Anoka County History: Traveling tent show comes to Anoka

In May of 1914, a new set of advertisements appeared in the Union. Readers were advised to “begin laying plans” for a “festival of joy.” A week of “first grade educational entertainment” was on its way. These “seven glorious days of clean enjoyment” would include orchestra, opera singers, alpine yodelers, a Shakespeare play, a scientific demonstration, and daily lectures on such topic as the Panama Canal, the story of New Zealand, love and brotherhood, and the future of America.

The Chautauqua was coming to town. The great traveling tent show, which began circuiting the country around the turn of the twentieth century and continued through the 1930’s, would be setting up shop in Anoka. The movement began at the 1870s at Chautauqua Lake, New York, first organized by a minister and a businessman, with the goal of bringing the masses entertainment and educational uplift. Before long there were Chautauqua sites all over the United States. At first people had to travel to wherever the Chuatauquas called home, but around 1900 the shows went on the road, and communities all over the country were treated to performances that, in the days before commercial radio, they would otherwise have had scant opportunity to experience.

The ads failed to mention where in Anoka the tent would set be set up. In subsequent years some of the advertisements, or some of the articles written during and after the event, would name a location, which moved about from year to year. On one occasion it was at Fifth and Monroe, and on another it was “a block east of last year’s location.” Maybe it wasn’t necessary to name the spot; a Chautauqua tent anywhere in Anoka would be hard to miss. For only $2.50 (or $2 in advance) lucky citizens could subscribe to the seven days of joy. Even Woodward’s Store got in on the action, offering special bargains during the special week. Shop at Woodward’s, they proclaimed, and save enough to pay for your ticket.

The 1914 show was proclaimed a success and it was announced that the Chautauqua would return the following June. In 1915 the show was held on the Woodbury lots, southeast of the Armory. The orators included politicians and scholars from China and Japan, and there was a Junior Chautauqua for the children. The shows continued year after year, generally at the end of June, all through the 1910s and 1920s.

Ticket sales never covered the cost of the of putting on the program, and every year there was a struggle to find enough sponsors, or subscribers, to guarantee the return of Chautauqua the following year. In 1917 the Union suggested the event would not be back, and that attendance had been hurt because “busy bodies spread a report that the program was poor.”

But in 1918 Chautauqua returned, and, with America involved with the Great War, the first ad quoted President Wilson, who said that in these times the Chautauqua had not lost importance but had in fact become even more vital to the country. In 1919 the Union flatly declared that the Chautauqua would not return the following year because not enough tickets had been pledged. But in 1920 it came roaring back. An ad showed a bearded communist and promised a lecture entitled “Bolshevism: Do We Need It?”

The tone of the messages began to reflect the optimism of the Roaring Twenties. A 1922 oration assured listeners that better times were coming for those who were prepared. Though the specific performance and lecture topics changed from year to year, the formula varied little. Always there was a featured play, a half dozen or so musical groups and readings and lectures by people famous and not so famous. The advertisements loved to refer to the speakers with titles such as governor, judge, and congressman, although in most cases they were ex-governors, retired judges, and former congressmen.

By the end of the twenties enthusiasm for Chautauqua had waned, as least if one is to judge by the advertising and reporting. No longer were there full-page ads that listed and described every entertainer. Chautauquas continued to tour the country throughout the thirties but by World War II they had pretty much run their course. There are handful of Chautauquas still operating in the 21st century, including the original show at Chautauqua Lake, and an music-and-theater tent across the state line in Bayport, Wisconsin, but almost none go on the road.

John Evans is a volunteer with the Anoka County Historical Society.

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