ONE day I reached my Chautauqua town on an earJy train, went direct to the hotel, and slept until noon. By then the thermometer had begun to soar, so after lunch I strolled out toward the Chautauqua grounds, hoping the auditorium would be in a cool spot.
It was about time for the afternoon programme, and the stores were closing. Men, women, and children were swarming from every direction. The women were lugging fat sofa pillows to case the hard benches, and both men and women were armed with large palm-leaf fans.
On the edge of the Chautauqua grounds a carnival company had set up operations in an effort to snare some of the patrons on their way to the afternoon programme. They could n’t hope to tempt them for long, — the season ticket, paid for in advance, usually prevented that, — but Chautauqua crowds were always early, so they might be induced to while away a few spare moments. From a platform in front of the carnival tent could be heard the persuasive voice of the barker: ‘Step right up now, folks! Don’t miss your only chance to see the greatest attraction on earth — Hercules and Samson, the two strongest men in the history of the world. See them in the most stupendous weightlifting feat of the century.’ The two strong men could be seen mounting the crude platform, their spangle-trimmed tights glittering in the sun.
‘Ma, I wanta see the strong men,’ a small boy whined, trying to pull his mother toward the sound of the barker’s voice.
‘Sh! We’re goin’ to Chautauquay!’
‘I don’ wanta go to Chautauquay — I wanta see the strong men!’
‘Come along now — don’t you wanta git no culture?’
Mrs. Elvira Tate, ‘A Woman with a Message,’ was the lecturer of the afternoon. Her subject was ‘ Woman, Awake! ‘ I found myself swept on with the crowd and seated next to the small boy. About halfway through the lecture, I became interested in watching him unravel a tangled mass of fishing line. His mother, her dull face wet with perspiration, fanned desperately in an effort to keep awake.
‘It is to the women of America that the country must look for moral support,’ declaimed the thin-lipped speaker.
The woman’s head nodded. She straightened up, but only for a moment. She was sleeping comfortably when the lecturer suddenly shouted: —
The boy looked up from his fishing line, startled. Again from the platform came the command, louder than before:
Dropping his tangled line, he began nudging his mother.
‘ Ma! Ma! ‘ he said in a scared whisper. ‘The lady says for you to wake up!’
The first professional lecturer was, I believe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who, having resigned his church, declared: ‘My pulpit is the Lyceum platform.’ His fee, at first, was five dollars, but in his later years he frequently got one hundred and fifty dollars, and on rare occasions as high as five hundred. For fifty years Emerson continued as a Lyceum lecturer. Practically all his essays were first delivered as lectures.
The early Lyceum Course was made up entirely of lectures, and was so often referred to as a lecture course that the two terms became interchangeable. The Chautauqua being an outgrowth of the Lyceum, its primary purpose was the dissemination of knowledge through public speakers. Even though music and other forms of entertainment were added later, the lecture was the ‘backbone of the Chautauqua.’ So firmly was this idea established in the public’s mind that a concert was often referred to as a ‘lecture.’ I recall hearing a barytone soloist introduced as ‘Mr. Blank, who will lecture on “The Road to Mandalay.”’
On Chautauqua, the lecturer always prevailed. Our audiences were catholic in their tastes, spendthrift in their enthusiasms, blissfully indiscriminate in their loyalties. At a time when the country was supposed to be less tolerant than now, because it was less informed, Chautauqua patrons would listen with sympathy and enthusiasm on the same day to Catholic and Protestant, Republican and Democrat, Socialist, singletaxer, free-trader, and atheist.
Audiences applauded the great preachers, Beecher, Talmage, and Phillips, and with equal ardor packed the auditoriums to hear Robert Ingersoll denounce Christianity. They roared with the humorists, Mark Twain, Bill Nye, Marshall P. Wilder, and Robert J. Burdette. They listened with rapt attention to political discussions by Jahu deWitt Miller, Elbert Hubbard, Charles Evans Hughes, and Lincoln Steffens.
In the early days before the advent of the radio or motion picture, — the days when newspapers were scarce and transportation slow, — they heard the problems of the country presented at first hand, not in ‘fireside chats’ on the air, but by Presidents and ex-Presidents in person. The names of Hayes, Garfield, and Grant appear on many old Chautauqua programmes. Later came William McKinley in his plea for ‘Sound Money’ and Theodore Roosevelt advocating his policies and ‘The Strenuous Life.’
Most of the reforms that have blessed or bedeviled our country got their start on Chautauqua. Susan B. Anthony made her first appeal for Woman Suffrage, Maud Ballington Booth, ‘The Little Mother of the Prisons,’ begged support for the Volunteers of America, and Jane Addams told about Hull House. Richmond Pearson Hobson warned of a Japanese invasion and later on took up a crusade against narcotics. Senator Gore exposed graft. William Allen White said, ‘The Progressive Party was born of a dozen Chautauqua speeches,’ and Mrs. Rorer’s cookbook sprang from the same source.
In 1877 Anthony Comstock told Chautauqua audiences that he had arrested 257 dealers in obscene literature and destroyed more than twenty tons of their publications. Carry Nation, hatchet in hand, blazed the trail to National Prohibition with her Chautauqua speechmaking, and Alonzo Wilson organized a string of ‘ Temperance Chautauquas ‘ to back her up.
Judge Ben B. Lindsey told the story of the Children’s Court, Detective William Burns the story of crime, and Samuel Gompers gave the inside of the labor problem in an address entitled, ‘Toilers Organized: What Are Their Aims?’ Ng Poon Chew brought over the first authentic information about the Chinese empire; Princess Radziwill told about Russia, and the Honorable James Bryce discussed England while he studied America. Japanese, Persian, Egyptian, and Hindu, in native costume, came from overseas to tell their stories, while, from our own land, cowboy, mountaineer, and Indian added their colorful costumes and tales to the scene.
During the Spanish War ‘Remember the Maine’ was thundered from the platforms. After 1914 the British and French propagandists strode the boards, and presently we were in the World War. Calls to patriotic service boomed from the big brown tents, and the hated Hun was castigated in impassioned oratory.
Authors who wished to promote their books often took a swing around the Chautauqua circuit with a lecture, with lucrative results. Prima donnas, no longer welcome on Broadway, trailed the remnants of a dying fame over the Chautauqua circuit and gathered in old age money they had failed to lay by in their youth. It was a long way from Broadway to Broken Bow, and to the good folks of the corn belt their fame was yet un dimmed.
Politicians found the Chautauqua by all odds the simplest, cheapest, pleasantest way to campaign. All they had to do was to incorporate their ideas in a lecture and accept a check for delivering it.
There were three classes of Chautauqua lectures: the challenge lecture, the informative lecture, and the inspirational lecture. The informative lecture was one that did what the name implied, informed the people on such subjects as exploration, travel, invention, and the like. The challenge did not present information for its own sake, but for the purpose of securing action. Its object was to challenge thought in religion, politics, or education, to compel the hearers to revise their ideas.
The Chautauqua might possibly worry along without these two types, but without the inspirational lecturer the whole institution would surely have crumbled and fallen. He was at least three fourths of the ‘backbone.’ He told his audience nothing new, but rather reminded them of what they commonly accepted but did not commonly practise.
While other types of lecturers were continually seeking new material for return engagements, the inspirational lecturer could go on year after year giving the same lecture to the same audiences. Occasionally a new anecdote was added to take the place of one purloined by a brother speaker, but for the most part the discourse never varied. Many of these lectures became mellow with age and completely out of date, but, though audiences came to know almost every word of them by heart, that did not lessen their interest. The lectures had the enduring charm of old songs.
At three o’clock one morning I got off the train at Peaceful Valley Junction, somewhere in Iowa or Kansas, or maybe it was Missouri. After a few years of Chautauqua travel, all states were the same to me, and all towns looked alike.
The day before, I had given my recital at the local Chautauqua, entertained at the State Insane Asylum, driven forty miles to catch my train, changed twice in the night, and at three in the morning found myself with a twohour wait in Peaceful Valley.
Sinking gratefully on to a hard, sharpcornered station bench, I had begun to doze when the 3.30 on the Short Line rumbled in and disgorged a batch of talent for the Chautauqua I had just left.
Vinton Seely Potts, Morning Hour Lecturer (‘A Live Man with a Live Message’), piled his baggage up in the corner and began strolling up and down the platform. In his wake came the Queen of the Chautauqua Platform, self-admitted. Ella Emma Pringle was a reader. She had been one of the Chautauqua attractions at Lake Madison that summer, and I could still remember her ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’: —
Ella Emma would give a convulsive gasp with each half league and charge forward with her one hundred and sixty-five pounds until the pine boards groaned perilously. It was a terrible and wonderful sight. For an encore she recited ‘The Moo-cow-moo. ‘
When Ella Emma swept into the dingy waiting room she was still wearing her platform gown, ‘designed [by herself] to express her individuality.’ Of course at 3 A.M. on a hot night the individuality was slightly disorganized, but it was still functioning. No mistake about that. An individuality that had been expressing itself for thirty years on Chautauqua was hardy. Even a week without sleep could n’t wilt it. Ella Emma was, of course, one of those who looked on Chautauqua, not as plain work, but as THE WORK, spoken in hallowed tones.
After we had exchanged the usual greeting, ‘Where do you go from here?’ I suggested sleepily that she try to get some rest, because I knew that she had a hard day ahead of her.
‘Ah, yes,’ she said, ‘success such as mine has meant tearing my heart asunder that the soul of me, through my art, might enter the hungry restless hearts of the multitudes of hungry restless people everywhere and leave a little sunshine there to chase away the shadows.’
I shifted my position and closed my eyes.
‘Thousands and thousands of faces look up at me each evening when I step out on the platform, at first dazzled by my appearance, a little awed by the fame that has preceded me, and then completely captivated by the love I pour into their starved souls through my art..’
She was still talking when I dozed off, but when I awoke, perhaps fifteen minutes later, she was sound asleep in the three seats adjoining mine. She had taken off her shoes, put up her hair in curl papers, and pasted a patch over the wrinkle between her eyes. The ‘Live Man with a Live Message’ snored in close proximity. It was an hour yet until train time.
But the best inspirational lecturers were justly famous. Foremost among them was Russell H. Conwell of Philadelphia. His lecture ‘Acres of Diamonds’ has been heard around the world. In 1914 a celebration was held at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia in honor of the ‘ penniless millionaire,’ as Conwell was called, to celebrate the five-thousandth delivery of this lecture.
At that time it was announced that during the fifty-four years he had been giving it ‘Acres of Diamonds ‘ had earned four million dollars, and the earnings of all his activities ran close to eleven millions. Almost the entire amount of this vast fortune he gave away to found Temple University and Samaritan Hospital in his own city and to help young men and women through college.
Another famous preacher who earned a million dollars lecturing on the Chautauqua and gave it away was Dr. Frank W. Gunsaulus. One Sunday in the year 1891 he stood up in his pulpit at Plymouth Church in Chicago and announced that the subject of his sermon would be ‘What I Would Do with a Million Dollars.’ Then he plunged into a description of the school he would found with a million — a school that would train young men in applied science.
Philip D. Armour sat in the audience and listened with interest. At the close of the talk, the millionaire packer went back to the pastor’s study. ‘I believe you are an honest man,’ he said to the minister. ‘ Promise me five years of your time and I’ll build your school.’ There followed enthusiastic planning. In 1893, with the World’s Fair in full swing, the Armour Institute of Technology opened its doors. It is claimed that no penniless boy has ever been denied admission.
A lecture of the inspirational type that, like ‘Acres of Diamonds,’ grew from a humble beginning was Ralph Parlette’s ‘University of Hard Knocks.’ By means of a little jar of beans and walnuts he drove home a message that won him world-wide fame.
The lecture developed from a talk which he gave to a group of school children. To illustrate that they must grow greater if they wanted to get to the top, he filled a small glass jar with navy beans and a few walnuts. This was the ‘jar of life,’ he explained, and the beans and walnuts were the people. No matter how he shook the jar, the walnuts stayed on top.
‘ See this poor little bean down there at the bottom,’ Parlette would say, holding the jar up where all the children could see. ‘He whines, “I ain’t never had no chance — you just help me up where them big fellers are and I’ll show ‘em.’”
Then, with humorous gestures and grimaces, Parlette would rescue the little bean, place it on the top, and begin to shake the jar, explaining that life never stands still. Of course the little bean rattled right, down to the bottom. In the same way a walnut (one of the ‘big fellers ‘) placed at the bottom shook back up to the top.
In answer to the question put to the children, ‘How can you get to the top?’ they would all shout in unison: ‘Change our size and grow greater.’
The talk was eventually incorporated into a full-length lecture and booked on Chautauqua. The lecture spread beyond the confines of a Chautauqua tent. Big Business sent for Parlette and paid him four hundred dollars a night to shake his jar of beans and walnuts before their executives and sales force to show them what was likely to happen if they did n’t take heed and ‘grow greater.’
When Parlette died in 1930 he had given ‘The University of Hard Knocks’ over four thousand times, and had sold 50,000 copies in book form. Parlette books sold over a million copies.
There were several speakers classed as ‘humorists’ who belonged to the inspirational group, speakers like Opie Read, who had won the affections of America through his stories The Jucklins and The Starbucks, and Strickland Gillilan of ‘Off agin, on agin, gone agin, Finnigin’ fame. These humorous philosophers always managed to inject enough seriousness into their talks so that, even though they ‘rocked the tent,’ their audiences had a ‘message to take home with them,’ for Chautauqua audiences insisted on getting something ‘worth while’ out of each programme.
The headliners of Chautauqua came on special days — Bryan Day, Taft Day, Schumann-Heink Day. These were the days when special trains were run to the Chautauquas and single admissions poured into the box offices. The regular patrons holding season tickets proudly figured they were able to hear any one of the headliners for a pro rata cost of fifteen or twenty cents.1
On these days the rank and file of lecturers and entertainers forgot their weariness and went at their speaking and singing, their whistling and yodeling and juggling, with renewed zest. For on that day Bryan was not Secretary of State, nor was Madame Schumann-Heink the prima donna of the Metropolitan Opera. They were Chautauqua talent, and one of us.
In 1908, a young newspaper editor in Marion, Ohio, sat in his office with one of the Chautauqua managers. ‘Do you think I could put over a Chautauqua speech?’ he asked. ‘You know, I’d like to try it. There’s a lot of fellows lecturing who call themselves progressives, who muckrake and make the crowd think the country’s going to the bowwows. I ‘d like to get out on those platforms and talk some Alexander Hamilton stand-pat stuff.’
An old circular shows this dark-haired handsome young man presented by the Redpath Bureau: Warren G. Harding — Subject: ‘Alexander Hamilton.’
Harding was a very popular speaker. As his political prestige increased, he continued his Chautauqua lectures and became one of the great headline attractions. Even after he was elected to the Presidency, he did not lose interest in the movement, and the talent he had known in his Chautauqua days were always welcome at the White House.
Chautauqua audiences loved speakers who denounced or exposed somebody or something; and the bureaus saw to it that there were at least one or two redhot denouncers or exposers on a programme. When a lecturer raised his hand to high heaven, forefinger pointed straight up, and began, ‘I tell you, my friends, the time has come when we, the American people—’ everybody leaned forward in his seat and forgot to scratch his mosquito bites.
Thomas Lawson denounced Frenzied Finance and Billy Sunday denounced Sin; Commander Peary denounced Dr. Cook, calling him a liar, and Dr. Cook denounced Peary, returning the compliment. When Katherine Mayo wrote Mother India the Redpath Bureau immediately engaged an Indian to give the other side.
As news of the great audiences to be reached through Chautauqua got about, no one was too important to be induced to tell his story to the big crowds of small-town people. The lists of famous names were advertised as ‘Select Folks.’
The Mutual Bureau list for 1914 included such names as Vice President Marshall, Senator Robert M. La Follette, John Kendrick Bangs, Glenn Frank, James Whitcomb Riley, and Albert Edward Wiggam. In 1922 the Redpath Bureau offered Hilton Ira Jones in ‘A Study in Vibration: The Wonders of Science,’ Lorado Taft, Judge Marcus A. Kavanagh, and Opie Read. In that same year, at the Chautauqua Lecturers Conference in Washington, the great Frenchman Clemenceau addressed the gathering, adding his name to the brilliant list of ‘Select Folks.’
The greatest of all the Chautauqua headliners was William Jennings Bryan. He was the premier Chautauquan, the star of them all. It has been said that Bryan spoke to more people than any man in history. Considering the tremendous crowds he drew summer after summer, it is easy to see how that can be true. By his own estimate, in 1921 he had spoken at three thousand Chautauqua Assemblies.
Chautauqua talent worked on weekly salary or a stated fee for each engagement. All except Mr. Bryan. He took his fee from the paid admissions at the gate. He took the first $250, gave the auspices under which he worked the next $250, and any sum in excess of $500 was divided equally. It is said that he made as much as $25,000 a season from his lecture engagements, and he could have made much more had he cared to accept all the requests for his services.
As I have said, Chautauqua audiences were always large. An audience of two or three thousand was an ordinary everyday affair to any of us, but Mr. Bryan’s crowds sometimes numbered as high as ten thousand.
He always came on the platform fanning himself with a big palm-leaf fan. Often he would be accompanied by a boy carrying a block of ice. During his speech he would rest his hand on the ice, and, as his bald head began to glow, he would give it a cooling caress with his icy hand.
There were crowds of people at the stations to greet him when his train passed through, and he always spoke a few words from the platform when the schedule allowed.
One day he was standing on the steps of his car talking to the people. The conductor was waiting on the station platform for him to finish and the engineer was watching the conductor for the signal to start. ‘The time has come, my friends,’said Mr. Bryan, ‘when the government must take charge of our great enterprises. It must run the express companies, the telegraph companies, the rail —' He never finished his sentence.
‘The government is n’t running this train — not yet, Mr. Bryan,’ the conductor said, giving the engineer the signal to start.
With a big broad smile the Commoner swung back on to the car platform. ‘You win, Mr. Conductor,’ he said.
His endurance was amazing. No one who had not had the experience could possibly understand what a strain Chautauqua speaking was in those days before the loud-speaker was invented — trying to be heard over a crowd of thousands on a hot day.
Here is a glimpse of Mr. Bryan’s schedule for a week in 1911, taken from the Lyceum Magazine: —
‘On July 9 he left Lincoln, Nebraska, at 1.50 P.M., reached Kansas City at 8.20 P.M., spoke at a business men’s club, leaving that night at 10.05 and reaching Arkansas City at 7.45 the morning of the tenth. He arrived at Pawhuska, Oklahoma, at 12.40 P.M., and lectured at the Chautauqua, then made an address at the reception downtown, shook hands with the entire population, jumped in an auto with Manager Horner, and headed for Pawnee, sixty miles away. The road was the worst ever staked, being merely a trail part of the way and almost impassable. Four autos started with the party, but only one arrived with Bryan at Pawnee at nearly ten o’clock that night, having stopped on the way while he addressed the towns that massed as he went through. Four addresses and four thousand handshakes the first day. He closed his lecture at Pawnee about midnight.
‘The next day, July 11, he went from Pawnee to Stillwater, shaking hands at every station with a cheering crowd, was met and paraded at Stillwater at one o’clock, spoke, took an hour’s sleep, and at three o’clock lectured to 2000 people for two hours. Then he jumped into an auto and sped twenty-five miles to Perry, catching a train and arriving at Guthrie, Oklahoma, at 8.10 P.M. Here he lectured to a jam at the Chautauqua pavilion, rushed back to catch the 10.50 P.M. train, and arrived in Oklahoma City after midnight.
‘A few hours’ sleep and out at 6.05 A.M. the morning of the twelfth to Weatherford, where he lectured in the afternoon; then back to Geary, where he spent the night. Left Geary the thirteenth at 8.20 A.M. and arrived at Alva at 12.38, where he lectured at 2 P.M., leaving at 4 P.M. and arriving at Kingman, Kansas, at 7.20 P.M., where he lectured again.
‘From Kingman to Stafford on the fourteenth, speaking in the afternoon, leaving at 4.04 P.M. for Turon, and thence driving twenty miles to Pratt, where he lectured that night; then on to Larned at 1.35 P.M., where he gave an afternoon lecture, then drove twenty miles to Great Bend, where he spoke in the evening, rushing from the platform to take the 8.50 train to Kansas City. He arrived at Omaha at 6.30 the next evening in time to address the missionary conference.’
Here are fifteen lectures, a hundred receptions, a hundred thousand handshakes and smiles, and just three unbroken nights in a bed!
Not all were able to stand the strain as Bryan did. On July 16, 1910, Uncle Joe Cannon, Speaker of the House of Representatives, was overcome while speaking at the Winfield, Kansas, Chautauqua and collapsed on the platform. Colonel Copeland, a popular speaker for many years, died from exhaustion while lecturing at Bloomington, Illinois, and there were many more whose deaths were caused by the tax on their physical strength.
The inauguration of the circuit or tent Chautauquas brought a tremendous market for talent of all kinds, but more particularly for musical companies. While the lecturer was still the ‘backbone of the Chautauqua,’ there was more and more demand for companies with pretty girls in attractive costumes and boys in bright uniforms. Ford had done away with the isolation of the rural population. Now they were getting about and visiting the cities; and they had learned a new word. It was ‘pep.’
The Redpath Bureau had grown to huge proportions since the days when James Redpath had sought to relieve Charles Dickens of the annoying details in connection with his lecture work. As the Chautauqua Movement branched out from the shores of Lake Chautauqua and the demand for lectures and entertainments increased, Lyceum and Chautauqua Bureaus sprang up all over the United States. By 1920, Chautauqua circuits became as numerous as railroads.
The most pretentious of all the chains was the Redpath De Luxe Circuit, managed by Harry P. Harrison. When it was first organized in 1912, Chautauqua managers were trying to introduce the Chautauqua into the cities, and this circuit set up its first tent in Jacksonville, Florida, in April and the last one on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago the second week in September. Later, when it was found that cities meant small returns, the circuit started at Columbus, Georgia, and closed in Kewanee, Illinois. If one town dropped out, another was substituted, so that the chain was kept intact. It comprised about one hundred and twenty towns.
The Redpath De Luxe Circuit required a guarantee of $2100. To raise this amount the townspeople had to pledge themselves to sell seven hundred season tickets at three dollars each. The cost of bringing the Chautauqua to a town was $2500 or more, so this guarantee fell short of actual running expenses. Redpath gambled on the single admissions to make it pay. The most modern equipment was carried in this circuit, and the cost of operating it was in.excess of $16,000 a week.
In 1916, I signed my first contract to appear on the circuits and was elated when Mr. Harrison told me that I was to be on the ‘Seven-Day De Luxe.’ Naturally, since I had always traveled alone, I was curious to know what company was to share my day. A day’s programme on the circuit was usually made up of one single attraction — a lecturer or reader — and a musical company. The musicians would give the prelude for the speaker and one full concert. My heart skipped a beat when I saw the programme announcement — ‘Afternoon: Gay MacLaren in Peg o’ My Heart; Evening: Grand Concert — Ralph Dunbar’s White Hussars.’
No wonder that I was thrilled, for I was to be on with the most popular company in Chautauqua. The prospect of traveling with twelve good-looking boys, to say nothing of their handsome leader, A1 Sweet, was something to look forward to. I found out later, however, that they were not thrilled at the prospect of traveling with a girl. In fact, the director had instructed the Hussars to leave me strictly alone.
It was considered a matter of courtesy on Chautauqua for an entertainer to attend the programme of those who were on the same day with him. But none of the Hussars ever waited after the prelude to hear me. They never sat with me on the train, and at the hotels always ate by themselves. I was more alone than I had ever been on the old Independents.
The night of the Hussar concert was always a gala occasion. It was lonely around the hotel after everyone had gone to the tent, and several evenings I was tempted to go and hear them. But stubbornness kept me away. They had not had the courtesy to listen to my programme, so I would n’t listen to theirs.
One day when we had an hour’s wait at a junction (the boys had gone uptown) an old man offered to sell me a tiny white dog for two dollars. The little fellow knew several tricks and was so friendly that I bought him. I decided that if I could n’t have anything else for company, at least I could have two dollars’ worth of white dog. I named him ‘White Hussar.’
When the boys came back, although I pretended utter indifference, I could see that every eye was turned on my dog. And I could read A1 Sweet’s mind as plainly as if it had been a printed page_ ‘Bad enough to have a skirt along; now we ‘ve got to have a blankety-blank dog! ‘
No girl likes to be ignored by any man, much less by thirteen. I planned revenge : I decided to go to the concert that evening, and take my dog.
After my recital I smuggled White Hussar into the hotel covered with my hat. Once up in my room, I gave him a bath and brushed his curly coat until he looked like a big powder puff. I had already bought the widest and stiffest piece of blue ribbon I could get at the local millinery shop and made it into an enormous bow for his neck. Arrayed in my most fetching dress and slippers, I started for the tent.
The opening band number had been played, and A1 had just turned, facing the audience, to announce the first chorus number, when I sauntered down the aisle with my dog. All eyes immediately left the platform and centred on me. As I approached the scat one of the crew boys had reserved for me in front of the director, Al’s face flushed, then he snapped short his introduction, wheeled around, and started the song.
For this, the first half of their programme, the boys wore dress suits. I had n’t seen this collection of tails. The only one that belonged to, and had been made for, the wearer was Al’s. His suit was, as usual, faultless. But the rest had come from the pawnshop at two dollars each. They were too long and too short, too narrow where they should have been wide, and too wide where they should have been narrow. I knew what an eyesore that accumulation of suits must be to Al’s fastidious soul, so every time he turned to acknowledge the applause I stuffed my handkerchief into my mouth as if I were convulsed with laughter.
The intermission over, the last half of the programme was ushered in by the Poet and Peasant overture. As the curtains parted, the small-town girls’ hearts began to flutter like the tent flaps on a windy night. Now the boys need not blush for their apparel. They stood forth in all the glory of their elaborate white, gold-braided Hussar uniforms, with satin-lined capes, white kid boots, and beplumed busbies.
My dog thus far had slept through the programme, but as the Hussars swung into a military formation for their star number, ‘The Boys of the Old Brigade,’ he awoke and crawled up to lick my neck. I held him close to my shoulder, his enormous, ridiculous bow sticking out like a badge of defiance. Al’s brilliant stage smile turned to a scowl as he dashed his cape over his shoulder and swung around to direct the ‘Brigade’ number.
On the first note, the dog pricked up his ears. At the second, he began a long mournful howl that climbed to a wailing crescendo as the accents became more pronounced. As the first howl died out on a doleful diminishing note, he took a deep breath and let forth another. The volume was all out of proportion to the size of the dog, and it completely destroyed the effect of Dunbar’s carefully rehearsed percussions.
A1 half turned, and I thought for a moment he was going to order me and my hound out, but to my utter amazement the scowl had given place to a suppressed chuckle that seemed to say ‘You win!’
The next afternoon when I came out on the platform, in the fourth row sat the entire White Hussar Company.
The programmes for a Hussar concert were always the same, from ‘The Boys of the Old Brigade’ to the final ‘Oh say, can you see,’ played by the entire band.
Eventually Dunbar sent out so many White Hussar companies that disputes began to arise. Someone would say he had heard the famous White Hussars on a certain date at Clabber Bottom, Michigan, and be promptly called to task because ‘on that date the famous White Hussars had been at the Pineyville, Nebraska, Chautauqua,’ and his disputant had a programme to prove it. So finally some of the Hussars changed their trousers and became Black Hussars. Others became the Imperial Grenadiers and still others the Royal Dragoons. But whatever kind of regiment they were, they all sang ‘The Boys of the Old Brigade.’
Rehearsing a Hussar company always wound up with a final overhauling by Ralph Dunbar himself. His assistant could take them up to a certain point, but there was no one but Dunbar who could teach them to ‘percuss.’
‘Come on, now, fellows, let’s take that again! Come on now — percuss! ‘
With coats off and sleeves rolled up, the tired Hussars would swing into the chorus again, accenting the syllables emphasized by Dunbar’s baton.
Who fought with us side by side?
Shoulder to shoulder and blade to blade,
They fought, till they fell and died —
‘And DIED,’ the bass would repeat.
The boys never knew when Dunbar would bob up somewhere along the circuit. He would slip into the tent without their knowing it to see if they were percussing properly.
After the last rehearsal the Hussars were turned over to someone from the Chautauqua Bureau for the final instructions on moral conduct. He would tell them that they must not smoke cigarettes, that they were Chautauqua Soldiers and must live up to Chautauqua Ideals. This over, the boys went out and celebrated in preparation for the long dry summer.
One after another of the carnivals and cheap street shows, unable to compete with Chautauqua, had disbanded, throwing a good many show people out of work. This had happened to Hercules and Samson. So before another summer the two strong men decided to apply for a Chautauqua job.
‘Now, Sam, remember we gotta act refined,’ Hercules cautions as they stand at the door of one of the smaller Chautauqua bureaus.
The two strong men happen to be just the act the bureau needs to fill in on the ‘health day’ programme billed for the second day on the circuit. But first they have to be inoculated with a ‘message’ and made over to conform to the ‘high moral standards of Chautauqua.'
Their flesh-colored tights and spangled jackets are replaced by white shirts, black ties, and black trousers. To their old friends of the carnival they may still be ‘Herk and Sam,’ but to the audiences that will gather under the Chautauqua tents they will be introduced as ‘The Cordiff Brothers, Apostles of Health.’ With them will be Dr. Elias T. Tillwiller in his inspiring lecture, ‘The Temple of the Soul.’ After the ‘apostles’ give their demonstration of muscle-building exercises, they will stand, one at each end of the platform, with arms folded, while Dr. Tillwiller lectures. He will occasionally call attention to them as examples of ‘pure, noble manhood.’
In spite of — or perhaps because of — the clause in their contract forbidding them to indulge in intoxicating liquors or tobacco, the strain of respectability became too much for Sam. One night he backslid, and insisted on telling the crowds, on the way to the tent, that he was ‘the aposhel of health.’ Herk, fearful of losing the good paying job, walked his partner around the block trying to sober him up in time for their performance.
When they turned in behind the tent, Sam fell over a guy rope. ‘Whoops! I fell down and broke my Chautauqua Spirit!’ he announced in a voice that everyone could hear.
‘Oh, Brother Cordiff, I do hope you aren’t injured!’ the platform manager cried, hastening to the rescue. But Herk shoved him quickly to one side and began dragging Sam to his feet, saying, ‘He’s all right — I ‘ll look after him — it’s just somethin’ he et.’
Fortunately, Chautauqua audiences were unsuspecting and the ‘message’ was driven home.
By 1932 the circuits, too, had gradually folded up their tents and, not unlike the Arabs, silently stolen away. They had given way before the onslaught of the radio, the moving picture, and ‘the car in every garage.’ Most of those who managed to survive for a time by turning their programmes over to cheap theatrical companies and vaudeville had finally succumbed to the depression. The old Mother Chautauqua on Chautauqua Lake still carried on with proud dignity, adhering uncompromisingly to the ideals upon which the institution was founded. A few of the larger Independents, like Winona Lake, hung on desperately. The old people came loyally year after year, though in ever-diminishing numbers. The graying platform manager had tried to introduce me with his oldtime spirit: —
‘Now, folks, this is Gay MacLaren’s fifteenth visit to Winona Lake. We all love her and when she comes out let us show her that, even if we are small in numbers, we still have the old Chautauqua Spirit. Now, folks, let’s give Miss MaeLaren the Chautauqua Salute.’
Fifteen times I had climbed that hill. Each time I had been sure it would be the last . . . but the old Chautauqua Spirit could not be downed. When the telegram reached me, I just naturally packed my suitcase and caught the train. The habit of a lifetime is so strong that if anyone were to say Percy, Iowa, or Burr Oak, Kansas, to me, I should automatically rush to the railway station and buy a ticket.
A light flared up in a cottage ahead of me and I heard voices.
‘Were you at the meetin’ to-night, Brother Tate?’
‘No, I couldn’t get over to-night — Sary is sick and — ‘
‘That so? Well, it’s too bad you missed it —’
I paused and crunched my cigarette under my heel. After all, they had applauded my big scene . . . and they had given me the Chautauqua Salute . . . it showed appreciation. . . .
‘ Was it good ? ‘
‘ Wonderful! ‘
My heart skipped a beat.
‘Yes, it was a wonderful message!’
Perhaps the best way of leavetaking is to remember an early Talmage Day. I looked at Mrs. Turner and she was crying. Rufus tugged at her dress. ‘ What are you crying for, Ma? ‘ he asked.
‘Oh, just because I’m — I’m so happy,’ she said, with a sob in her voice.
When I looked at Mother, she was crying too, but she was clapping her hands. Pretty soon Dr. Talmage came out on the platform again. Then the people stopped clapping and began to wave their handkerchiefs. At first there were only two or three, but soon everybody was waving, even the farmers. Their red handkerchiefs looked pretty among the white ones. I unpinned my birthday handkerchief from my dress and waved it too.
Mother said it was the greatest honor that could be given to a Chautauqua speaker. The handkerchief waving, she said, was the Chautauqua Salute.
- On the circuits the price of season tickets was generally established at $3.00. It took 700 tickets at $3.00 to get the seven-day Chautauqua and 400 tickets at $3.00 for the five-day, although some of the five-day Chautauquas sold their season tickets for $2.50. Independent Chautauquas often sold their tickets at $2.00 top, some at $1.50, and there was an occasional ten-day Independent at $1.00. Independents like Winona and Lakeside charged more because they ran longer. — AUTHOR↩