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Chautauqua brought culture from East Coast to all points, including Richmond

By Linda Emley

A postcard I have mailed from Richmond on Sept. 2, 1912 to Miss Clora Zeratsky, Menaill, Mich., reads: “Everything O.K. at Richmond Mo. Do you notice Wes’s shoes. They are still on the job. Bro Emil.”
When I first saw this postcard, I assumed it was a tent revival so I got out the 1912 newspaper and started looking for a story. I was excited when I found an ad that said the Chautauqua was coming to town.
I have a book titled, “Culture Under Canvas” and it’s about the Chautauquas that were week-long events where all the speakers were fancy people from the East Coast. Audiences could see classic plays and heard live opera from Metropolitan Opera stars. The Chautauqua experience was created to stimulate the minds of rural America. I’m sure it also stimulated the bank accounts of the promoters back East, but it did serve its purpose. Many small-town folks saw their first movies in these tents. Everyone got to see a small piece of the big world outside their little town.
The first Chautauqua was held in New York in 1874. In 1904, the Chautauqua Circuit was formed and the culture experience spread across the country. Once a year, between March and September, our town would be transformed into a big tent party. By the mid-1920s, Chautauquas were held in over 10,000 towns and had an audience of 45 million Americans.
A list of events were published in local papers in advance and programs were printed up for each town. Single events cost 10 cents, but for $2.25 you could be a season-ticket holder and attend all presentations for the whole week .
The programs changed daily, so the performers would spend one day in each town and then travel by train to their next show. There were several chautauquas operating simultaneously in a radius of 100 or 200 miles, and the talent might appear in six or seven different towns in a week. Each performer appeared on a particular day of the program. The first-day talent would move on to the next town, followed by the second-day performers, and so on for the whole season.
One of my favorite Chautauqua stories is about Winston Churchill. He almost made it to Richmond. He retired from the British Army in 1924 and after several failed elections, he decided to come to America and hit the Chautauqua Circuit because he wanted to acquaint himself with the great heart of America. Winston got in a tangle with a New York taxi and spent most of his stay in bed. He went home with empty pockets and without meeting the American people that he had come to see.
Lectures were the mainstay of the Chautauqua. William Jennings Bryan appeared in more than 3,000 programs and was paid $25,000 a season. Sweden’s Prince William added a royal touch one year. Chief Rolling Thunder was one of the Native Americans to share his culture. One year there was a guy that talked about bees. He walked down the aisles with bees crawling all over his face. Sometimes you would hear stories of faraway places like Africa. You might want to bring a cushion to sit on because there were plank seats. The stage was a raised platform with curtains to provide space for actors offstage waiting their entrance.
Planning the Chautauqua was a community project. There was an “advance man” who came early to promote ticket sales and organize a local committee to assist. After the local agents agreed to sell a fixed number of season tickets, the proceeds were divided in the agreed way.
Tent placement was important because fires and sudden storms were constant threats. Local boys were recruited to be “tent boys” and a “weather committee” of resident old-timers watched the skies for storms. Farmers and townspeople volunteered time, supplies and stage props. A local person was used to introduce the opening speakers and local homes provided lodging for Chautauqua personnel. Some stayed in hotels, so I’m sure our Richmond Hotel had a few famous people for overnight guests.
The following is the program for Richmond’s August 1918 Chautauqua.
MONDAY – 2:30 p.m. – opening announcements. Afternoon, “Through Trench and German Prison Camps“. Organization of children for circus building. Evening entertainment, humorist Jess Pugh. Lecture: “How to Live 100 Years” by Dr. Charles Barker.
Dr. Barker did not live to be 100, but he was President Taft’s personal doctor. He was assigned the job of getting Taft in shape, but Taft never did listen to his doctor.)
TUESDAY – afternoon music, Knight MacGregor, the great Scottish Baritone. Lecture, “Moonshine” by Hon. B. F. McDonald. The evening music, Knight MacGregor. Evening address, “The Man for Now” by Dr. Charles Medbury.
WEDNESDAY – afternoon concert by the Bostonians. Lecture, “What I saw in France” by Frank Cole, who just returned from the first World War. Evening music, The Bostonians, sublime music in every shade of soulful sweetness.
THURSDAY – morning, Children training circus animals. Lecture, “The Immigrant, a new light on the great American problem” by Paul Ellebree (some things never change). Afternoon music, Williams Jubilee Singers. Lecture, “One- sided People” by Dr Montgomery. Evening Harmony by Williams Jubilee Singers, the world’s premier combination of colored artists.
FRIDAY – children in circus athletic stunts. Afternoon music, The Mikado Orchestra. Address, “Financing the War” by Fred Wood. The evening entertainment, The Mikado Company.
SATURDAY – Children rehearsing circus acts. Morning lecture, “The Crescent and The Cross” by L. T. Guild. Afternoon address, “The World War and Why We Are In It” by Cyclone Davis . Evening, a comedy “It Pays to Advertise”
SUNDAY – afternoon prelude by the Royal Grenadiers. Lecture, “Personality Plus” by Frank Allen. A vesper service and the Grand Finale at 8 p.m. by the Royal Grenadiers.
The movement slowed by the mid 1930s and was over by 1940. Some historians blame the car, the radio and the movies, but the Great Depression was the major reason for it‘s decline.
There are several events going on in Richmond this week that remind me of the good-old days when a Chautauqua would come to town and give us a small taste of culture.

For Linda Emley’s description of this weekend’s events, go to www.richmond-dailynews.com and search for her by first and last name. You can write her at rayc...@aol.com or see her in person at the museum.

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