For several summers in the 1920s and ’30s, St. Marys and area residents looked forward to the arrival of Chautauqua at the Flats. Established in 1874 in western New York State, the Chautauqua Institute was originally a fixed-location summer school combining adult education with “morally uplifting” recreation. By 1904, travelling Chautauquas with troupes performing in large tents were on the road throughout the United States with some crossing the border into Canada. In 1929, an organization called Canadian Chautauquas Limited expanded from Western Canada into Ontario. This week’s image is the patriotic cover of the program, circulated in St. Marys during performances from Tuesday, June 4 to Saturday, June 8, 1929.
Chautauqua was a business with travel expenses and performers’ wages to be paid. An advance team visited prospective communities seeking sponsorship. The back of the 1929 program lists 31 prominent St. Marys citizens — doctors, bankers, merchants and businessmen who “made your Chautauqua possible.” Local stores sold advance tickets, newspapers and posters advertised the event and, by the time the giant tent was raised on the Flats, anticipation was at a peak.
There were four afternoon and five evening performances during Chautauqua week — each one different. Passes cost $2.20 for adults, $1 for children. Tickets for individual shows ranged from 25¢ to $1 depending on the program. Entertainment included drama and music. In 1929, “Smilin’ Through: A Romantic Drama in Three Great Acts” was the featured play. Ernest Toy, an Australian violinist, performed on another evening while Anatol Frikin’s Cossacks presented scenes from Russian life through song and dance. Dr. Tehyi Hsieh gave a lecture on “Awakening China” and Captain Stanley Nelson Dancey, author and Great War veteran, spoke on “Canadianization.” Herb Taylor, clown, juggler, ventriloquist and magician, promised children an afternoon filled with surprises.
Chautauquas were memorable events. In 1984, Bruce Hicks interviewed some local seniors for Reflections, a book of firsthand accounts of life in St. Marys in the first part of the 20th century. Some recalled Chautauqua as a first exposure to classical music and theatre, remembering professional performers and exciting drama. “The tent was packed with people. It was tremendous.”
A victim of hard economic times and changing trends in family entertainment, the Chautauqua circuit ended in the mid-1930s. The original New York Chautauqua Institute survives and in 2013 still offers a full summer program.