Barnstorming on Chautauqua

AGNES C. LAUT June 15 1922

Barnstorming on Chautauqua

AGNES C. LAUT June 15 1922

Barnstorming on Chautauqua


I CALL it “circuit riding” because primar-

ily the motive animating the old circuit rider and the modern Chautauqua entertainer is the same—to take the message to the door of the outlying population, which the agencies of the city never reach. Only, in the case of the circuit rider the message was religious. In the case of the Chautauqua entertainer, the aim is to bring the best of the city’s thought and pleasure to the country’s door.

There, the similarity between the o'd circuit rider and the Chautauqua ends; for to compare the itinerant evangelist of the old frontier days with the modern Chautauqua entertainers giving one and two and sometimes three talks or concerts a day, is about as anomalous as comparing the ox cart pace to the aeroplane. In fact, before many more moons pass, I look to see Chautauqua entertainers do some of their long range quick jumps by aeroplane.

But for a moving picture in real life of every class, age, quality and quantity of human nature in such kaleidoscopic swiftness that the pictures—tragic, comic, tender, harsh, selfish, generous, foolish and wise—blend as you live them—commend me to Chautauqua!

Mark Twain could not have, invented funnier things than happen. Mary Wilkins Freeman couldn’t portray meaner, smaller streaks in human nature. Sir James Barris could not twist heart strings with tenderer, more generous touches of that same human nature.

These experiences rise and hit you between the eye every night when you stand up to address an audience.

“You are proposing to bring Chautauqua to our town?” retorted sharply a local magnate, who was approached to know if he could support it. “Well, how many animals? How many performing elephants? How many wax figures. What is the heathenish name, anyway. Tell me about it.”

How It All Began

*T*IIE advance agent booking a guar■* antee from the town might have a tsweredthat while Chautauqua doesn’t make a specialty of wild animals in cages, it sometimes finds it has young colts in its choruses and white elephants among its speakers; but instead, he patiently explained the origin of the name from the chance meeting of the famous Bishop Vincent in the seventies with a great singer up at a summer resort on Chautauqua Lake. The county community heard the Bishop speak and the singer sing. Why could not such treats be brought in Summer— the off season for the cities—to the country communities so hungry for good entertainment? Such was the conception of the Chautauqua idea, that has brought entertainment to more than fifteen million people in the United States in 1921 and through affiliated branches of the British Isles, Canada, the United States,

Australia and New Zealand,yearly reaches a public of thirtyfive millions. Chautauqua to-day has 8,589 yearly assemblies in Canada and the United States.

The local committeemen supporting Chautauqua in the Canadian Northwest alone number more than 15,000: 500 Canadian towns hold Chautauqua: 500 lecturers speak for Chautauqua from the platfofms. among whom are such statesmen as Taft and Bryan,

such writers as Ida Tarbell, such reformers as Mrs. Pankhurst, such scientists as are foremost in the Washington Smithsonian and such pulpit orators as are known world-wdde. Singers, cartoonists, orchestras, military men, oriental teachers, Indian leaders—all have been drawn into the Chautauqua circle and conveyed out to hungry eager Canadian country audiences in tents in Summer, back to the city audience for the Lyceum lectures of Winter.

Yet the Chautauqua is an absolutely open forum. It stands for no class, creed, race. It is open to all classes, all creeds, all races, if they have a message in voice, story, lecture, play, music which will he’p, inform, instruct, enlighten, entertain the hearers. It stands for no special propaganda and yet for all propaganda that will help the race. Its key-note is joy and its motive is inspiration, whether through a wholesome laugh, new facts, new light on facts, or pure entertainment; but entertaining the inspiration must be, and inspirational the entertaining must be; and on those two rocks come to grief the most of the entertainers, who fail to fit in.

The “movies” must be entertaining, must not require too much thought, and must be crowd-getters, mob-drawers, whether the motive be good, bad, indifferent. The theatres show much the same standard, whether the art be high art, low art, or no art at all.

The motive is plainly money. In the Chautauqua, money is not the motive. Chautauqua has never been a money maker. It requires in Canada a guarantee of $1,500 for six day entertainments, of $700 for three day entertainments; and the greater the number of tickets sold in excess of that guarantee, the more Chautauqua will spend the next year in this identical circuit in higher-priced and higher class entertainers.

Brings Money Into Towns

/"HIAUTAUQUA brings into every town more money than it takes out; for Chautauqua week in the western country towns is synonymous with Exhibition week. It is held in the offseason before harvest has begun. Merchants, restaurants, churches plan for it. In one western city, where arrears of taxes were compelling heavy civic levies, it was proposed to tax Chautauqua on the same basis as a circus—as a purely amusement institution, that was taking money out of town.

If this had been done in the West generally, it would have put Chautauqua out of business; for Chatauqua

has no reserve of profits to draw on. Each year, in fact, it has to go to the local bank to get itself financed for advance expenses.

It is a question if there is a more intricate, effective, efficient system in the world for putting good entertainment before rural communities. It is equally effective for city entertainments; but the city can get good entertainment without Chautauqua. The country can’t.

To go back to the tragic, comic, kaleidoscopic life of the Chautauqua circuit—in Canada it is the custom to close each night’s session by calling on the audience ’o sing “God save the King.” In some of the newer circuits, this is an innovation. In one place was a committeeman locally known as a notorious tightwad. He wanted to know what the town was to get for its guarantee of $700. He was told the cost of the tent, the orchestras, the singers, the speakers. At the end of the week, as usual, the committeemen were asked to record their impression of the entertainment. Had they got their money's value?

“No, siree,” this man hadn’t, “catch him sign another Chautauqua guarantee! Why those blame fool glee club singers, who sang ‘God save the King!’ He could sing that song himself! He wasn’t going to pay no money to hear them sing ‘God save the King.’ ”

And that committeeman was not a foreigner. He was a Canadian.

Since the passing of “booze,” a great many western hotels have fallen into the hands of Chinese restaurant keepers, and a great many into the hands of English lodging-house keepers. It is to the credit of both classes of hotels that accommodation is better than it was in “the booze” days, though occasionally—very rarely, I may add—a Chinaman attempts the combination of a fairly good dining room with an opium joint in hiding behind; and the Englishman has an astonishing number of “dead soldiers” —soft drinks, of course!—around freshly-vacated rooms.

We had had an amusing but quite harmless experience of one such Chink joint and some of the entertainers were a little shy of the next Chinese hotel encountered. I wasn’t; for the one thing I coveted instantly on arriving was a room, where I could lock the door, take a bath and sleep, which you can in a hotel and can’t always in a private house, owing to the routine activities. So I had gone to the Chinese hotel and the others to the private house. When we compared our bills at night they were a scream. Ostensibly, the prices had been the same and the meals equally well cooked; but the Chink had submitted an honest bill. The “white bill” had charged double for dinner, because the arrivals had been so dead tired in the morning they had not eaten any breakfast and so, of course, had eaten a double dinner. They were charged extra for an unused room, because, though they had not lain on the bed, a suit case had been left in that room; and four orchestra players were charged an unused room because, though they hadn’t taken a room, they had “sat” on the verandah; and “the sits” were duly charged. And note well, the talent had been lured to that generous roof because the keeper of the house had bought one ticket at 75c.

The Locked Door Episode

A LMOST as funny was the experience in one of the English lodging-houses. To the credit of the West be it said in many of the outlying towns, a lock on a door is unheard of and unneeded. Your baggage may be left for a day on the platform, and theft has never been known; but in this case such a hurricane dust storm was blowing, the room doors of the hotel w'ould not stay shut without banging; and the Chautauquas had arrived after a sixtyfive mile motor ride through ablazing sun. They wanted to sleep.

When they had registered, a fine little Englishwoman had been behind the desk, but when one of them ran to get a key to lock the banging doors, the little Englishwoman’s husband was behind the desk; and his condition explained some of the “dead soldiers” Continued on page 46


on Chautauqua

Continued from page 20

upstairs and why the little Englishwoman needed to work at all. When the Chautauqua boy asked for a key, he was asked if, “He and his Yankee riff-raff had such a h—1 of a lot of jew-jew-jew’ry they needed a key?” Anyway, he didn’t deem it advisable to press for a key; but when the time came for the entertainment, the wind was still blowing, the doors still banging; and kerosene lamps and blowing curtains don’t make a good insurance risk when you leave your baggage behind.

One of the orchestra had a pass key and it locked every door in the corridor; but alas, after the entertainment! The train left between one and two. Every door unlocked but one. There was baggage inside that room. A scout went down to look over the John Bull behind the desk. He had been paying his respects to some more “soldier” bottles not dead at all but very much alive; and he was John Bull bellicose and ready to fight at the drop of the hat, Fritzie, Uncle Sam, Johnny Canuck, John Bull, himself. The man, whose baggage was in quod behind the locked door, came back upstairs. The sky-light was high and very narrow. He fortunately was very long and equally narrow. I don’t know how he did it, but we heard him drop on his hands and head inside. All quiet until 1 a.m. when the John Bull downstairs came and knocked on the doors “train time,” and the half asleep Chautauquas emerged to see a man hanging by his toes to the sky-light above the door. With a hand-hold on the door knob, he turned a noiseless spring and lit on his feet like a cat; but one Chautauqua went back and urged that bellicose gentleman behind the desk that the man behind the door, (which wouldn’t unlock,) was a heavy sleeper, to get him up if he had to wake the dead. I think that Englishman is knocking on that door yet.

The “Sterilized” Candidate

AS THE elections came on in Alberta, Yi it was customary in the Chautauqua tent to give the platform, after the entertainment, to one political party one night, and the other political party the next night, for open discussions. In one constituency, a foreigner was chided that he could not speak English: how was he to represent the constituency in the House?

“Spik English?” he spluttered out.

“Of course, I spik English! I haff my papers! I haff my vote dese ten years! I been ‘sterilized’ dese ten years—” laughter. He couldn’t understand why; and the opposing candidate hadn’t the quick wit to tell him if he got “sterilized” of a few more foreign germs, it wouldn’t hurt him. The joke is—he was elected.

A few days after the elections, I had offered a youth in blue jeans, age about six, but with a cart, twenty-five cents to run a block and bring down my hand bag. He instantaneously had such a volunteer brigade of aids, that I looked with apprehension in my purse to see how many quarters I had and was relieved to find the total of small change was only 45c, which I handed out with the injunction, “Now go and divvy up among you.” Two minutes later, a very small member of that bag brigade turned up rubbing a grimy fist in each eye to a boo-hooh-hooh whimper.

“What is the matter?”

“The fellows wouldn’t diwy up with me!”

“But just what did—you—do?”

“I ran along behind—boo-hooh!”

I had heard that echo from the elections before but not so frank.

“Say—where—in blankety-blankety— blank did Erickson” (the Western gen-

eral manager of Chautauqua,) “pick you up?” demanded a six-footer, whose latitude was in proportion to his longitude, and who accosted me in a bank one morning after a lecture, sans introduction, saws prelude, sans the honk of a donkey bray to let me know anything was coming.

“Why do you ask?’

“Because blank me, you seem to know something about Canada.” (I happen to have been born in Canada, to have lived in Canada twenty-five years, to have written some dozen books on Canada and to have visited every part from Labrador to Prince Rupert more times than I can count.) “Where in blankety-blank did Erickson pick you up?”

I tried to explain that Mr. Erickson just went out and scooped the pebbles up off the beach in shovelfuls, labeled ’em talent and turned ’em loose. He was still looking dazed as I left the bank.

It isn’t telling any secrets to confess that the little kiddies are one of the difficult problems of Chautauqua in country communities. Many of the mothers cannot come to Chautauqua unless they bring their babies; and the Chautauqua Committee wants them to come and bring their babies. In some Chautauquas rest rooms are set up, where the little children can be cared for during the entertainment session. In other communities, the mothers are asked to sit at the end of the board seat rows; so they can slip out if the children begin to cry. Small children never bother me in an audience. It is the half-grown rowdy, who goes de-

liberately to create disorder, to whom I give short shrift. Still, if a lusty twoyear-old sets up a solo and is joined by a j chorus of five or more, it is apt to dis! tract attention from a lecture. One of the lecturers had first had the nuisance of I a rowdy lad of twelve, who had been 1 put up to create disorder. The speaker leaned. forward with $1 in his hand: “Here, you boy, you are spoiling the lecture for a thousand people. Take your j dollar back and get out. We don’t want ! your kind here.”

This produced quiet until the lecturer ! was just approaching his climax, when a i baby awakened and led a howling chorus joined by half a dozen other babies, whom it had wakened. The speaker had outwitted the boy; but he couldn’t possibly out-yell the baby chorus; and it was a testimonial to his eloquence that the mothers would not leave until he finished. He threw up his arms in the last gesture of capitulation. “They say high explosives won the War. I don’t j believe it. It was the Canadian infantry.

' The infantry have the day. I surrender!”

Dogs Versus Oratory

DOGS are a pest, wandering down the aisles, dashing under the tent flaps and getting into fights under the children’s seats; and the committeemen sometimes sit inert through such needless detriment to their own receipts. Two bull dogs began to fight beneath the little girls’ benches while a woman was lecturing. She stood it as long as she could. Then she paused with this remark: “I see my lecture is going to the dogs. I don’t know whether you paid an admission fee to hear a lecture, or see a dog fight; but you are going to see a dog fight free.”

The dogs were put out and the lecture went on.

One night the combination of a terrific dust storm, that shook the tent and shut off the view of the audience three seats away, a dog fight and two seats of boys, who had got away from the superintendent’s control—compelled me to cut my lecture off short and terse; and I was leaving the platform with the whimsical feeling that if the committee really preferred a dog fight to the lecture, on such a blistering hot night, I was not keen to contest their choice. Perhaps, I am in a sense a fatalist. When people will not use reason, I never believe in arguing. I am great on letting them hit facts with a ping. Then, of their own accord, they honestly seek truth and are ready for more facts.

Anyway, I was leaving the platform with the sense that the lecture was a total failure. If a lecture leaves people mad or glad, it has done its part. The people will do the rest for themselves; but if it leaves them dead, it is a failure. This particular informal talk had aroused cussing and discussing the night before and it aroused cussing and discussing the night after. I was wondering what was the difference in crowd psychology that it fell dead here, when a tall, handsome woman came to the edge of the platform.

“May I walk home with you?” she asked. “I want to ask your advice. You know those two stories you told of serving the nation by adopting in one case an English waif, in the other á Scotch one; and they both made good?” “Yes.”

“Well, my husband and I are just at that place to-night. We adopted the abandoned children of a drunken soldier, who was killed. We were utterly discouraged when we came to the lecture to-night; and we were going to send them to a public institution. Now we are going to try a little longer,” and there came out a beautiful narrative of the kind of Christian charity that reinforces your faith in God.

Yet I had considered that lecture a total failure.

Another night, I had been pleading for unity of aim, action and destiny, in all races, classes, creeds, parties, to build up Canada as a nation; and unity of aim, action and destiny among Britons, Americans and Canadians to preserve civilization. I saw a stalwart Scotch woman grow restive as I praised the Americans. As long as I praised Great Britain and Canada, she beamed, but when I praised the United States, she shrugged her shoulders and pugged her nose. Just as the lecture closed, a rain storm broke the heat and we were beating it home

through the dispersing crowds with a flashlight to keep from tripping over the broken board walks, when I saw my stalwart Scotch auditor charging down on me like an ocean liner on a river ferry.

“Ye didna’,” she exploded, “ye didna’ say one-wurrd-about the moral superiority of the Canadians to the Ameri-

“No, I didn’t,” I called through the bursting storm, “for I consider a nation, that beats itself on its breast and cries out ‘God be merciful to me a sinner,’ much safer than a nation, that thanks God it is not as other men are.”

I wonder if she caught what I meant?

Another night, when I began the plea for unity of aims with the United States and Great Britain, a young bank manager with an air that only a very young man can wear in a very small place and with white flannel trousers (pipe in one corner of his mouth) went chortling out past me with the words gritted from between his teeth: “Pure American

propaganda—blasted American hot air.”

Always Ready for Challenge

NOW it may be because all the blood in my veins is Celtic, that I welcome a challenge like that half way. I love to get the reaction to facts of all types of minds and all types of no minds to speak of! And I dealt with this remark in the next town’s lecture. If the remarks were made for a social “leg-up,” as the tone of it might imply, I advised the wearer of those white flannels to get a monkey’s tail to help him to climb: that would be more in his line. But if the remark was made in honest sincerity, I wanted to analyze it. That young man’s bank had lost in loot $12 millions in Mexico. It had floated bonds on South and Central America to the value of many more millions which could be redeemed only by the Grace of God and the U.S. State Department. Suppose the U.S. State Department mistook his remark for the attitude of his bank, and refused to enforce the redemption of the bonds and loss, what would be the attitude of the bank towards him? What should be the attitude of depositors to that bank? Was it a safe policy to have a young chap spitting out in promiscuous audiences?

It is curious how the same facts will strike four listeners, who speak to you in succession.

“I was very much disappointed in your lecture,” said a young Mounted

Policeman to me. “I wanted you to give these people......”

“Want to shake hands with you,” said the next in line. “I never heard any one give so many wallops in so short a time.”

“Thanks for defending us,” said the priest of a foreign parish.

“It was good what you say to us,” said a Doukhobor mother with a shawl on her head.

These were four comments on one address. Whether the audience liked or disliked the facts was immaterial. The point was to get them chewing on the facts of Canada till their digestion absorbed the essentials of the lecture in a sense of national consciousness for Canada.

But it was not all of a piece with motor trips through mud to the hubs in midnight storms; nor hurricane hot winds hiding the faces of the audiences in dust. There were trips through the big timber country of Vancouver Island along paved roads aisled by the great stately evergreens, with the college glee club singing snatches of Grand Opera. There were quiet Sundays through orchard lands like a garden up and down lakes blue as the bluest in the Trossachs. There were little girls, who waylaid me with flowers on the platform and waylaid me again at the station. There were heartbreaking stories of failures among new settlers. I can see their faces yet in the half light of the darkening tent as the crowds dispersed—and soul-inspiring examples of unconscious heroism. An audience is half of every lecture. Their mood comes back to you like an. echo, or ball over the net in tennis; and what an unconscious inspiration some faces give you. I see three such faces yet: the face of a young English girl, whose father, a banker, had died soon after coming to Canada; and she and her sister had carried the farm on by themselves; the face of a young doctor in charge of a soldiers’ hospital, who was making over and repairing broken men. His eyes caught every joke before it came round the corner; and his merry heart must be good, good medicine. The face of a young American girl, married to a Canadian soldier. She was living more beauty and love than any lecturer could ever put in words; and it was all written in her half-child, half-Madonna face.

I salute you all and know, I shall carry away a hundred fold more from the wav* of the best in you than all I could give you from the waves of the best in me!