decades of the twentieth century and, in 1923, established the Sears Roebuck Agricultural Foundation, a charitable organization devoted to the interests of rural Americans, the company’s primary mail-order customers. The following year, the foundation launched the Chicago-based radio station WLS (World’s Largest Store).

Although owned by Sears, Roebuck and Company, which profited from the sale of radios and related equipment, WLS Chicago focused not on advertising, but on broadcasting musical, dramatic, educational, and civic programming of interest to rural listeners. In addition to WLS Showboat, popular programs included National Barn Dance and WLS Unlimited. Despite the station’s success, Sears ultimately decided to sell WLS to the Agricultural Broadcasting Company in September 1928. The station would continue to serve its rural audience until 1960, when WLS transitioned to a more urban format as a subsidiary of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).

Document Analysis

As one of WLS’s many programs designed to appeal to rural, midwestern listeners, the WLS Showboat shared the United States’ culture, folklore, music, and natural beauty with its audience as the fictional boat traveled along the country’s waterways. The show was a departure from the usual news and informational programs prevalent on radio station broadcasts at the time, instead featuring comedy, popular music, and general entertainment.

This transcript of a late 1920s episode begins with comedic banter among the boat’s crew, which includes Captain Tappett, First Mate Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Second Mate Tom Corwine. Corwine, who joined WLS Showboat in 1925 and would become particularly associated with the show, provided many of the program’s sound effects. The crew’s humor is timely and often slapstick; for example, the first mate’s description of the troublesome waves surrounding the boat transforms into a joke about the permanent wave hair treatment, while the crew’s attempt at collective bargaining earns them a raise consisting of extra pancakes and sausage.

After a brief introductory segment, the boat departs Chicago and travels down the Illinois River to St. Louis before heading southward toward New Orleans. After sailing out of the Gulf of Mexico and up the East Coast to New York City, the boat sails through the Great Lakes on its way back to Chicago. Along the way, the crew sings and performs comedy, stopping the boat every so often to pick up a music group or solo performer. This episode of the WLS Showboat features performances by musical groups such as the Maple City Four, the Four Legionnaires, and Jack and Gene as well as folk singer and Showboat cast member Bradley Kincaid.

The comedy and commentary presented in the program are clearly reflective of the era in which it was broadcast. At times, this portrayal is reflective of certain prevailing social viewpoints, including racism toward African Americans. When the boat departs Chicago, there are references to African American people “playin’ Uncle Tom,” a well-known stereotype of subservient African Americans. At the same time, the program’s strong ties to its era allow it to serve as an important historical document, presenting contemporary viewpoints on a variety of issues. The episode features comments on organized labor and life in poverty, including an exchange between the captain and first mate about the hardships they endured at the beginning of the century, when one of the worst depressions to date took place in the United States.

A lively program featuring numerous musical performances and entertaining comedic interludes, the WLS Showboat gave listeners a free alternative to a night out, allowing them instead to be entertained in the comfort of their own homes. Thus, the show enjoyed enormous popularity during its run and helped foster a new era of radio entertainment that would persist for decades.

Essential Themes

As one of a variety of WLS programs designed for rural listeners, particularly in the Midwest, WLS Showboat appealed to its audience’s tastes, performing uplifting songs–many of which the listeners likely knew–and referencing life along the midwestern waterways. Many of the intended audience’s prevailing beliefs, values, and attitudes, both positive and negative, were also evident in the show’s scripts. The primary purpose of the show, however, was not to project a certain political or socioeconomic point of view; rather, the program was intended to entertain a broad range of radio listeners. The show’s overall theme was positive and uplifting, intended to give listeners a pleasant diversion from the ups and downs of the 1920s. The popularity of WLS Showboat and the rest of WLS’s programs helped give rise to a broad range of other popular radio shows, including Chicago-based WMAQ’s Amos ’n’ Andy–a comedy that frequently and more overtly involved the racial and ethnic prejudices of the era–and many other programs that would remain popular through the 1950s.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Childers, Scott. Chicago’s WLS Radio. Charleston: Arcadia, 2008. Print.
  • Hilmes, Michele. Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922–1952. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997. Print.
  • McClymer, John F. Race Relations in the United States, 1900–1920. Westport: Greenwood, 2009. Print.
  • Rollyson, Carl, ed. The Twenties in America. Ipswich: Salem, 2012. Print.
  • Sies, Luther F. Encyclopedia of American Radio, 1920–1960. 2nd ed. Jefferson: McFarland, 2008. Print.
Categories: History Content