History of the Opera: Cheboygan Chautauqua

In 1874, the Chautauqua Institute was formed on the shores of Lake Chautauqua, New York, by two Methodist ministers with the goal of bringing culture and education to adults, non-denominational, and transcending class lines, of belief and color. In 1878, it became one of the first forms of continuing education for adults in the United States, a correspondence course for those who might not have access to a college education otherwise.

As early as November 1882, Cheboygan leaders called for a Chautauqua group in Cheboygan. The Cheboygan Democrat said, “We believe that a society that should adopt a general curriculum that includes systematic readings in general history, literature, astronomy, science, art, the Bible, etc. would arouse the interest of all classes. We think a ‘Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle’ would fill the bill. The curriculum adopted by this company has been developed by some of the best educators in the country.

In 1886, the CLSC Cheboygan or Cercle Chautauqua began, initiating a four-year study program designed around the four pillars: Arts, Education, Religion and Recreation.

In 1888, members of the Cheboygan Chautauqua circle commented on the new program: “The leaders have prepared a rich feast for old and young. For the ancient history student and enthusiast, we have Vincent’s Greek History, Wilkerson’s Greed Prep Course, as well as the University Greek Course in English. Those more interested in the animal kingdom will appreciate folk zoology, while chemistry provides food for thought and experimentation for the scientifically minded. The subjects of common interest to all are the Character of Jesus… and also subjects which occupy the attention of the public since they appear every month in the columns of the “Chautauquan”. If people who don’t have time for the full course but would like to take part of it, they will be welcome.

From the correspondence course, Chautauqua has become a national cultural phenomenon. Speakers and artists have traveled from city to city, part of the high school movement to bring arts and culture to all Americans. Music was an essential part of the arts, and many Chautauqua artists appeared at the Cheboygan Opera House, including the country’s leading African-American group, singers Fiske Jubilee, who performed on stage in 1901. Their interpretation of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” was the first ever recorded and can be found in the Library of Congress.

The Chautauqua National Institute welcomed diversity. Many black students graduated from the first class of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle of 1882. A Hebrew Chautauqua was formed in Philadelphia in 1893. The program attracted many women who could not afford to go to school. university but wanted an education. This inclusive cultural movement caught fire in 1904, evolving into a week-long traveling tent show known as Circuit Chautauqua. Across America, Chautauqua Week has evolved into an annual adult summer camp, bringing people to quaint towns willing to host the event as an investment in education and entertainment for every citizen.

In Petoskey, Chautauqua found a permanent home to replace tents and outdoor camping during the summer months. On June 18, 1909, the Democrat of Cheboygan published an article titled “Summer at Bay View”.

“The boom in the summer town of Bay View in northern Michigan has long attracted a lot of attention. It is a city of hundreds of summer residences and hotels in the groves on the edge of Lake Michigan: the seat of a renowned assembly and summer school and attracts people from all parts of the world. from the country. It combines the advantages of Ocean Grove and Chautauqua and is one of the most beautiful spots in the world. A measure of its popularity are the one hundred and sixteen local passenger trains that arrive daily from the south, in addition to all of the lake’s steamboats. It is renowned for its great variety. There, recreations are organized and promoted, and a $ 12,000 swimming pool and bowling alley are being built. “

The Chautauqua Circuit group Fisk Jubilee Singers performed at the Opera in 1901. The group from Fisk University in Nashville still sings and is still on tour.  In 2021, they won their first Grammy Award.

In 1914, Cheboygan hosted Chautauqua Week, one of the biggest tent show extravagances to hit the city. It took place in August on the Main Street grounds next to the city park. Campers were offered a beautiful site on the Cheboygan River and access to some of the era’s most renowned speakers and musicians, including Bohumir Kryl and his 30-piece orchestra. Kryl was a protégé of John Phillips Sousa and presented by the LA Times as “hands down the greatest cornet player in the world”.

Across the country from 1904 to the mid-twenties, approximately 40 million people participated in a Chautauqua event.

After 10 years, the appeal of Chautauqua waned, in part because of the costs of finding good talent in a poor economy. In June 1923, the Cheboygan Democrat reported: “A motley assortment of barn assailants, college students, would be comedians and stage favorites now clutter small country towns with what they are happy to call. Chautauquas and the tiny hamlet that doesn’t support a Chautauqua at one point or another this summer is not at all in fashion. If they served a real purpose, we might not be able to find any objections to the modern Chautauqua, but so many of them are made up of the cheapest type of clay trap, posing as great artists than the audience swallows and goes home. believing that they have done something that qualifies them for a higher niche in the sum of human happiness. When in reality any old home talent show would look just as good.

July 1926 brought the last Chautauqua week to Cheboygan. Across the country, the Chautauqua itinerant circuit suffered the same fate. The Democrat of Cheboygan declared: “The Chautauqua association folded up its tents and its paraphernalia yesterday morning and took refuge in another place … The fact alone dealt a very hard blow to the guarantors who, by their efforts, have sought to bring attractive and high-class entertainment to the gates of the city dwellers, but it seems that their interest in such a project has not been appreciated.

Twenty Chautauqua communities still thrive today, including Bay View, Michigan, Boulder, Colorado and the original on Lake Chautauqua, New York.

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