‘People Were Just Dumbfounded’ : ‘Show Boat’ Ingenue Remembers Stunned Opening Night

Hartford Courant

Though their numbers are dwindling, a few people are still with us who were part of the original 1927 production of “Show Boat.”

One of them is Norma Terris, who, as a 22-year-old ingenue, originated the role of Magnolia.

“We all knew we were involved in something special,” Terris said recently by phone from her home in Lyme, Conn. “We wanted the audience to go out feeling they had seen something magnificent and new.”

But, she says, the opening night audience in New York was not quite prepared for what it saw.


“After the show was over, there was no applause, no curtain calls,” she said.

“People were just dumbfounded. They sat there. Mr. Ziegfeld thought he had the biggest flop on his hands.” Not so, of course.

The reviews were unanimous in pronouncing “Show Boat” a masterpiece.

“The next day, there was a line of people three blocks long. They were all there trying to get to the box office,” Terris said.


After praising the show’s creators, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, the critics were quick to single out the talents of Terris, an unknown actress from Kansas.

“Someone had spotted me in a little show at the Shubert (in New York), and Mr. Kern came over to see me,” Terris said. “After the show Mr. Kern came back and he said, ‘Do you read music?’ And I said ‘Yes.’ And he sat me down and played through the whole score of ‘Show Boat.’ It was a beautiful experience.”

Terris went on to have a distinguished career on the stage and in films. But it was her performance as Magnolia that, as Terris acknowledges after 61 years, has always been her most cherished professional achievement.

By her own account, as excited as she was to be a part of the venture, she also was undaunted. At one point during an out-of-town rehearsal in Pittsburgh, Terris said that she stopped abruptly and suggested to Kern that her music was not right for the mood of the scene.

“Mr. Kern put his glasses way down over his nose, as he often did, and looked at me for a moment. ‘Do you have any ideas?’ he asked me. I said, ‘Yes, it should be a soft and lovely kind of love song here.’

“Well, the next day, I came down into the room and there stood Kern and Hammerstein, and they were both grinning from ear to ear. And Mr. Kern said he had something for me. And they handed me ‘Why Do I Love You?’ ”