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[Detail] Filipino Varsity Four.

Circuit Chautauqua is among the most significant and most often overlooked influences in early twentieth-century United States history. In the years before radio and television, hundreds of millions of people in thousands of rural communities learned about the great issues of their age and enjoyed entertainment from around the world without traveling further than their own towns' Main Street.

Traveling Culture: Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century, offers a glimpse into the heartland of the early-twentieth century United States through thousands of Chautauqua-related materials, including original programs, agency talent guides, event passes, and advertising and promotional materials. Many of these items post-date the era of grand circuit Chautauquas (roughly 1904-1924) but remain indicative of the Chautauqua movement.

1) Circuit Chautauqua

Circuit Chautauqua was not without precedents. For much of the nineteenth century, Lyceum agencies such as the Redpath Bureau offered speakers who, for a fee, delivered topical addresses or lectures to a particular community or civic group. These one-time engagements offered education and diversion to relatively isolated communities. Indeed, even during the height of circuit Chautauqua's popularity, agencies continued to profitably place speakers in Lyceum engagements. This 1915 advertisement (external link) promotes the Redpath agency's Lyceum speakers.

  • How does a Lyceum engagement differ from a Chautauqua engagement?
  • Who is the audience for this advertisement?
  • Why should the potential customer trust the Redpath Bureau to select a suitable speaker?
  • In what ways do modern talent agencies differ from Lyceum bureaus? How are they similar?

The original Chautauqua was a Methodist Sunday school teacher's training retreat on the shores of Lake Chautauqua in upstate New York. As the course of instruction broadened to include non-religious subjects and morally sound entertainment, the popularity of the affordable, outdoor retreat gave rise to other permanent Chautauquas in locales as far flung as Oregon and California. Though no formal relationship existed among the various sites, the name "Chautauqua" came to be synonymous with moral, uplifting, and educational presentations.

J. Roy Ellison and Keith Vawter originated circuit Chautauqua under the auspices of the respected Redpath Lyceum Bureau. Ellison and Vawter combined the programs of the "Mother Chautauqua" (as the New York site came to be called) with the mass marketing strategies employed on the Lyceum circuit. Search on schedules for materials such as this 1906 advertisement (external link) that reflects the content of Chautauqua programs as well as the bureaus' marketing strategies.

  • Why would a potential customer be assured by viewing Mr. Green's previous season engagements? Why does the agency make note of return engagements?
  • What sorts of towns does Mr. Green frequent on his circuits? What regions are they in?
  • How does the passage at the top of the schedule characterize Mr. Green?
  • What does Mr. Green's popularity and full schedule tell us about the tastes of audiences in 1906?

At the core of the circuit Chautauqua phenomenon was a unique business contract in which agencies such as Redpath agreed to provide a particular community with a Chautauqua -- a week long exposition of music, theater, lectures, children's programs, and dramatic readings -- for which the leaders of that community agreed to cover the cost. Local citizens were urged to purchase season tickets to ensure the success of that year's event. Under this arrangement, the bureaus reaped huge profits but the civic leaders, at best, broke even.

Chautauqua week, however, was a necessary and much anticipated event for small towns, and community leaders considered it their duty to bring a Chautauqua to their otherwise culturally-isolated community. From1904 until 1924, Chautauqua agencies and circuits grew up across both the United States and Canada with attempts in both New Zealand and Australia.

Cover of “Acme Chautauqua”.

Cover of "Acme Chautauqua."

The "talent," the performers and speakers, typically arrived by train either the night before or the day of their appearance. Once finished, they were herded on to the next town to repeat exactly their previous night's performance. As such, many bureaus were hard pressed to maintain rosters of fresh, enthusiastic performers who could satisfy the audience's concurrent demands for entertainment and instruction. Accessible under the Subject Index heading Program schedules is a Redpath Horner Chautauqua program that describes the assembled talent:

Phototgraph of Six Actors, Two Women, Four Men, One on a Phone, One in Blackface.

Illustration from "Acme Chautauqua."

It is impossible in words to do justice to this superb Chautauqua Program. More splendid Personalities, a higher general excellence of Artists, Entertainers, more Interest-more Novelties-more Inspiration-than on any other program.

  • How would you characterize the tone of this piece?
  • Why would an agency need to reassure prospective attendees regarding the quality of their entertainment?
  • What changes in quality might a regular Chautauqua customer notice over the course of time? How might customers communicate dissatisfaction to performers or managers?
  • What modern forms of advertising are related to this type of promotion?

Three major factors led to the demise of the grand circuit Chautauquas -- the advent of new means of communication and entertainment such as motion pictures and radio, increased competition from vaudeville shows (which did not require monetary guarantees from the community), and a federal entertainment tax levied on Chautauqua tickets. This tax not only cut into the bureaus' profits but diminished Chautauqua's claim to culture over and above entertainment.

Following the anniversary "Jubilee Year" of 1924, during which some 30 million Americans visited Chautauqua tents, many communities opted not to sponsor a program and the multi-million dollar industry folded practically overnight. Many of the talent agencies such as the Redpath Bureau, however, persisted in one form or another and continued to use the name "Chautauqua" to promote their programs and lecturers well into the 1950s.