SHEILAGH JAMESON, in collaboration with NOLA B. ERICKSON, Chautauqua in Canada. Calgary: Glenbow-Alberta Institute, 1979. 148 p, ill., bib.; appendix. $12.95.


Several books and theses have been written about American Chautauqua, but with the exception of passing references and an earlier article by Sheilagh Jameson herself ['Chautauqua in the Canadian West', Glenbow 3:5 (September 1970)] nothing has previously appeared about the Canadian venture. What a pleasure then to come upon this sunny history of Chautauqua's eighteen years in Canada (1917-1935).

After outlining its American history from an 1874 Methodist Sunday School Teacher's Camp on Lake Chautauqua, N.Y. (south of Lake Eric), to the 1907 series of independent touring tent-shows affiliated with the Lyceum Booking Bureau, Chautauqua in Canada concentrates on inevitable expansion of one branch of the American operation into Canada. It is a grassroots story about John and Nola Erickson, the founders of the Ellison-White Dominion Chautauquas, and the book is dedicated to Mrs Erickson (1891-) who had hoped to write the history. The late John Erickson (d. 1963) became a Canadian citizen, and from the beginning was determined that Chautauquas in Canada would have a Canadian stamp. By 1926 he bought out the Chicago interests and the name became Canadian Chautauquas. At all times Canadians were part of the staff, and included in the bills as public speakers, musical soloists and actors.

Based in Calgary, Canadian Chautauquas were primarily a Western phenomenon with circuits extending east from British Columbia to Manitoba, north to the Peace River District and even for a time to Alaska. Understandably, Ms Jameson neglects Chautauqua in Ontario and Quebec because the shows, although under the general administrative umbrella of the Ericksons, were packaged in the United States. The three Maritime provinces and Newfoundland were serviced directly by an American Chautauqua company headquartered in Pennsylvania. Because neither the name nor the idea were copyrighted, independent Chautauquas flourished everywhere in America.

Sheilagh Jameson, the archivist of the Glenbow Institute, has given us a most readable account of the Canadian organization. The material is skilfully arranged, handsomely printed and generously illustrated with snapshots and playbills that relate directly to the text. Over the years Ms Jameson has been gathering a formidable repository of print and interview material from the surviving members of the Canadian Chautauquas. It is this meticulous research that provides the backbone and colour for her charming behind-the-scenes account, and it is to her credit as a writer that she has, at times, knitted the divergent information into a seamless narrative and, at others, allowed the voices to speak for themselves. Only in the penultimate chapter has she attempted too much in awkwardly dramatizing the rag-and-tag ends of research and aural reminiscences into a mock, coffee-and-sandwiches house-party.

Chautauqua advertised 'Entertainment, Inspiration and Education', and Theodore Roosevelt described it as 'The People's University'. Eschewing the 'revival meeting' philosophy, Chautauqua still maintained a high moral tone. Its speakers tackled social problems, and its music and drama were chosen carefully to appeal to and not offend the whole family. For the theatre-minded, the names and pictures of many troupes are scattered throughout the text. Plays like Smilin' Thru, Peg 0' My Heart, and The Valiant were the order of the day, uplifting comedy-dramas with an emphasis on the sentimental and the melodramatic. Players travelled from town to town by train or car, and performed on platform stages built over oil drums in the summer tents, or, in the fall and winter, on tables lashed together in makeshift halls. Occasionally, they would play at a regular theatre, if a community possessed one.

There are hilarious and heart-warming anecdotes of children's activities that are worthy of W.O. Mitchell, but the strength of the book lies in its excellent rendering of the intricacies of Chautauqua scheduling, the techniques of 'leapfrogging' the talent through six-day and three-day circuits, and the diplomatic machinations of marketing such a monumental touring enterprise through four hundred towns. There is a truly delightful central section where we trace the last exciting week before the train arrives and the brown tent goes up. With the talent of a film-maker, Jameson 'cuts' between the very human townspeople and the adventures of a young, novice, female 'Superintendent', or Chautauqua advance agent, who cunningly cajoles the local committee first into meeting its current ticket-sale obligations, and then into signing the sacred 'contract' that will commit them for another season.

We get a vivid picture of Prairie life in the twenties and early thirties, with its wooden sidewalks, 'bowl and pitcher' hotel accommodation, and dusty innocence. At times, the narrative veers towards the 'Pollyanna', but then, suddenly, there is a hailstorm, lashing the tent and threatening life; the 'flu epidemic of 1918; Ford V-8's mired in the gumbo; or the stabbing response of a culture-deprived child exposed for the first time to something beautiful; and Ms Jameson's story snaps back into focus.

There is a superb concluding analysis of the demise of Chautauqua in Canada, and an intriguing evaluation of the movement as the dying fall of the Victorian age. Chautauqua's strength and weakness was its community involvement. There is genuine sadness when the poverty caused by the Great Depression and the dust storms forces the valiant committees to opt out of contracts they had signed the year before.

For the theatre scholar, however, the story of Chautauqua's stage performances remains to be told in greater detail. Although Ms Jameson attaches an excellent appendix of those workers (usually university students) who were employed as 'tent boys' or 'superintendents' in Canada, and gives us an extensive but generalized chapter on 'the talent', we would have appreciated a comprehensive calendar of events from year to year, and a complete listing of the speakers, musicians, actors, plays, and novelty acts (bell-ringers, cartoonists, impressionists). There is also a surprising reticence to document or identify those Canadians who began in Chautauqua and then went on to distinguished careers, perhaps because, as Ms Jameson writes, 'The information available concerning the post Chautauqua careers . . . is far from complete'. As a result, I missed the identification of such actresses as Gertrude Bradley, Jan Chamberlain and Elizabeth Sterling Haynes; the playwright, Mary Jukes; broadcasters, Ernest Bushnell, Marjorie McEnaney and Monica Mugan; and Royal Winnipeg Ballet manager, David Yeddeau. For example, mention is made of the Manitoba girl, Evelyn Morris, playing the ingenue lead in Turn to the Right in 1929-30, and the fact that she became 'convinced that her life must centre on the stage'. In the Epilogue, mention is made of an anonymous Chautauqua actress who took part in a Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway production, but nowhere do we learn that Evelyn Morris became Judith Evelyn (1913-67) and starred in The Shrike.

There also seem to be a few errors that slipped past the photo editor. On page 6 the founder of Chautauqua should be Bishop John H. Vincent, and the photograph with the Masseys in it should be credited (p 158) to V. Tovell. In addition, on pp 86 and 101, there seem to be discrepancies in the spelling of Carveth Wells.

Chautauqua survived when 'the Road' failed. In many cases it bridged the professional gap between the wars, bringing the only cultural experience for many years to countless communities in Canada, and serving to introduce the arts and the world of ideas to a generation. This is the legend that Sheilagh Jameson breathes life into. She is to be congratulated for a strong administrative history, and a memorable slice of Western Canadian folklore.