Chautauqua: Rumors of its decline have been greatly exaggerated

Courtesy of Chautauqua Institution Archives
The Chautauqua Amphitheater, circa 1959.

What goes up must come down, so goes the saying. But in matters as complex as human life or, say, Chautauqua Institution, it may be better described as rising and declining. In talking about the Institution, Jon Schmitz, Chautauqua archivist and historian, will add resurgence to his 3:30 p.m. lecture today in the Hall of Christ.

This appearance is Schmitz’s second this week to talk about the origin, rise, decline and resurgence of the Chautauqua Movement. He is speaking as part of the Oliver Archives Heritage Lecture Series.

It is the mother Chautauqua here in New York that is front and center in Schmitz’s mind. But its history and cycle of success is entwined with daughter Chautauquas, which at one time spread through the United States and Canada, and the Circuit Chautauquas, traveling shows that in their heyday brought the name “Chautauqua” to the mouths of nearly 50 million people.

“The high point for the circuits and for the movement, at least in terms of numbers, was 1924, 50 years after the first Assembly at Fair Point,” Schmitz wrote in an email. “But the following year, in 1925, the numbers suddenly, and almost inexplicably, dropped off.”

The mother and daughter Chautauquas were soon to meet their own obstacles, especially with the Great Depression. Additionally, there were many other competitive educational opportunities and the invention of radio and then television, which commanded attention and supplied some of the basic news and information that people had previously found at Chautauqua.

“Chautauquas are not by nature economically viable,” Schmitz said. “They need to be made to work, and that is not easy to do. They thrived on presenting audiences with something new, but soon became old themselves.”

The real question is not why most Chautauquas fail. Rather, how did a few survive?

“The ones that survived the best, that is with the best programs, were those that had communities to rely on,” Schmitz said.

In an effort to attract more people, the Circuit Chautauquas brought on more popular — and more vulgar — shows. The more traditional mother and daughter Chautauquas, those with a more stable sense of community, came to look at the circuits with disdain.

“By the mid-1920s, circuit and traditional Chautauquas were very different and each was wishing to have less to do with the other,” Schmitz said.

Prohibition and women’s suffrage at one time provided a common cause for people involved in the Chautauqua Movement. When Prohibition was repealed and women received the right to vote, Chautauquans lost a common unifying cause.

Nonetheless, the mother Chautauqua maintained itself, as did some of the daughter Chautauquas.

The New York Chautauqua has been especially successful in the last generation.

“The Institution’s success has played a large role in stimulating a new interest in Chautauqua,” Schmitz wrote. “Many communities have approached us, many have called the Archives, in fact, hoping to start or revive a Chautauqua in their community.”

There is more behind this interest than simply wanting to do what the Institution does.

“I believe that this need is not a sentimental longing for a past era … but a more sophisticated awareness of something having been lost,” Schmitz said.