The Story of Judith R, 1935

Judith R was built in 1935 for Barney Balaban, who allegedly had links to the Chicago mob and was head of Paramount Pictures. She was a luxury commuter yacht for travel between his home in Connecticut and his office on Manhattan Island, New York City. 

Commuter yachts were built mainly in the 1920s before the Great Depression following the stock market crash of 1929 but some continued to be built up until the Second World War.  Although commuter yachts were used in several American coastal cities, the greatest numbers were used in the New York area to commute from industrialists’ estates in New England and Long Island to offices in downtown New York.

Barney Balaban was the son of a Russian immigrant grocer and helped build up his family’s chain of ornate picture palaces during the 1920s in Chicago, introducing such features as air conditioning. In 1926 Famous Players-Lasky bought a controlling interest in the Balaban & Katz chain of movie houses and Barney Balaban started therefore working for them.  In 1935 Paramount Pictures, as Famous Players-Lasky was then known, filed for bankruptcy after over-expansion of its picture theatres.  The banks ordered a re-structuring and Barney Balaban became President of Paramount Pictures in 1936, the year after Judith R was built. Paramount Pictures offices in New York City were at 1 Times Square (the address where Judith R was registered) and later moved to Broadway.  Barney Balaban was also a member of the prestigious New York Yacht Club.

Given the types of people who owned commuter yachts (JP Morgan, Firestone, Rockefeller, the water speed ace Gar Wood, Hamersley, etc, and who would, no doubt have visited Barney Balaban on his boat) they became faster, bigger and more luxurious over time with competitiveness amongst the owners to see who could build the fastest.  By the 1930s, the Wall Street crash and the improvements in the road network meant that the great commuter yachts were in decline and were being built for both commuting and private pleasure use.

Judith R was built in 1935 by Robinson Marine of Benton Harbour located on Lake Michigan about 100 miles north of Chicago – she has a mural of the great lakes in her main saloon.  Robinson were one of the great builders of commuter yachts, perhaps second only to Consolidated Marine of New York City and Judith R was the biggest and most expensive one they built, costing over $60,000.  She is constructed of Mahogany on Oak with the bridge and saloon fitted out with mahogany furniture.  Two ultra-modern materials of the time were used in her construction: plywood for the cabin tops and much of the internal walls in the staterooms and linoleum for the flooring in the main saloon, galley and wheelhouse saloon.

Her layout is somewhat unusual for a commuter in that her staterooms are only accessible from the outside, but otherwise she has the usual accommodations: a place to sleep following the early pickup in Connecticut, a shower room, a galley and a saloon to eat breakfast.  In common with many commuters she has a forward cockpit just behind the bows – presumably to ensure that her passengers were fully awake by the time they got to Manhattan!

Her engines were originally Gasoline and believed to be V8 Chrysler Crusaders giving her an expected top speed of 30-35 miles per hour.  With the arrival of decent Diesel engines, the dangerous petrol engines were removed and when she is restored she will be on her 4th pair of Diesels. 

Given the time that she was constructed she has many Art Deco features including her tear-drop shaped navigation lights, her sun visor over the narrow windshield and her internal fittings.

Barney Balaban kept Judith R for almost 40 years until 1974 when she was bought by Edward Imbroll, a New York City subway engineer, who took her to Cheasapeake Bay where he used her as a liveaboard until his death in 2003.  Edward Imbroll did not have much money to change anything on Judith R and not enough money to maintain her.  She has retained her originality but was barely afloat when she was bought by her present owners.

Judith R Balaban, after whom the boat is named, is still alive and lives in the Hollywood area (Beverly Hills 90210).  She grew up amongst the glitterati of the American movie world of the 1940s and 50s and being a close friend of Grace Kelly was her Matron of Honour when she married Prince Rainier in Monaco.  She wrote a book about her experiences called The Bridesmaids.  She was married to Montgomery Clift and Tony Franciosa and at one time was connected to Marlon Brando.

Judith R, the boat, was used by Barney Balaban and Paramount to entertain as well as appear in movies in addition to her role as daily transport. Given that Paramount’s stable of stars during Barney Balaban’s period in charge included Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Gary Cooper, the Marx Brothers, Dorothy Lamour, Carole Lombard, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Alan Ladd and Betty Hutton it is a fair bet that many of these would have been aboard Judith R.  The cartoon division of Paramount was also a major success and it is likely that Judith R saw the voices of Popeye the Sailor and Betty Boop on board as well.

Judith R was bought in Maryland in August 2004 and shipped by truck to Baltimore before being put on a roll-on, roll-off deck of a container ship bound for Liverpool.  She was transported by low loader to Harleyford Marina in Marlow where she was stripped out, her engines and batteries removed and then shipped by river in 2006 to Wootten’s boatyard in Cookham Dean.  She will be restored to essentially her original condition with some minor changes for modern usage.

Case Studies

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Did you know?

Of special interest to the Woottens is the on-going restoration of Judith R, a 1935 commuter yacht, transported across the Atlantic in a ruinous state by her current owners specifically for restoration by Woottens. At 57ft long a floating temporary shed has had to be built to accommodate her!

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