First word of Missoula’s first chautauqua came in the spring of 1913.
Six Big Days, a big ad in the April 8 Missoulian trumpeted. Three Programs Daily. Twenty Splendid Attractions. Our Chautauqua Comes in July.
Apparently, people back then didn’t understand chautauquas much more than we do now. At the bottom of the ad was a hazy explanation: “This is not a street fair and not a revival meeting.”
There was the headline on July 16, six days before the “Six Big Days” began, when promoters were having trouble selling $2.50 season tickets:
Many are Ignorant of Chautauqua Meaning. Missoulians Do Not Have Understanding of Coming Entertainments.
Not that the concept hadn’t been batted around for a while.
In June 1893, a column in the Evening Missoulian remarked, “The growth of the Chautauqua movement, or the holding of open air popular conventions during the summer, is familiar. Chautauquas are held in almost every state, and in many states several take place.”
It was just that they hadn’t arrived in “frontier” Montana.
Over the years there were scattered references in the Missoulian to Chautauqua, New York, the birthplace in 1874 of its namesake assemblies.
“Chautauquas are the most American things in America," Theodore Roosevelt reputedly said around the turn of the 20th century.
"Chautauquas are merely vast tea gardens of the intellect," growled a cynical English visitor in 1907.
Let’s drill down on Missoula’s first one, which started on Tuesday, July 22, 1913.
That the chautauqua baggage car had arrived at 10:45 p.m. on Sunday was news enough to lead a detailed newspaper story the day before the Six Big Days began. A “big brown tent” was erected in the middle of the block across South Fourth Street West from the Garden City Business College. The business college then is the Babs Apartments now, across from a Holiday gas station on one end and Le Petit Outre bakery on the other.
After introductions and welcomings, the Winona Ladies of Indiana kicked off the first Chautauqua afternoon with a 45-minute concert. Then came a talk titled “Laughilosophy” by Christian lecturer Francis J. Gable, who that year had published a book by the same name. It was subtitled "A philosophy of living that makes a man glad he is alive.”
Elmer Burkett of Nebraska had hit the chautauqua circuit hard after his term in the U.S. Senate. His lecture “The New Woman and the Young Man” was deemed by the newspaper “one of the best that has been heard from a Missoula platform in a long while."
The White City Band of Chicago, with “a full equipment of traps, kettle drums, and all modern special instruments,” played both afternoon and evening of the first day. Tuesday night was deemed Children’s Night and featured “an hour of magic and musical novelties” from Harrell of Boston.
The week wore on with musical performances by a German violinist, the Chicago Male Quartet, the Georgia Jubilee Singers and the Thaviu Grand Opera Co. On Thursday, Julius Caesar Nayphe lectured on “The Crescent and Cross,” a comparison of oriental and western civilizations.
“Nayphe is of noble birth, the son of a former Greek minister to Norway,” the Missoulian explained. “He appears in true Grecian costume and with the help of four young ladies goes through a Grecian marriage ceremony.”
When the week was over and Missoula’s first chautauqua had run its course, the Missoulian tried to keep a stiff upper lip. The experiment had “left impressions that are decidedly favorable,” it said, but those who brought it to town hadn't been properly supported.
"In the first place the sale of season tickets was discouragingly slow. Then the crowds were not as large as they should have been, and from a financial standpoint the undertaking was not satisfactory. But it was the first one.”
There was a second one and a third. The summer chautauquas continued to elude clear focuses and struggled financially, but they returned to Missoula and other Montana towns well into the 1920s.
On Aug. 28, 1925, under the heading Chautaqua (sic) Is Passing, the Missoulian opinion editor wrote: “Still another noted American institution is about ready to bow before the advance of science and say its farewell.”
After entertaining and educating the Garden City for years, local sponsors had decided to pull the plug in 1926. The advent of the automobile was partly to blame, “making accessible other forms of entertainment for those who during the summer had relied on the canvas programs for diversion.”
“Now the radio promises to complete the work of destruction,” the editorial continued. “Not everybody is a wireless bug, yet, but the number that is not constantly is growing less, and in course of time radio outfits will be as numerous as are motor vehicles now.”
The final day of that first Missoula chautauqua in 1913 featured Ben Chapin's impersonation of Abraham Lincoln.
“His work was of a very high order and delighted his audience from beginning to end,” came the newspaper review. “His acting and lecture beggars description.”
Ah, the chautauqua.