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August 22, 1997

Before there was radio, long before there was television, entertainment and cultural events were delivered to small towns like Perry by way of summer tent shows produced by Chautauqua, a system that flourished throughout the U.S. in the early decades of this century.

Perry was a regular stop for the touring groups. For one week in August, a large canvas tent would be erected to house an elevated stage for the performers and folding chairs for a receptive audience. Side flaps of the tent would be rolled up for cross-ventilation, and usually it was an agreeable evening for a large number of Perry area residents. Most often, the tent was located on a vacant lot at the rear of Foster's Corner Drug, where the Ruble-Vance automobile dealership now stands.

Traveling from town to town, Chautauqua brought live theater and an assortment of other platform performances to the crossroads of the country. It was like vaudeville, but without the taint of vulgarity associated with that particular type of stage show. Perhaps there would be an occasional bit of dialogue with double meaning, but for the most part it was all family oriented and as pure as the prevailing national morality allowed. A three-act play was generally the premier event of each Chautauqua, but typically there also was a lecturer providing a point of view regarding topics of current interest, plus an array of musical talent, both vocal and instrumental. It was a variety show mixture aimed at satisfying the presumed artistic hunger of rural America in a time when it was not easy to travel to urban centers where cultural matters could be routinely pursued.

The system began to fade when movies learned to talk and national radio networks began forming in the late 1920s. Improved highways and automobiles contributed to the mobility of rural Americans, and thus hastened the demise of Chautauqua. It virtually disappeared from view in the 1930s but strangely, in this final decade of the 20th century, Chautauqua lives again. Productions are booked around the country, including Oklahoma, as the system once again finds a niche.

What brings all this to mind today is the recently discovered copy of a printed program detailing the acts that highlighted a touring Chautauqua group that visited Perry one week in August 1922. The program is provided by Carol Steichen, whose shop, Antiques on the Square, is a treasure house of memorabilia.

Carol's Chautauqua program shows two performances were given each day, the first at 3 p.m. and the evening show at 8 p.m. Single admission prices were 75 cents for adults and 35 cents for children. A season ticket for all Chautauqua shows that season sold for $2.50 per adult or $1.25 per child. Here's a rundown on the performers who pleased Perry audiences that summer 75 years ago, as they were described in the program:

Leading off in the evening was the Lieurance Philharmonic Orchestra, composed of three violins, a viola, a cello and piano, with Thurlow Lieurance as conductor. Following in order were the six Royal Holland bell ringers, endorsed by the king and queen of The Netherlands; lecture by Yutaki Minakuchi of Japan, who had attended the Washington disarmament conference; then came the feature event, a play, "Polly of the Circus," which reportedly had run for a solid year at the Liberty Theatre in New York; the Artist Trio, composed of a violinist, pianist and Altinus Tullis, a soprano; lecturer Dr. Frank Church speaking on "How to Land on Both Feet;" and closing with the White and Black Minstrels, featuring a double male quartet, the orchestra and minstrel finale. The afternoon show was tailored more for children but included virtually the same entertainers.

A program footnote shows the Chautauqua contract for 1922 was signed by Fred H. Merritt, J. H. Vandenberg, W. R. Fry, Sam Gottlieb, H. C. Jackson, Kaufman Creamery Co., Fred C. Seids, Burt E. Brown, A. J. Ringler, F. G. Moore, C. A. Worley, Fred Mugler, A. R. Johnson, E. E. Nelson and Ben Wacker. That group probably guaranteed the successful sale of tickets for the season and thus made it possible for Chautauqua to visit Perry.

A few days ago, Enid produced a "Chautauqua in the Park" event featuring workshops and theatrical performances that highlighted five historical characters who were influential in shaping today's society. I don't know if Enid's Chautauqua has any connection to the old system that saturated the country years ago, but it was obviously an attempt to recapture some of that time period. A few years ago, after World War II, Perry folks formed community-wide organizations to bring in a series of speakers on foreign affairs, and still later a local Community Concert group was created to import classical singers and small instrumental ensembles. The Perry Arts & Humanities Council used to bring in the Oklahoma City Symphony or the Tulsa Philharmonic for an evening of delightful classical music, plus assorted other class acts. All these fared well for a time, but eventually interest waned and they went the way of Chautauqua. Who knows -- perhaps at some point our interests again will lead the way to a revival of summertime Chautauqua in this little city.