Before Netflix…before television…even before radio, there was…Chautauqua! Pronounced ‘Shuh-TAW-Kwa’, these popular tent shows made the rounds of rural communities in both the U.S.A. and Canada, giving people without access to big city entertainment a taste of culture. The first Chautauqua was a religious (Mennonite) summer retreat held on Lake Chautauqua in New York in 1874, with lectures and debates on, not just religion, but science, politics, economics, and literature as well. The idea caught on, and before long, tour companies were taking the unique combination of education and entertainment on the road, adding music, comedy, and drama to the programme, and using well-known personages such as Metropolitan Opera baritone J. Horace Smithey, suffragette Susan B. Anthony, and writer Mark Twain as drawing cards. Troupes stayed in town up to a week, offering audiences something new to view each and every day.

Chautauquas didn’t get started in Canada until John M. Erickson brought one to Alberta in 1917, but they were a big hit there, too, until around 1935, when radio, and later, television, started to bring entertainment right into people’s homes.

The photo above shows a school Chautauqua production, albeit with more sophisticated audio and visual support than the originals enjoyed. This one showcased the history of Canada, in honour of its upcoming 150th birthday. And, yes, they performed in a tent.


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