Chautauquas in Skaneateles

One hundred and fifty years ago, the lyceum – an association that arranged lectures and/or a hall that hosted lectures – was one of the main avenues of learning and culture. The village of Skaneateles had its own lyceum association as early as 1847 and a lyceum hall by 1853.

A bit to the west, in 1874, the New York Chautauqua Assembly was organized on the shores of Chautauqua Lake, and gave its name to a nationwide movement. Instead of bringing lectures to the people, “Chautauquas” brought the people to the lectures, at sites where scores of motivational speakers, educators and musicians could edify and improve thousands of visitors.

Chautauqua assemblies sprang up across North America and agencies handled management and bookings for the lecturers and performers. Some agencies put together packaged touring companies that enabled smaller communities to host a Chautauqua.

The village of Skaneateles held five “Community Chautauquas,” between 1915 and 1919, behind the City of Syracuse pump-house on Genesee Street, under a tent known as “the big brown top.” It could hold 800 persons.

In 1915, the Skaneateles Community Chautauqua ran from June 30th through the 4th of July. The visiting artists included The Metropolitan Glee Club; Charles Seasholes lecturing on “Is Life Worth Living?”; Miss Mae Sheppard, a dramatic soprano singing arias and old-fashioned favorites; Hans P. Preece, an apostate Mormon, exposing the sect’s methods and secrets; the Venetian Players; and Vitale’s Italian Marine Band, led by a teenage prodigy.

Herbert and Floy Sprague, “and their company of phantom players,” portrayed every character, in costume, in the play “Rip Van Winkle.” The Swiss Alpine Singers and Yodelers, “three dashing mountaineers and three mountain lasses,” sang alpine melodies and accompanied themselves on the then-exotic zither.

emma b smith

Among the star attractions was Elma B. Smith, “the highest-priced child impersonator on the Chautauqua circuit,” giving comic readings, mimicry and bird warbling selections. The Lyceum Magazine noted, “Probably no entertainer who has ever come before the American public deserves stardom more than Elma B. Smith.”

In 1916, the Chautauqua ran from June 26th to the 30th. Leonora M. Lake spoke on “The Divine Rights of the Child”; the Imperial Russian Quartet introduced the balalaika to Skaneateles; The Regniers presented a program of “character makeup with a sketch of original songs and trombone solos;” Lee S. Estelle, Juvenile Court Judge of Omaha, “elevated the whole tone of the public mind” with his “counsels, kindly admonitions, and sagacious warnings.” Josef Mach’s Bohemian Band and the Edna White Trumpeters provided musical entertainment.

Newton Prince 2

Ray Newton, “Prince of Magic, Mirth and Mystery,” was the most highly touted of that year’s performers. A typical review read, “For over eight years Newton has been mystifying Lyceum patrons by his original feats of legerdemain, enrapturing them with captivating selections on the Swiss Hand Bells, and fascinating them with his own refined humor and easy flow of language.”

In April of 1917, the United States entered the Great War (eventually known as World War I) and so that year’s Chautauqua took on a different tone. Held from August 25th to 29th, it opened with the former governor of Nebraska, Ashton C. Shallenberger, lecturing on “The True Patriotism.” The Mendelssohn Sextette modified their program of light classics to include patriotic songs. The six young ladies did, however, treat the audience to their famous wardrobe changes, appearing in evening gowns, Chinese costumes, and yellow sport coats, hats and parasols.

John Kendrick Bangs, “America’s foremost man of letters,” spoke on “Salubrities I Have Met,” anecdotes of statesmen, poets, novelists and philanthropists, laughing with everybody and laughing at nobody. Dr. Elmer Lynn Williams, Chicago’s Fighting Parson, “kept up a rapid fire talk bristling with fun and fact… largely in a portrayal of the vice conditions in Chicago.”

More music was provided by the Tschaikowsky Quartet, and the Royal Blue Hussars, resplendent in bright blue uniforms with shoulder capes, plumed hats and polished leather boots.


But the biggest musical attraction came from the Heart of the Dark Continent – J.H. Balmer and his Kaffir Singing Boys – performing both native songs and songs in English, plus dances and tribal ceremonies. Wearing “the skins of native African animals,” they brought to Skaneateles “the terror of Africa’s picturesque savage life.” Balmer found his choir boys in South Africa, and the press noted, “He began by teaching them good manners; how to dress, how to talk, how to eat… and lastly, how to SING. He made accomplished singers and entertainers out of potential savages.”

In 1918, from August 20th to 24th, the Community Chautauqua promised “the greatest war program ever assembled.” The emphasis on culture and self-improvement was especially important; frivolous entertainments on the home front were inappropriate as the war in Europe continued.

Dr. Joseph Clare spoke on “The Riddle of the Russian Revolution.” The Reverend Clare was the pastor of the British-American Congregational Church in St. Petersburg/Petrograd when the Bolsheviks abruptly changed the climate for organized religion. Author Albert Edward Wiggam, just back from the Western Front, spoke on his time “over there” with American troops.

Bird Calls

To lighten the program, Mr. & Mrs. Emerson Winters offered monologues and bird mimicry, and Ralph Parlette, philosopher and humorist, spoke of the University of Hard Knocks.

Martial music was provided by the Kilties Band, a troupe of Scottish musicians (from Toronto), who had performed in 20 countries, and the Panama-San Diego Exposition in 1915. More international culture came to Skaneateles in the person of “the most talked of attraction in America,” the Royal Hawaiian Singers and Players. Wearing native costumes, singing native songs, and playing the ukulele and steel guitar, the Hawaiians were both novel and pleasing to the ear.

Royal Hawaiians (2)

(Ralph Parlette, who toured with the Hawaiians, later wrote that their summer was not without misadventure. When they tried to cross the border into Canada for a Chautauqua there, they were stopped and informed that they would all need letters from their local draft board, in Hawaii, giving them permission to leave the country. After a flurry of telegrams, they were allowed to perform in Canada but only after leaving all their luggage in the U.S. to guarantee their return.)

Tallow Dips

In 1919, the Skaneateles Community Chautauqua took place from August 3rd to 7th. Newspaper editor Robert Parker Miles presented his famous lecture, “Tallow Dips,” vivid, glowing sketches of the famous people he had known, including “the Dip of Hate,” his impressions of Kaiser Wilhelm II and Otto von Bismarck.


From the Canadian north woods came an illustrated lecture by naturalist Chauncey J. Hawkins, author of Ned Brewster’s Bear Hunt, “with moving pictures that almost cost Mr. Hawkins his life to obtain.” Mr. Hawkins touched upon how a bear gets honey from a bees’ nest and how a moose escapes hunters.

The Kaffir Singing Boys returned to Skaneateles with a special feature: a reenactment of the ‘call to war’ by a Kaffir chieftain. Brass fanfares were provided by the Royal Grenadiers, “native sons of Italy, each of whom has seen service with the Glorious Italian Army.”

Back from Europe, the Overseas Male Quartet, four U.S. soldier boys, sang “trench songs.” (It’s a wonder they found enough for the program, given the vulgar nature of most of those ditties. A mild example is “When this lousy war is over” sung to the tune of “What a friend we have in Jesus.”)

This was the last of the Skaneateles Chautauquas. In every host community, local organizers had to guarantee the booking agency a set sum, and only made money if the ticket receipts exceeded that. The financial pressure, combined with the organizational challenges, eventually wore sponsors down. At the same time, the introduction of commercial radio broadcasting in 1920 brought a world of information, culture and entertainment right into the home, making local Chautauquas less and less of a draw.

* * *

I would have been lost without the University of Iowa Libraries’ Iowa Digital Library, home to an extraordinary collection of lyceum and Chautauqua literature.

A bit to our west, the original Chautauqua Institution, the mother of them all, still thrives.


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