At its peak in the mid-1920s, circuit Chautauqua performers and lecturers appeared in more than 10,000 towns and small cities in 45 states before audiences totaling 45 million people. Big city lyceums brought similar "talent" before urban dwellers all year round, and few thought much about it; but rural people were keenly aware of what was showcased in the course of highly orchestrated three-, five-, or seven-day summer events brought to their community by town boosters. These tent performances drew friends and relatives from miles around, and they were memorable, often claimed as transforming. Today a fading memory of Chautauqua resides primarily with the descendents of those who trod the circuits or sat under canvas on folding chairs to be both instructed and entertained.
Chautauqua first appeared in 1874 in the upstate New York town now of that name. Founded by two Methodists, its primary goal was better training for Sunday School teachers. The idea of a summer "retreat" for spiritual and cultural renewal spread quickly, however, and similar programs were created near other cities. Soon competition for talent made booking difficult, while talent found itself with downtime and burdensome travel schedules. In 1904, Keith Vawter, a Redpath Lyceum Bureau manager in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, rationalized supply and demand, creating the first "circuit" by organizing talent to appear serially in 15 towns across Iowa, supplying tent, chairs, stage, and tickets while securing financial underwriting from a sponsoring committee in each town. The first season required a large investment in equipment and the enterprise lost money, but circuits quickly turned profits and spread like wildfire. They quieted in the late 1920s and died in the early 1930s, victim to the Depression, movies with sound, and network radio.
In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt declared Chautauqua "the most American thing in America" and, confirming his assertion, students and scholars have repeatedly found in the Redpath Records persuasive, multi-faceted evidence of the forces and values that underpin life as we know it in the 21st century. Circuit Chautauqua was situated squarely atop key transitions that still reverberate: a rural population becoming urban, an economy moving from agrarian to post-industrial, racial and ethnic uniformities confronting diversity, conservative values clashing with emerging liberalism.
Bureaus, basically, were communication centers matching the needs of towns to available performers. They lived by their files and on letters, thereby documenting in extraordinary detail an exceedingly complex phenomenon, a cultural dance that blossomed rapidly and disappeared quickly but exhibited amazing vitality in between. Vawter left his personal papers to Harrison John Thornton, professor of history at Iowa from 1929 to 1952, who willed them to the university. The Redpath-Chicago Bureau office files came to Iowa City in 1951. With continuing additions, the still-growing collection runs to over 650 linear feet.
A related Web site, "Traveling Culture," contains 7,949 publicity brochures representing 4,545 individual and group performers. A detailed inventory of the records, with bibliography and suggestions for further study, can be found at the sites listed below.
Collection Profile and Overview: Sidney F. Huttner
Illustrations: University of Iowa Libraries