Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Riverboat: The Evolution of a Television Series AND The Steamboat Era – by S L Kotar and J E Gessler

riverboat I’ll come clean right at the outset and say that S L Kotar and J E Gessler are friends.  I’ve known them – cybernetically, if not in the flesh – for some 10 years or more, which is why I  know the unusual story of how these two books – very different to each other, but linked by a common theme – came into being.

Travel back with me, if you will, to the 1950s/early 1960s.  Television was still a comparatively young medium but even so managed to produce a clutch of series that were so popular on both sides of the Atlantic that they literally became part of the fabric of people’s lives. Actors who would later become household names earned their acting chops in programmes like Gunsmoke and Wagon Train. Ask anyone over the age of 50 for a quick chorus of the theme from  Rawhide, and they could probably oblige, word perfect.

Riverboat never attained the same near-cult status of Gunsmoke, but it captured the imagination of a surprisingly large number of people, especially considering that it only lasted for one-and-a-half seasons. Set on a Mississippi steamboat called (perhaps prophetically) the Enterprise, it starred Darren McGavin as the riverboat’s captain, Grey Holden.

McGavin was an actor of considerable personal charm and a stalwart of US television drama.  He was also a class act who was nearly always better than the material he appeared in,  and it therefore comes as no surprise to find that he still has a dedicated fanbase four years after his death at the age of 84.  Kotar and Gessler had, over the years, amassed a substantial collection of footage, photographs and press cuttings about him including – most tellingly for the purposes of this story – never before seen publicity material for Riverboat. Much of the information went onto their website, but it engendered so much interest from McGavin’s worldwide network of fans that they decided to compile a Riverboat guide … a warts and all history of the series: how it started, who was involved and how it evolved – complete with an episode-by-episode analysis,  cast lists and storylines interspersed with nuggets of steamboat history.steamboat

They sent it off to McFarland and Company, a respected publisher specializing in the reference, entertainment and academic sectors.  McFarland rejected it, saying it was too ‘niche’, but then  – apparently on the strength of the snippets of 19th century US history that are woven into the fabric of the book – shocked Kotar and Gessler by asking if they were interested in writing a non-fiction  book about steamboats.

The result was The Steamboat Era.

Meanwhile Riverboat: The Evolution of a Television Series, was eventually published by BearManor Media – a small company specializing in niche entertainment titles.

So that’s the curious story behind these two titles – but what of the books themselves?

Even if you have no interest in or memory of Riverboat as a series (and I have to admit that I fall into that category – I’m of an age to have seen it, but I never did) the book makes fascinating reading, for all sorts of reasons – not least because of what was happening behind the scenes.  Burt Reynolds was one of those household names who cut their teeth in 1950s and 1960s US TV shows and he was originally second-billed on Riverboat – but he and Darren McGavin didn’t exactly hit it off together.  Two substantial egos on one sound stage was a surefire recipe for disaster and something had to give.  In the event, it was Reynolds – although McGavin’s tenure looked distinctly rocky at one point.  I suspect that the internecine war  waged behind the scenes on Riverboat was a microcosm of Hollywood itself – both then and now – with fragile egos scrapping in the Tinsel Town cesspool for their place in the sun and their star on the sidewalk.

Another incidental pleasure is the list of guest stars on each episode.  It’s like a role call of the great and the good of the time … Noah Beery Jnr, Lee van Cleef, Richard Chamberlain, Cliff Robertson, Slim Pickens, George Kennedy, Raymond Massey, Mary Tyler Moore, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughan … to name just a few picked at random.

In the end,  infighting and the chronic inability of those in artistic control to see its true potential  destroyed Riverboat and it was cancelled part way through its second season:  but not before it had left an indelible mark on the television landscape and accumulated the faithful army of fans whose undying enthusiasm led, eventually, to the publication of this book.

Kotar and Gessler have no illusions about the quality (or plausibility) of some of the scripts and it’s their deadpan humour, which ambushes you when you’re least expecting it, that really makes Riverboat so much fun – although I suspect it will appeal most to those of us who have passed the half-century mark – and know all the words to Rawhide.

The Steamboat Era, however, is a different matter.  It tells the story of the (surprisingly brief) period when steamboats ruled the rivers of the US;  but it isn’t a straight history.  It uses contemporary newspaper articles, reports, commentary and first-hand accounts to bring the period vividly to life in the same way that textbooks don’t.

Steamboats were Kings of the Rivers for less the 50 years, but during that period they grabbed the public’s imagination in a way that no other form of transport has really managed since.    The word ‘riverboat’ alone immediately conjours up images of snappily-dressed gamblers and  feather-bedecked women in opulent saloons – possibly with a photogenic steamboat captain thrown in for good measure – all commingling to a jolly, jangly  soundtrack.  You can almost feel the heat of the sun, smell the cigar smoke and hear the splash of the great paddle wheels.  It’s mostly tosh of course, romanticized beyond all recognition – but the truth is no less gripping.

In The Steamboat Era we’re introduced to the entire cast of characters – the pioneers, the entrepreneurs, the crew members, the pirates, the gamblers, the camp-followers …  jostling shoulder to shoulder with the sort of information you always wished those school  history books would tell you, but never did.

Want to know what happened to the – ahem – human waste?  Well – let’s just say you wouldn’t have wanted to swim in those rivers – at least not with your mouth open.  What was it REALLY like to travel on a steamboat – especially if you couldn’t afford First Class accommodation?  What was the food like?  How safe were they? (There’s an appendix entitled ”Original accounts of steamboat disasters” in the back – does that answer your question?)  Why were the river pilots more highly regarded than the captains? What cargoes – apart from passengers – did the boats carry?  How did they navigate dynamic and ever-changing rivers like the Mississippi and Missouri?  Did they really all drink redeye?  Who were the big names?  The famous boats? And what part did they  play in the transmission of disease across the continent?

The Steamboat Era provides the answers to all of those questions, and more – and does it in a diverting and informative way.  It’s a perfect ‘dipping into’ book, too.  You can open it at any chapter and understand what you’re reading because the chapters are self-contained essays on specific areas of steamboat history like “Navigating the Western Waterways”, “Man Overboard”, “Steamboat Diversions” and the splendid “Potions, Purging and Practitioners”.

The arrival of the railroads wiped out the steamboats with the ruthless efficiency of a pandemic, but although their tenure was short, their legacy  was massive and enduring.  If you, like me, love steamboats but all you  know about them is what you think you’ve learned from Hollywood … then you need to read this book, because the truth, as always, is far stranger and more engaging than the fiction.

Riverboat – The Evolution of a Television Series: BearManor Media (2009). ISBN: 9781593935054. 300pp.

The Steamboat Era: McFarland & Company.  2009.  ISBN: 9780786443871.  299pp.

The authors have been writing together for over four decades – starting with scripts for ‘Gunsmoke’. They have completed a history of hot air ballooning for McFarland and are currently working on a history of the circusWearing their ‘real life’ hats, they have also authored journal articles on non-invasive cardiology and have a textbook due out soon on telemetry monitoring.


4 comments on “Riverboat: The Evolution of a Television Series AND The Steamboat Era – by S L Kotar and J E Gessler

  1. Jackie
    July 2, 2010

    What an interesting pairing. I was around in the 60’s, but if a TV show didn’t have animals in it, I didn’t watch. But what an amazing line-up of stars & guest stars “Riverboat” had! It’s too bad the producers didn’t realize what a treasure they had, that sort of thing still happens with shows today & it’s always so frustrating. I’m glad the fans have this book & can imagine all of the work involved in collecting all of the ingredients for it.
    “The Steamboat Era” has an inviting cover & an intriguing subject matter. I always think of steamboats getting lost in big technological advances & that’s why they didn’t last too long. I should read the book to see if I’m right.
    Thanks for the lively review & kudos to the authors for turning out well made books on such uncommon subjects.

  2. jay.benedict
    July 5, 2010

    Fun article. As a boy I watched them all-Gunsmoke/Have gun will travel/ Rawhide/Davy Crocket etc…on my parents brand new almost colour TV. Well, we had different coloured stripes going across the screen. There was no prejudice in my Family, and yes, I knew all the lyrics to all the shows and would sing along wearing my Davy Crocket hat! America in the 1950’s, every child’s dream was answered.

    I think -Riverboat- would make a worthy revival. One set – cheap to make. The perfect Drama series for these constrained times with all the colourful characters you could shake a stick at. Bojangles springs to mind! You could film the whole show going down river occasionally stopping off on the Mississippi Delta or New Orleans with all that gumbo and music and intrigue. Of course it’s intrinsically American – Riverboats in England anyone? and the nearest thing over here was probablyThe Onedin Line many years ago and more recently Howards Way. I’m sure there were many others but it’s all the romance of a bygone era that Riverboats held generally that really swung it for me and I’m sure there’s still an audience for this type of show.

    Come back Grey Holden wherever you are!

  3. Joanie Adams
    April 2, 2012

    why did they change the original theme? didnt care for it. Joanie

  4. Robert F. Royce
    April 17, 2015

    The original theme rendition was by Elmer Bernstein and was especially well done, but it was too classy for the low I.Q. crowd so they turned it into a banjo tune, ugh. Not very good. I imagine he re-orchestration was done to make the series more accessible. The Riverboat idea was just too big for TV.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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