In the era before the Internet, before television, before movies and before radio, rural Americans found summer entertainment and engagement when a traveling troupe of entertainers and educators arrived in town.
Called “Chautauquas,” the touring groups presented dance, music, drama, magic, acrobatics, vaudeville, lectures and a variety of “cultural enrichment” throughout rural America. (The phenomenon got its name from Lake Chautauqua in New York state, where the first event was held.) From the late 1800s until the mid-1920s, the Chautauqua movement, with its mix of arts, education and entertainment, flourished across the country, before fading with the growing popularity of radio and motion pictures.
If the idea of good old-fashioned family entertainment presented by a traveling troupe makes you nostalgic, don’t despair. The Methow Valley can relive those halcyon days when the community hosts a three-day visit from the New Old Time Chautauqua beginning June 22.
The New Old Time Chautauqua will bring about 60 performers, educators and staff to the valley and, in partnership with Pearrygin Lake, Alta Lake and Conconully state parks, will offer family fun, educational experiences, food and entertainment.
Headquartered in Seattle, the New Old Time Chautauqua is America’s only traveling Chautauqua. For the last 37 years, the group has traveled throughout the Northwest to small towns and Native Nations “to promote community through education, entertainment and laughter.”
Chautauquas were always held in idyllic settings among trees, by a shore, or in a park. Partnering with Washington’s state parks continues that tradition, said Paul Magid, a founding member of the New Old Time Chautauqua and The Flying Karamazov Brothers.
“The New Old Time Chautauqua and Washington State Parks share common goals — to promote community through education and experience by being a catalyst for cultural and creative exchange surrounded by the beauty of nature,” Magid said.
During this year’s visit to Pearrygin Lake State Park, the Chautauqua and park officials will work together with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation — and particularly the Methow tribe — to include Native voices in telling the stories of the state park, part of an initiative by the state parks system to ensure that tribal perspectives and stories about state parks are accurately and authentically presented.
“We’re trying to bring a new focus on state parks and are collaborating with the Colville reservation,” Magid said. “When we’re at Pearrygin there will be several speakers and elders of the Methow tribe, because that is part of the tribe’s original territory.”
During the visit to the Methow Valley, the Chautauqua will host a variety of workshops led by members of the troupe, park staff and local community members. The workshops will be an eclectic mix, such as juggling, fly-casting, samba dancing and folding a fitted sheet.
There will be community potlucks featuring speakers, music and dancing; colorful parades with jugglers, dancers and a marching band; discussions facilitated by community members on alternative energy, health education, storytelling and more. And there will be a “Really Big Show” including music, juggling, comedy and more at the Methow Valley Community Center.
Community involvement is an essential part of the Chautauqua experience, said Rob Crandall, a local resident and juggler who is helping coordinate local involvement. “Performing is a way of reaching out and connecting to people, which is really what Chautauqua is all about,” he said.
Crandall said he and local high school students will be juggling. Local musicians and the young aerialists in the Aerie Circus Studio in Twisp will also join in Chautauqua events. Community members are welcome to lead workshops, he said.
“Chautauquas are about coming together to learn, to celebrate and ultimately to appreciate our diverse neighbors,” said Makaela Kroin, coordinator of the State Parks Folk and Traditional Arts Program.
The visit to the Methow Valley on June 22 – 24 is part of a touring schedule that focuses on three distinct geographical areas of the state — desert, mountain and sea — with state parks as centerpieces.
Pearrygin Lake, Alta Lake, and Conconully state parks represent the “mountain” part of the tour. The Chautauqua will also visit Sun Lakes – Dry Falls State Park from June 14 – 20 as the “desert” part, and Birch Bay State Park from June 28-30 as the “sea” part.
While in the Methow Valley, Chautauqua members will undertake a community service project, planting native vegetation on the Cottonwood Trail off Old Twisp Highway on June 22 from 9 – 11 a.m. Community members are welcome to work with them, Crandall said. “It will be the wackiest tree planting they’ll ever experience.”
The New Old Time Chautauqua is a nonprofit organization, and touring performers volunteer their time. The group’s appearance is funded through a grant from the license plate fund for education and community outreach, and through the Washington State Parks Foundation, Kroin said. The Winthrop Kiwanis is also providing financial support, Crandall said.
During the heyday of Chautauquas in the early 1900s, the movement brought famous speakers, international music stars, actors, scientists, politicians and vaudeville performers to millions of Americans. President Theodore Roosevelt called it “The most American thing about America.”
Based on the idea that learning continues throughout life, the Chautauqua movement’s mix of education and entertainment has been described as a predecessor for today’s TED talks, as well as influencing modern journalism, television and politics.
The New Old Time Chautauqua tour schedule
Friday, June 22
9-11 a.m.: Community service project. Community members are welcome to join members of the New Old Time Chautauqua in planting native vegetation along the Cottonwood Trail off the Old Twisp Highway. Meet at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife kiosk. For more information, call Rob Crandall, (509) 341-4060.
Noon: Performance for residents of Jamie’s Place in Winthrop.
1 p.m.: Chautauqua members will present a short show in the Confluence Park on Riverside Avenue in Winthrop.
Pearrygin Lake State Park
4 p.m.: Workshops presented by park staff and partners. Workshop offerings include the history of Pearrygin Lake State Park, a ranger talk, a fly-casting lesson, sheep-to-shawl demonstration, crafts for children and more. Vehicles entering the park will need an annual Discover Pass or day pass.
6 p.m.: Potluck at Group Camp Two. All are welcome and invited to bring a favorite dish to share. Speakers will address visitors during dinner, and music and dance will follow the potluck.
Saturday, June 23
Noon: Parade from the Methow Valley Farmers Market to TwispWorks, with costumed jugglers, unicycle riders, dancers, little faeries and other merry-makers accompanied by New Old Time Chautauqua’s lively marching band. Local residents and community groups are encouraged to participate in the parade.
1-4 p.m.: Three sessions of interactive workshops at TwispWorks, led by Chautauqua and community members on topics that include juggling, acrobatics, mask-making, trash fashion creation, samba dance and drumming, folk singing, magic and clowning. Community members will also facilitate discussions on alternative energy, health education, storytelling and more. Workshops last around 45 minutes each. Anyone can lead a workshop. Contact Makaela Kroin, (360) 902-8635.
7 p.m.: New Old Time Chautauqua presents the Really Big Show in the Methow Valley Community Center, including music, juggling, comedy, acrobats, and more. Suggested $10 donation.