Issue #6

Traveling Culture – Chautauqua Comes to Athens

By Anne Adams

Suppose you lived in Athens about a hundred years ago, and you sought something unique in the way of entertainment?  Today we might turn on the TV or any number of electronic devices but back then you also might just wait till the next Chautauqua show came to town and brought you all entertainment, as well as education and inspiration. 

And the Athens Review advertisement on June 7, 1917, described what you’d see and hear. It was an event described as a week-long “Chautauqua and Home Coming Week” where attendees could see (among other attractions) performance of the Metropolitan Men Singers – billed as “half a ton of harmony.”


So what’s this about?


According to one source, “the Circuit Chautauqua experience was critical in stimulating thought and discussion on important, political, social and cultural issues of the day.” And it accomplished all that by its touring companies bringing nationally known speakers, performers, and programs to rural areas and small towns.


The idea began in 1874 at a Methodist conference center on the shore of Lake Chautauqua in western New York State which evolved into a sort of family camp that offered programs that promised “education and uplift.” Over time, independent Chautauqua assemblies began to spread around the country, offering performers booked by several agencies.  By the time the circuit Chautauqua performances reached their peak in the 1920s, these acts had appeared in more than 10,000 locales in 45 states performing before some 45 million people.

Lecturers were perhaps the most popular attractions of the Chautauqua presentations, covering subjects from politics, to travel or comedic stories. Music was another crowd favorite as well as dramatic performance from classic plays.  


The 1917 ad did not specify the show location but it promised quite a variety of offerings over seven days of attractions from June 7 - 13. 


The first day there were the Althea Players - six girls who played the violin and sang, as well as Lou Beauchamp billed as “The thinker who makes you laugh - the humorist who makes you think.”


The second day featured the Metropolitan Men Singers (“half a ton of Harmony), “the Sunshine Girl” Ada Roach, and Brooks Fletcher, described as being a “giant mentally … and an intellectual feast.”


The third day offered W.S. Ellis and his Hawaiians [sic] playing “entrancing exotic and beautiful but weird airs.” This of course was many years before Hawaii became such a popular tourist destination.


Also on the bill that day was lecturer Wm. Rainey Bennett who was billed as “The Man Who Can” or at least that was the title of the speech he gave most often.   


If Bennett might sound like a preacher then that’s because he was and at the time pastored a church in Indiana. His sermon-lectures were published nationally and in a day before microphones were readily available when a speaker’s voice had to carry he was easily heard. This was because he with a “rich robust tenor, which without strain reaches the uttermost art of tent or auditorium, his softest tones carrying easily.” 


The fourth day presented the New York cast of “Little Women” and along with the play was a “concert of merit” by Jenkins-Archinard Co.


Then on the fifth day Ruby Norman and Peggy Hill presented violin music and “costumed sketches and pianologues,” as well as Frank Ducrot, touted as a magician and man of mystery. The featured speaker was Edward Emerson Ott, who “with beautiful diction and a superb variety of expression …flashes his sentences toward you and nearly every one of them goes through you with a thrill.”


Originally from Ohio, Ott studied “speech arts” in New York and appeared on the stage learning from the great actors of his era. He later became the Dean of the College of Oratory and English at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. He was nationally known for his speeches, and lectures reaching about 200,000 persons a year.


Of course orators were especially popular because being able to speak dramatically and effectively was considered a real art – and obviously something you could go to college to learn. In fact, one popular lecturer was frequent presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan whos speeches were especially popular.


On the sixth day of the week there was an appearance by Keler-Wille Company, composed of a violinist and pianist who “have acquired world-wide fame with their artistic skill.”


The main speaker that day was George H. Bradford who “is so convincing, so reasonable, so eloquent, so effective that greatest audiences in the largest cities all over the union have been swayed and carried by storm by this statesman.”  His credentials were impressive as an apparent former educator – his title was Chancellor – and his subject was often public education for American children.


Then on the final day there was a performance by Marie Hogan from the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta “Pinafore.”


Then the show would move on, leaving Athenians to wait till the next year and the possible return of the Chautauqua show.


Some of these circuit show series lasted into the 1930s, but eventually they faded, probably because of the widespread popularity of the radio and movies. However, for those who lived the experience, the Chautauqua circuit show was as one observer called it “A sort of a diverting, wholesome and morally respectable vaudeville…and an early form of mass culture.”

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