When Culture Came in Tents

When Chautauqua used to come to town with silver-tongued orators and Swiss bell ringers it was like fair week, a revival meeting and the music festival all at the same time

MONICA MUGAN July 15 1952

When Culture Came in Tents

When Chautauqua used to come to town with silver-tongued orators and Swiss bell ringers it was like fair week, a revival meeting and the music festival all at the same time

MONICA MUGAN July 15 1952

When Culture Came in Tents


When Chautauqua used to come to town with silver-tongued orators and Swiss bell ringers it was like fair week, a revival meeting and the music festival all at the same time


OH, it's nice to be in the big brown tent That Chautauqua here to our town has sent! There is nothing like it the whole year through And the whole darned family enjoys it too!

Ma and Pa and the hired man They come to the tent everychance they can With brother and sister and baby small For the family ticket admits them all!

To the tune: Turkey in the Straw

AT ONE O'CLOCK of a brilliant western night nearly twenty-five years ago a lumbering overladen Buick sedan reached the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, south of St. Paul de Métis. A sign pointed to a ferry offering twenty-four-hour service but the ferryman had long since sought his bunk on the opposite shore. The car horn sounded, first in short blasts, then with long-drawn-out notes that almost drained the battery. Only a coyote howled in answer. The men in the car hollered but their shouts fell unheard into the valley of the river one hundred and fifty feet below. Then one of the men in the car, Ben Ritzenthaller, unpacked his clarinet. "Let's give it to him, boys!” he said, and a moment later the loud and brassy' Petrie Quintette swung into the Light Cavalry' Overture.

This early morning trumpeting not only roused the ferryman—he came running with his flannelette nightshirt round his knees—it also heralded a

cultural invasion of northern Alberta. Chautauqua was heading for the Peace River Country'. This was the last frontier to fall beneath the spell of the movement that swept the west from 1915 to 1935 when the big brown tents disappeared.

For twenty y'ears a generation of young Canadians looked forward to the annual Chautauqua week. In cities, towns and villages from Winnipeg to Chilliwack, the Chautauqua banners fluttered across main streets every spring: the Chautauqua parade rambled through the streets and the children learned to sing the Chautauqua song, and chant:

C-h-a-u — This is how you spell it:

C-h-a-u — Lister, tc us yell it!


Businessmen, clergymen, school principals and prominent farmers raised tent poles, rolled oil drums used to support the stage, and sold the family tickets that helped ward off a possible annual deficit. Chautauqua was a community venture and the local people were never allowed to forget it —from the day the advance agent blew into town until the superintendent, with her winning smile, folded up next year’s contract, picked up her cash box. and headed for the next town on the circuit. I know, for I was a superintendent.

After the west had been blanketed with Chautauqua banners for a decade the big brown tents came eastward and residents of places like Barrie, Kapuskasing. and Sudbury, in Ontario, listened to

Vilhjalmur Stefansson. Julius Caesar Nayphe. and Private Peet: watched the good - for - the - entirefamily Chautauqua play's and heard the music of Viera’s Hawaiians and the Swiss Bell Ringers.

There was an annual week of Chautauqua entertainment for the communities who signed up for it; and most of them did. Hard-headed businessmen mortgaged next year’s profits to bring Chautauqua to the district. And the phenomenon continued even when in a bad season those same men. signers of the watertight contract, were forced to dig into their own pockets to pay' up the deficit. Even an attomey'-general of Saskatchewan, consulted by ^ small town looking for escape from its Chautauqua contract, found the document impregnable. But in a good year the oversale of tickets could, if the contract allowed it, put money' in a community' pocket and help to build a local hall.

While cities like Calgary', Regina and Medicine Hat bought a week’s entertainment consisting of six nights and four matinees, at a cost of around two thousand dollars, towns like Minnedosa, Indian Head and Coronation could buy a smaller edition down to a three-and-a-half-day program for as little as four hundred and thirty dollars. In the spring and summer the big shows played in one, two and three-pole canvas tents. The fall circuits, covering the smaller communities, played in theatres, schools, community halls, and once, in my memory, in a poolroom.

Chautauqua entered Canada on the day a lean American named J. M. Erickson got off the train at Calgary with a contract in his pocket for four thousand dollars i year, a ten-percent slice of over-all profit, and a one-third interest in the business he was to build up as Canadian Chautauqua. J. Roy Ellison and C. H. White, owners of a giant Chautauqua that served twelve hundred towns in the U. S., had backed the enterprise. Erickson, one of the Ellison-White managers, had conceived the idea of expansion into Canada and sold it to his bosses.

His first circuit in this country was called the Fall Festival for it was found that Canadians kneu nothing of the Chautauqua tradition and found the name too clumsy to handle. That first year fifty towns were booked and so well sold on culture that Erickson remained in Canada to expand the circuit under the original name, and become owner of Canadian Chautauqua and a comfortable home in Calgary.

Chautauqua, as Erickson’s managers and superintendents pointed out to audiences, derived the name from a cultural centre at Lake Chautauqua in New York State. Here, in the latter part of the last century, eminent musicians and speakers presented programs for those wealthy enough to enjoy a long holiday at the lakeside. Later, enterprising showmen captured the idea and literally put the culture of Chautauqua on the road, in big brown tents especially made for them.

Their speakers included William Jennings Bryan, Jane Addams, Judge Ben Lindsey, Emmeline Pankhurst, Richard Haliburton. Sir Hubert Wilkins and Vilhjalmur Stefansson raised money for their explorations on Chautauqua salaries. Lorado Taft, the sculptor, created a work of art on the platform each day, and Drew Pearson, whose father, Paul, headed an American Chautauqua circuit, found bis feet on a platform built by community labor.

Jess Pugh, later radio’s Scattergood Baines, was well known to Canadian audiences. Irvin S. Cobb made the one-night-stand circuit. Even Winston Churchill succumbed to the lure of the big brown tent. He went to New York in 1920 to join a circuit, but tangled with a taxicab, and was forced to return home without the earned dollars and prestige.

Many talented Canadians got their start on a Chautauqua platform. On one of the smaller circuits a Winnipeg girl called Evelyn Morris played the ingénue. Today she is known as Judith Evelyn on Broadway where she has been playing in The Shrike with Jose Ferrer. Eli/alieth Sterling Haynes, drama instructor at the University of Alberta and co-founder of the Banff School of Fine Arts, once took a play company on a Chautauqua circuit.

Another Winnipeg girl, Janet Bacon, now Jan Chamberlain, wife of a Toronto publicist, won her stage spurs with a Chautauqua play company and today runs a speech school in Toronto. The man

who is now a top executive of the greatest show business in Canada had his first professional experience when he blew a trumpet in a Chautauqua quartette. He is Ernest Bushnell, director general of programs for the CBC.

Because Chautauqua was planned for the community, it had to l>e acceptable to every man, woman and child who could visit it. It boasted the cleanest plays, the most uplifting speakers, the most cultural musical entertainment a moral family could want.

Favorite dramas were milk-and-water productions like Pollyanna, The Patsy, What Every Woman Knows, It Pays to Advertise, and Smilin’ Through. Each town got at least two of these productions per season. The most pointed line I can remember in Chautauqua dramatic literature is "Don’t cry over spilt milk, there’s enough water in it already!” That usually brought down the house.

Players often trod the Chautauqua boards under great difficulty. Every job was a one-night stand with sets to be put up by the cast in record time, then taken down after the show was over and packed up for the journey to the next town. The tent stage was made of boards placed over steel oil drums. The homemade steps to the back-tent dressing rooms were precarious and the dressing rooms themselves were fashioned by hanging a piece of canvas as a barrier between the male and female players. Upended

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boxes and wardrobe trunks made up the furniture. Each player carried his own make-up in a carefully guarded box. putting it on by the light of 0 single bulb or, possibly, a lantern.

A constant hazard was the enthusiasm of the front rows, always occupied by school children. Unless watched they would heave peanut shells and orange peel at the villain and in moments of high excitement they would even climb right on stage and join in the play.

The Peace River had never had a stage play until Chautauqua rolled up the circuit. ‘In Pouce Coupé, B.C., when actors Jon Farrell and Eileen Stirling clinched in the final embrace that brought the curtain down on The Patsy, they wondered why the curtain did not fall on their love scene. After a kiss of several minutes’ duration the weary actors raised their heads to find two open-mouthed youngsters sitting on the edge of the platform, and on the curtain, while a frantic stagehand pulled ineffectual ropes.

In Gravelbourg. Sask., an even greater calamity hit a play company of the early Thirties. A few hours before curtain time the ingénue of the play developed labor pains and produced baby, much to the cast's consternation. But the superintendent, P. Winnie Rolls, hushed up the scandal and the baby, and went on the stage in the role. Since Superintendent Rolls was a tall, majestically built woman .vith a strong face and personality, the Gravelbourg audience witnessed the startling spectacle of the ingénue towering over her juvenile lead.

Junior actors in these companies made twenty-five dollars a week and out of this they paid living, but not traveling, expenses. Many of the younger performers were attempting to save money for school fees. One summer Eric Gibbs, now heading a news bureau in Paris, and Larry Davis, saving money for their return to the University of Alberta, set out to live the entire season on canned jam and peanut butter, sleeping in the Chautauqua car or at the roadside.

Although play nights were always sure-fire, the greatest Chautauqua attraction was the lecturer. Chautauqua lecturers learned one speech, word perfect, and it carried them for years on the various circuits. Some of the real old-timers developed a second speech just in case they played a town for a second time. Actually this second string was seldom needed for people loved to listen to a fa%-orite speech and speaker time and again. Sometimes groups of citizens would form a party to follow a favorite to the other towns on the circuit.

One of these favored lecturers. Julius Caesar Nayphe, was a Grecian (he could not bear to be called a Greek', a little blond man with a talk on the Near East which he illustrated with tapestries and garments draped on young girls from his audience. Groups of travel-hungry men and women would follow Nayphe from town to town, just to hear the same talk.

Nayphe had a temperament that sometimes drove superintendents to distraction. In one Saskatchewan Fall Festival town I went to the local hall, ready to open the matinee, to find Nayphe, the owner of the hall, and a high-school principal in violent and bitter controversy over the ownership of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The hall owner was a Turk and a Moham-

medan: the school principal was a Jew: and Julius a Greek Catholic. Before the curtain could go up I had to untangle the argument and soothe the speaker with sympathy and cajoling.

Another time, distracted by the chatter of the girl musicians with whom he was forced to travel, Nayphe screamed, “Stop the car.” He opened the door, knelt on the asphalt pavement, and banged his head furiously on it several times. Then he climbed back in. “Drive on!” he ordered. “Now I feel better.”

While traveling in Ontario Nayphe bitterly resented the fact that the other lecturer on his circuit, explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, was provided with a personal car and chauffeur while Nayphe was forced to share transport with the rest of the day’s company. This favoritism broke his heart and he left Chautauqua.

Private Peet, now head of his own New York speakers’ bureau, told of his 1914-18 war experiences, and Carvet h Wells, a former shipyard worker of Portland, Ore., found a voice and speech that carried him over the American and Canadian circuits for more than two decades.

A moral speaker, whose talk and influence must still be remembered in many Canadian homes, was Dr. HenryBlack Bums. Impressive with his shock of snow-white hair and dark horn-rimmed glasses. Burns gave a tali: on juvenile delinquency and the higi: reward for good clean living. After every speech he spent at least half an hour signing autographs for mothers who had been moved to tears by him. Once backstage, the doctor would remove his glasses and tell stories that would make a bargee blush. It was probably his way of letting off steam.

Dorothy In A Gilded Cage

Lethe Coleman, a dignified member of the Mormon Church who had started as a superintendent, found her true vocation as a lecturer. Hers was a travel talk that took the prairie audience to far exotic places like Borneo and Bali. When describing some women of the East smoking cheroots Lethe would draw herself up and say with dignity, “I have never become accustomed to the idea of women smoking.” This was always greeted with applause. Another crowd-pleaser was Lethe, an obvious spinster, describing an East Indian tree that when embraced was said to make barren women fertile. “My friends,” Lethe would say coyly, “I never tried it!”

There were jugglers on Chautauqua, charcoal artists, impersonators and ventriloquists, but there were no cheap clowns. The tone was always high. For light entertainment there was Dorothy Haines, dressed in a long grey skirt, recking Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight and singing I’m Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage in a fine, cracked

Lucille Elmore was billed as “the niece of Fred Stone, and fresh from the cast of Stepping Stones.” Lucille was a charming little woman less than five feet high. She traveled with a troupe of three musicians, tap-danced, sang, and in a top hat tried to imitate Ted Lewis. In October 1930 I was superintending in the town of Hazlet, Sask . and expecting the Elmore company for

the night’s show. The first blizzard of the year blew up that day. In spite of it the Hazlet hall was full at curtain time, but there were no players. Keeping the audience employed with community singing and the best local talent I could dig up, I spent a hectic three hours between the hall and the telegraph office trying to locate the El-

The entire troupe had been stranded in a Model A Ford, about four miles east of Webb. For eighteen hours these players, who came from southern Kansas, sat in sub-zero temperatures in the worst blizzard of the year. Finally Kenneth MacKenzie, of Edmonton, manager of the circuit, who happened to be with them, tied a scoop shovel across his face for protection from the storm and set out for help in Webb.

Six hours later MacKenzie returned with half a loaf of bread and ten ounces of whisky, bought in town for five dollars. Rescued at eleven o’clock the next morning, the troupe caught a freight train and reached my town in time for a special matinee, their noses and ears frozen, and Lucille’s Russian fitch coat, the envy of the circuit, ruined from hasty drying in front of a blazing fire. Chautauqua talent had to be troupiers.

That same blizzard wreaked havoc up and down all the circuits. Dillon Cornwall, an actor, later to become Professor of English at Mount Royal College. Calgary, and now of Vancouver, was attempting to dig his company’s car out of a snowdrift when a sudden gust felled him with his own shovel. Buried in an avalanche of snow, Cornwall almost froze to death before his plight was discovered. Troupes on the road unpacked their wardrobe trunks and dressed in curtains. props, and stage clothes to keep warm while they waited for rescue.

Some of the talent was not prepared for the vicissitudes of a Chautauqua circuit. When the musicians Elizabeth (violinist) and Yolande (cellist) Garay arrived to take their place in the billing they went on strike. The Garays were from Budapest. They had just enjoyed a successful concert in the U. S. and when they saw the Chautauqua tents they screamed “We will not play in a circus!” But they did. In fact, very often, sophisticates who sneered at (lie Chautauqua brand of entertainment paid six times as much to enjoy the same talent elsewhere. Some of the Chautauqua programs were straight corn. Some were extremely good. All in all the audience and the committees got their money’s worth, or so we superintendents believed.

The superintendents had to believe they were bringing culture to the masses for the superintendent was the key to the success of the circuit. When

Erickson’s Canadian enterprise blossomed into a going concern, this astute businessman had to call on Canadians to help him. Thousands of young men and women joined his organization and graduated from it prepared to face any obstacle. There were eventually six circuits, each one covering a specialized area, and each circuit requiring a manager as well as superintendents to handle each town.

To help him Erickson had his wife, Nola B.. a titian-haired, handsome and intelligent woman, his brother-in-law Wade Grites, and a small grey former clergyman named James Evans. Erickson added to his staff, as managers, young promising Canadians usually chosen from the staffs of western universities.

Erickson’s stress on culture sent him to look for his superintendents and tent boys among the undergraduates on holiday, and the graduates out of jobs. Where today the ambitious university student looks for a summer job in a resort hotel, yesterday he tried to become a “soup” or a tent boy. Boys like Alberta dental student Harold Turner, Godfrey Holloway of Vancouver, Morley Tuttle, son of the prominent Edmonton divine, and Jack Barber, whose father was mayor of Chilliwack, all learned how to lace together the pie-shaped pieces of the big brown tent, how to attach them to a central bale ring, and raise the monsters on a borrowed telephone pole.

Tent boys arrived in each town one day before the show opened, equipped with blueprints and the tent packed in great canvas bags. The superintendent of the town had by this time cajoled strong-armed residents into helping to raise “our tent.” The job was usually done to community singing and assisted by large servings of lemonade.

The Chautauqua season usually began in May or early June. A week ahead Erickson summoned the superintendents to a conference, taking over entire floors of hotels in strategic cities. Here they were given pep talks on morals, culture, deportment, and the business of selling. Erickson, who always spoke of "the progrum" filled us with the importance of our cultural mission.

Marian Leeson of Didsburv. Alta., now Mrs. John Field of Caracas, was one of those girls who sat in on those courses. So were Kathleen Reed, now married to Dr. Gordon Johnston of Vancouver, Marjorie McEnaney. now of the CBC talks department in Toronto. and Frances Johnson, who married her circuit manager Wilfred Wees and later won a reputation as a writer under the by-line Frances Shelley Wees.

Appearance was important. The superintendent was told that she must

be attractive without being flamboyant. Her first duty on entering a new town was to go to the hotel, bathe and dress up before meeting the committee men. We all carried evening clothes for our nightly platform appearances, and attractive daytime outfits for committee meetings. More necessary, however, was a flair for diplomacy and selling, and the ability to create an impression that Chautauqua superintendents were nice girls. My own mother, who stopped me from going on the stage, was pleased to let me join Chautauqua. More than one

superintendent got a contract signed because the chairman of the committee thought she reminded him of his own daughter.

At the beginning of c* season a superintendent received an itinerary of her towns, with the dates of their opening, literature on the “talent” she would handle, and a cash case (a little black suitcase) that contained rolls of single-admission tickets, forms to be filled out for head office, canvas money bags, and a muffin tin to be used at the tent door as a cash register. She was also given an envelope containing

the information on her first town, the contract, and information about the signers. The report of the last superintendent was there to help her. It always contained what we considered the most important information—whether or not the hotel was a “bowl and pitcher joint,” and whether or not Mr. Jones on the committee was a “pawer and a petter.” One of my reports read: "You’ll love Mr. H.—but don’t forget that he's always cranky on Thursdays.” Superintendents started at forty-five dollars a week for the first season, with a two-fifty raise each circuit thereafter.

There were also bonuses. Traveling expenses were paid, but living had to be paid by the “Soup.” Since hotelkeepers looked on the annual descent of Chautauqua as a legitimate time to raise the rent, our living costs were always high. An expensive wardrobe ate up the rest of the profits. Because we often made more money than the performers and the rest of the help, superintendents had a rule that everyone paid for their own entertainment. This we called “going Chautauqua.” However, there was little time on a circuit for a private life. From the moment the superintendent entered her town until she boarded the train headed for the next one there was no letup. Twenty days before she entered her town an advance girl visited it with stacks of season tickets, publicity, and a pep talk which she delivered to the committee. By the time the superintendent arrived, the tickets were supposed to have been sold and the publicity distributed. This rarely happened. The doctors, lawyers, clergymen, merchants and farmers who formed the committee had other things to do. They always waited for the superintendent to arrive and when she did there were only three days to go.

At the first committee meeting campaigns were organized for ticket selling: the superintendent was scheduled for talks on the Chautauqua program at Rotary Club luncheons, movie houses, churches, schools, wherever she could get her toe inside. In country districts I used to go to the local telephone office, have the operator put a general ring on all her lines, and broadcast a speech beginning: “Don’t forget,

everybody, Chautauqua opens in town on Monday night!”

Chautauqua week was a holiday week. On matinee days entire families drove to the tent site, kept for this purpose year after year, equipped with cushions to sit on and a basket full of food to be eaten between shows. And when, on opening night, the mayor stepped onstage to introduce our superintendent—glamorous in tulle and discreet make-up—the audience was friendly and eager to enjoy the week for which everyone had worked.

Audiences did enjoy Chautauqua, and many Canadians received their first artistic impressions from the oildrum stage. Some were hungry for programs, like the farmer’s wife in Viking. Alta., who, listening to the Chautauqua harpist, burst into tears and told me that since leaving Wales forty years before she had never seen

In the drought years of the early Thirties, radio and the movies corner«! the mission of bringing culture to the masses. A few years before there had been such hunger for entertainment that rival companies sprang up in imitation of the original circuits. Erickson beat them out by price-cutting and superior talent and then saw his own enterprise fall to the same weapons.

Chautauqua has been a memory for almost twenty years now. But I am sure that its nostalgic appeal remains, even in a small Hutterite community that once boycotted it because their religion forbade such entertainment. I was superintendent in a southern Alberta community one hot July afternoon when the tent boy beckoned me to follow him. There, lying on their stomachs in the long grass, were four dignified bearded men in Hutterite clothing. They were peering under the canvas, eyes bulging, watching their first stage performance. What did it matter if it was the children’s matinee, and the play Jack and the Beanstalk? The Hutterites were enthralled. I pussyfooted away, to let them enjoy it—for free, ir