The first time I heard the word “Chautauqua” was in the 1990’s. At that time, I was involved in transcribing some pen and ink journals from a gentleman who lived in our county from 1853 until his death in 1933. Chautauqua was an annual event he recorded in his daily journals. Chautauqua was an initially an adult education movement in the United States. It provided entertainment and culture through speakers, teachers, musicians, and preachers.
In 1904, a program of “tent” Chautauquas were founded and began touring. The programs would be presented in tents pitched on a field near town. After several days, the Chautauqua would fold its tents and move on. This movement brought education and entertainment to many American rural communities. President Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as saying that Chautauqua is “the most American thing in America.”
By the mid-1920s, Chautauquas appeared in over 10,000 communities to audiences of more than 45 million people. These programs included music and comedy, but the mainstays of the program were lectures. The topics included financial insights, prison reform, and impersonation of famous characters. Often, political speakers or preachers would be included in a show.
By the 1940s, America had other venues for both entertainment and education. Radios were common, as were movies and shorts contained with the features. Soon, television would become a staple. This American tradition, praised so highly by Teddy Roosevelt, was in danger of total extinction.
Fortunately for us, the Chautauqua movement is not extinct. Several independent Chautauquas are thriving again and more are being resurrected throughout the United States and Canada. Often these include performers who represent figures from the American past such as Mark Twain or Calamity Jane, but can include comedy, juggling, and other exciting presentations.
This month, my sister-in-law invited me to attend the Piqua Chautauqua. This event has a history dating from 1912. The Piqua Chautauqua Association held their first festival at Fountain Park in that year. After World War I, a permanent pavilion was erected which today is known as the Hance Pavilion. The Association brings back a Chautauqua every year, hiring humanities scholars who perform as first-person historical figures. This year, Charles Pace provided insight into W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Vickery, Ph.D., performed as Woodrow Wilson.
I had the pleasure of seeing Karen Vuranch as Edith Wharton on opening night. The program opened with patriotic and folk music provided by a local quintet, Gotham City Brass. They set a great tone, and were followed by a presentation from the Reader’s Theatre, who shared real letters written in the early to mid-1800s by two sisters from Piqua.
Ms. Vuranch’s portrayal of Edith Wharton was a highlight, not just of the evening, but of my month. She was absolutely captivating and shared so much information in such a delightful way. I learned not only about Wharton’s writing, but of her important work in France during WWI.
If this is Chautauqua, then I totally understand why America embraced it. I’m so glad it’s still a tradition we are keeping alive. Email me at email@example.com.
Sue is a retired public servant who volunteers at the Hospice store (For All Seasons) in Troy and teaches part-time at Urbana University. She keeps busy taking care of husband, house, and pets. She and her husband have an adult son who lives in Troy.