- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 5, 2003

After the Civil War, the westward expanding United States became fertile ground for the educational and cultural amenities previously available only to eastern city dwellers.
The first to fill this vacuum were professional humorists such as Mark Twain and Artemus Ward, but soon the "Chautauqua" circuit featured stage plays, musical recitals, and lectures on everything from politics to religious subjects and descriptions of travels to exotic locales. This inherently American phenomenon is chronicled by James R. Schultz in "The Romance of Small-Town Chautauquas." Mr. Schultz mixes historical scholarship with personal reminiscence, as he grew up on the circuit that gave both his father and uncle (Richie and Eben Schultz) employment.
The Chautauqua Institution was founded in 1874 in the western New York town of the same name as "a summer school for Methodist Sunday school teachers," that evolved into "an intellectual community with programs devoted to lectures, seminars, and workshops on economic and social issues, theology, literature, science and the arts." It was established by a collection of people, most prominent among them was James Redpath, an impresario who had worked with Twain, Josh Billings, and Henry Ward Beecher.
Redpath's vision was carried on by Keith Vawter, who in 1904 dispatched the first traveling "tent chautauquas" to the rural Midwest. Vawter eventually had three circuits going from Montana and the Dakotas to Iowa and Missouri. A chautauqua stayed in a town for a week and offered "a variety of cultural events through the day and night." The reasonably priced ticket brought Shakespearean drama or rousing oratory to enliven life on the mundane, windswept prairies.
One practitioner of the latter was William Jennings Bryan, a three times failed presidential candidate whose fiery "Cross of Gold" speech (blasting the then-advocated gold standard as an economic panacea) at the 1896 Democratic Convention (which earned him the nomination over incumbent President Grover Cleveland) made him a staple on the chautauqua circuit thereafter. One observer later commented: "There were no microphones, but he didn't need one."
Another speaker was Ida M. Tarbell. She was a noted Lincoln biographer, but had made her reputation as a muckraking journalist at a time when the foremost made names for themselves attacking corporate monopolies with the object of their reform. Her book, "The History of the Standard Oil Company" contributed to the breakup of that conglomerate, and caused John D. Rockefeller much heartburn. Tarbell toured the circuit and espoused her anti-trust message for years.
Chautauqua turned out to be an effective tool for the nascent temperance movement, which was gathering force in the early decades of the 20th century. The legendary Carrie Nation ax-wielding destroyer of saloons frequently lectured on the circuit, and distributed souvenir miniature hatchets to the audience. Another regular to decry the evils of John Barleycorn was the spirited evangelist Billy Sunday.
It can be argued that chatauquas contributed much to the passage of the Volstead Act (1919) and its eventual elevation as the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and the ensuing 14 years of Prohibition. Women's suffrage (passed in 1920) and civil rights for African Americans also had their advocates on chautauqua stages. Booker T. Washington was a passionate promoter of educational and employment opportunities for blacks.
As previously seen with William Jennings Bryan, politicians were not strangers to the chautauqua circuit, and used it to further their careers.Ohio Sen. Warren Harding made a "tent tour" in 1918, a scant two years before being elected president. Another presidential wannabe was the long-winded Sen. Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin, whose four-hour speeches promoted his Progressive Era ideas through the 1920s. Ex-President William Howard Taft cared little about his honorarium, but was fussy about his table fare while on the road: "What kind of grub do they have out there?," he inquired of one chautauqua impresario before signing a contract.
Inevitably, vaudevillians and thespians found their way onto chautauqua stages. Maybe the forerunners of the Shakespeare-in-the-Park productions of today were "The Ben Greet Players" from England with their long-traveling production of "The Comedy of Errors," staged by William Keighley, a top Broadway director. This in turn opened the door for the production of modern dramas, comedies and light opera. Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado" extensively toured the Midwest via chautauquas in 1914.
As for vaudeville, the circuit was soon infested by magicians, puppeteers, dancers, musicians and choruses. "The Fortune Tellers Chorus" and "The Ionian Serenaders" were popular though now long forgotten staples on chautauqua stages. The ventriloquist Edgar Bergen (with his dummy Charlie McCarthy) got his start in show business with the venerable Redpath Chautauqua (named for its founder) as a 19-year-old college student in 1923. He (they) went on to Hollywood for parts in W.C. Fields movies in the 1930s. Bergen was extremely popular with children. Also for kids, there was the Redpath-Horner circuit's "Chautauqua Circus," first introduced in 1916, and featuring "wild animals, acrobats, clowns and a parade."
The advent of silent movies around 1910 and of radio in 1920 slowly began to steal the chautauquas' thunder as a cultural draw, and the coming of the Depression marked their steep decline. Chautauquas faded away in the early 1930s. They are fondly remembered by elderly people as a cultural phenomenom of an America long vanished, like the America depicted on Norman Rockwell-illustrated "Saturday Evening Post" covers.
James Schultz has given us the definitive history of an American cultural experience that most people are unaware even existed. "The Romance of Small-Town Chautauquas" is ornamented by dozens of photographs that recall those "Post" covers. It is a book for the scholar and for anyone who might have heard a story from a grandparent about attending a chautauqua. And it is a nostalgic journey for anyone who needs a break from our frenetic and sometimes distasteful American culture of today.

Bill Croke is a writer in Cody, Wyoming.

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