Chautauqua

The name given to travelling tent shows which originated in the USA and flourished in Canada 1917-35. Of Seneca origin, the word 'chautauqua' has been translated variously as 'place of mists,' 'place of easy death,' and 'where the fish was taken out'. A summer school, established in 1874 on Lake Chautauqua, NY, with an eye to combining adult education and morally uplifting recreation, adopted the name from its location, and gradually the name came to represent the type of recreation offered. In Canada a similar type of organization - a Methodist camp - had been established in 1859 at Grimsby Park in Lincoln County, Ont, but by 1900 interest had declined and by 1909 it had ceased. In the USA, however, 'chautauquas' flourished: by 1900 there were some 200 independent chautauquas serving 31 states, almost all held in permanent pavilions close to lakes and offering lectures, plays, and concerts of religious, classical, and popular music.

The notion of making the chautauquas more accessible by sending them on the road was conceived by the US entrepreneurs Keith Vawter and J.R. Ellison, and in 1904 the first of the 'circuit' chautauquas, housed in portable brown tents, began its tour in the mid-west. The second circuit took place in 1907, and from then until 1932 the tours were annual. Charles F. Thiele and his family performed on the US circuit. In 1912 Ellison left the Redpath-Vawter Chautauqua Co and with Clarence H. White established the Ellison-White Chautauqua System, which brought the first travelling chautauqua to Canada in 1917. Canadian headquarters were set up in Calgary under the direction of John and Nola Erickson, both from the USA.

In 1917 the Canadian branch of Ellison-White (known from its inception as Dominion Chautauquas) booked tours in all four western provinces, playing in 40 towns during the summer and 108 towns in the autumn. In 1918 chautauquas took place in 294 Canadian towns, again all in the West. A chautauqua offered different programs for each day of its five or six day stay at a given location. Music might be supplied by any combination of soloists, small vocal groups (such as the Adanac Quartet), choirs, instrumental ensembles, or orchestras. Song and dance acts were popular, as were ethnic music groups. Examples of the latter were the Elias Tamburitza Serenaders of Croatia, the Russian Cossack Chorus, the Serbian Tamburica Orchestra, and the Scotch(sic)-Canadian Concert Party which featured the comedian Walter Henderson singing Harry Lauder songs. Novelty acts were booked regularly for tours. These included the Carlyle Novelty Trio and Robert S. Herrick, who sang humorous songs and imitated famous female singers. Among orchestras which appeared on the tours were the Canadian Overseas Orchestra and Lieurance's Symphonic Orchestra, coached by Thurlow Lieurance, a composer and 'highest authority on Indian music'. Soloists included the Toronto baritone Ruthven H. McDonald, the Edmonton soprano Edna Reed, and the Metropolitan Opera baritone J. Horace Smithey.

Although the chautauqua phenomenon had its greatest success in western Canada, independent chautauquas flourished in Ontario from time to time, including one said to have been active in Niagara-on-the-Lake during the 1890s. Dominion Chautauquas had offices in London, Ont, ca 1917-18 and in Toronto during the 1920s. By 1926 there were two circuits operating in Ontario. Other Ontario circuits were managed by the US-based Coit-Alber organization. In the Maritimes and Newfoundland over 50 towns were served by a US company known as Swathmore Chautauqua.

By the early 1930s the demise of the chautauqua seemed inevitable. The Depression was a contributing factor. More significant, however, was the new availability of radios and automobiles, which meant that people could stay at home or travel distances to be entertained. Dominion Chautauquas, which became independent of the Ellison-White organization in 1926 and changed their name to Canadian Chautauquas, remained in business under John and Nola Erickson until 1935, when the Ericksons returned to the USA.