Glenn Uminowicz - June 2008

Chautauqua Week on the Eastern Shore
Glenn Uminowicz

Executive Director, Historical Society of Talbot County

  Dr. (Paul) Pearson saw the scores of towns that needed something done for them. Good towns, but apparently lacking the spirit of cooperation, without which there can be no progress of any sort. To him, a college professor with the rare combination of vision and business sense, came the thought of waking up the East with what the wide-awake West long since accepted as a necessary adjunct to community advancement—Chautauqua.

W. Lester Ball quoted in the Easton Star-Democrat (July 15, 1916)

   In 1916, W. Lester Ball assumed the position of secretary of the Easton chautauqua. As part of his duties, he felt it necessary to discuss with a local reporter the origins and meaning of what became known as circuit chautauquas.
    In 1874, the Chautauqua Institution was established on the shores of Lake Chautauqua in New York to train Methodist Sunday school teachers. It evolved over the years into an intellectual community devoted to lectures and seminars on economic and social issues, theology, literature, science and the arts. Eventually the institution had its own symphony, opera, and summer theater.
    In the early 20th century, Keith Vawter developed the idea of a circuit of traveling tents that moved from town to town offering local residents a blend of education, entertainment and religion similar to that at the so-called “Mother Chautauqua.” As the manager of a Redpath Lyceum, Vawter was already booking acts that would appear on chautauqua stages.
    Vawter launched his first circuit in 1904. Eleven years later, fifteen circuit chautauquas operated, each serving between 50 and 300 towns. In 1921, Billboard magazine reported that the number of towns visited had grown to 9,875, with attendance reaching over 36.5 million and gross receipts of $9.5 million.
    This remarkable growth occurred due to the skills of a group of “chautauqua entrepreneurs.” Dr. Paul Pearson, a professor of speech at Swarthmore College, was counted among them. He was indeed a “college professor with the rare combination of vision and business sense.” In 1912, he started his first circuit with 23 towns, including Easton, in six states. By 1921, the four circuits of the Swarthmore Chautauqua reached 800 towns each summer.
    Circuit operators like Pearson needed tremendous organizational skills. At the local level, groups of “guarantors” needed to be assembled. These prominent local citizens committed to between $1,200 and $2,000 in “season ticket” sales.
    After the guarantors made their commitment, the circuit manager scheduled the program. Three weeks before the chautauqua came to town, a “twenty-one-day advance man” arrived to stir up public interest and plan an advertising campaign. An “eight-day-advance man,” who scoped out logistics and organized publicity, soon followed. In 1921, for example, the advance man made sure that scores of “Chautauqua pennants” flew over Main Street in Denton.
    Easton and Denton were on a seven-day circuit that simultaneously moved seven tents and their crews to communities located relatively close to each other. A superintendent supervised the handling of each tent, its crew, and that day’s cast of performers. As soon as an act finished in one town, they moved on to the next. The system allowed for no down time for performers. At the end of each week, the circuit moved on to a new set of towns.
    The above system allowed for economies of scale that made it possible to book top talent that individual towns could never afford alone. In turn, circuit chautauquas offered politicians, actors, orators, musicians, and other performers a chance to reach an untapped audience and earn a summer income.
    In 1913, Denton hosted its first chautauqua with a typically eclectic program. Speakers lectured on civil government, natural science, politics and religion. The Florentine Concert Band and the National Opera Quartet provided music. Crowds enjoyed the “joyous songs of the Yodlers from the Alps” and marveled at Rosani, the juggler, who held “with his manipulations the closest attention of the hundreds who rivet their eyes upon him and are mystified.”
    In 1921, Ralph Parlette, who delivered his popular chautauqua lecture The University of Hard Knocks more than 2,500 times, published a brochure promoting the circuits. He assessed the relative importance of the various elements of a chautauqua program with a food metaphor. Parlette enthused, “The program is a feast all right—the Lectures the meat; the Music the vegetables; The Entertainments the pie, pudding, cake, ice cream; the Readings the salad; the Novelties the soup and nuts.”
    Circuit operators always insisted that lectures put the “meat” on a program, although entertainment became increasingly important over the years. Denton, for example, hosted magicians, bell ringers, and Venetian Troubadours.
    Entertainments often contained an educational or self-help component. In 1916, for example, painter, sculptor and humorist Ross Crane appeared in Denton. A local reporter observed, “He divided people into two classes—strawberries, those who look upon the bright side of life; and prunes, those who do not see life’s bright side, who do not recognize humor, and whose sympathies lie dormant.” To illustrate the difference, Crane used crayon and clay to depict likenesses drawn from a Longfellow poem, Mark Twain and the “Chinaman of Shakespeare.”
    Also in 1916, Eastonians enjoyed a morality play called Happiness that embodied Dr. Pearson’s “own ideals for chautauqua towns.” The lead character, called “Happiness,” is a “typical twentieth century American girl in an average town.” She believes that her singing voice offers the chance for a career. Strength, a virile and successful young businessman, wants Happiness to stay and marry him, but Dreams entices Happiness to leave for the city. As long as Money remains their friend, they lead a carefree existence. When Money sickens, however, unsavory characters such as Discouragement, Want, and Hunger force their attentions on Happiness. In the end, Strength rescues her from Despair and Death, takes her home and marries her. Happiness then dedicates herself to a “life of service.” As a local reporter observed, “The moral, of course, is obvious.”
    Children figured prominently in the success of the traveling chautauquas, so Pearson developed the idea of a “Junior Chautauqua” for the Swarthmore Circuit. For a whole week, youngsters enjoyed music, storytelling, nature studies, and athletic contests. The most popular project was “Junior Town.” In 1919, the Easton chautauqua offered this exercise in citizenship training. Children ages 6 to 14 held elections and organized a miniature municipal government complete with a law and order commission, health commission, and a “make good commission.” Town hall meetings always began with a song that included the lyrics:

Good citizens we will be.
Then I’ll be proud,
Be proud of my hometown,
And I’ll make her proud of me.

   In 1916, a reporter asked W. Lester Ball what he thought was the best thing about the Easton chautauqua. He replied, “The best feature of chautauqua as I have seen it here is not the educational value, the amusement, nor even the music. It is the creation of the community spirit, by bringing men and women together during chautauqua week who, the other fifty-one weeks of the year, seldom meet on a common footing and with a common motive.” Circuit operators often cited an increase in community spirit and togetherness as a benefit of chautauqua. Most of the year, the operators argued, communities were divided into religious, political and social groups, but for chautauqua these divisions were forgotten.
    In retrospect, historians have lent some credence to the argument that chautauquas fostered a spirit of togetherness. In The Romance of Small Town Chautauquas (2002), historian James R. Shultz lists the reasons for their demise by the mid-1920s. The radio brought the messages of statesmen and spiritual leaders right into the home, along with entertainment. Movies, especially the talkies, offered entertainment in a more palatial and comfortable setting than the chautauqua tent. The crushing blow for the circuits proved to be the onset of the Great Depression. In 1930, the Swarthmore Chautauqua declared bankruptcy.
    Contemplating the demise of the circuits, historian Russell L. Johnson observed, “It is hard to escape the thought that something was lost when chautauqua gave way to radio and motion pictures as a primary cultural delivery system. Paradoxically in this process, people became progressively more isolated as individuals as a larger and larger world opened up to them. People retreated from sharing a bench with their neighbors under the big chautauqua tent in the bright sunshine, to their own homes and darkened movie theaters for their entertainment.”
    In 1921, Ralph Parlette insisted, “Chautauqua is the great Comm-unity party and school. Chautauqua is the league of neighbors.” The circuits offered an alternative to “jazz and dogfights,” but in the Jazz Age people increasingly saw the new music, radio, and the movies as representing the brighter side of life. They reached for the strawberries. Unfortunately, Paul Pearson, Ralph Parlette, W. Lester Ball and their fellow chautauquans eventually were left with only the prunes.