The Most American Thing in America
Fortunately for this story, several residents of our area were tracked down and asked the question: "Do you remember Chautauqua?" Responses varied, ranging from "nope" to a considerable letter that required excerpting to fit into this piece. The responses gave this writer a pretty fair image of the entire show that settled on Honeoye Falls for parts of many Julys.
Jean Harris, a child at the time, recalls visiting her relatives in Honeoye Falls and being taken to chautauqua as a special treat. Mildred Degnan's cousins had a respite from summer-slow West Bloomfield when they stayed in her East Street home for all of Chautauqua Week. She also recalls those slatted wooden folding chairs, on which one exchanged culture for comfort!
Another Mildred, Mrs. Warren Vickers, remembers the flexibility of the season ticket, one pass for all the shows. When a pass holder couldn't make a date, word would spread, a handoff was affected and soon a youngster would discover the joys of seeing chautauqua from inside the tent.
The diary of 94-year-old Seymour Brooks indicated his family attended chautauqua every day it played for at least fifteen straight years. Elsie Moran, a spry 97, has never forgotten the Hawaiian dancers in their grass skirts ("Vierra's Hawaiians," 1926)—the closest she ever got to Hawaii. And Ron Lord, all of five when the last chautauqua came through, envisions gypsies and "Punch and Judy."
Alfred Euler was made to dress like "Little Lord Fauntleroy" for a visit to chautauqua and oh, did he hate that! Mortified that he'd be spotted by tickled peers, Alf's buggy ride from the Sheldon Road homestead was perhaps the longest of his life.
Ninety-year-old Helen Shepard, corresponding from Virginia, wrote of plays and poetry and sitting on those disagreeable chairs—so unforgiving of the backside. Her origins deeply rooted in the history of North Bloomfield, Helen transcended the ages with these excerpts:
We used to carry cushions to soften those planks which formed the seats. I believe all the equipment was made to fold up for ease in transport. The stage, a platform raised a few steps, was supported by "sawhorses" with curtains to provide space for actors offstage waiting their entrance.
I know we saw some Shakespeare. "Julius Cæsar" and "As You Like It," but my memory may be recalling the ones I studied in high school. I do remember one other, however, "It Pays to Advertise." I don't know the author. The jist of the play: a son who disagreed with his father about his selling philosophy and they sort of parted company, leaving the son on his own.
I remember going to hear a singer, and another recited some poetry, but I can't recall their names. But I, and the audience in general, enjoyed the programs. I also remember a man who talked about bees and honey making. I remember him walking down the aisle with bees crawling around his face. (My father kept bees, so I wasn't so much impressed.)
Pauline Cronk can't forget the joy of children's games, organized by the chautauqua staff. She'll always envision her dad's case of nerves when introducing the opening speaker of the 1925 season. And she recalls the running events, held by the Lehigh depot and under the watchful eye of Olympian, Paavo Nurmi. Pegged "The Flying Finn," the distance runner Nurmi won more Olympic medals than anyone has to date. (Also, sprinter Charley Paddock, another gold medalist, appeared here in 1923.)
"The opening of another cultural world was a marvelous education…," related Concetta Marasco. Harking back to the early '20s, little Concetta would rush home to emulate a ballerina, or draw like the great artist she saw, or pantomine in front of her mirror.
While her mother most appreciated the opera singers and the lecturers, Concetta was inspired to confide that: "I felt as if my heart would burst from joy!" Star-struck, she'd sometimes follow the performers as they returned to their quarters at the Despard house, imagining their interesting world.
A couple of our finest "dandies" of that era, Lloyd Rittenhouse and Stainton Allen, carried their awe a few steps further. As Lloyd related by phone recently, the two young fellas took a shine to a couple of attractive chautauquans of the opposite gender and figured they had nothing to lose in asking for a date.
The ladies consented, and, with Millicent Despard's cautious approval, were spirited off to Conesus Lake for a 50 cent, moonlit motorboat ride off now-departed Long Point Park. It was a glamorous and (Lloyd insisted) innocent excursion into an outsider's magical world.
Speaking of magic, Red Parmelee, perhaps a little rambunctious in his younger days, was glued to his seat for the magicians. The whirring of decades had failed to dissolve his vision of fire shooting from nowhere in glorious flares, of juggling and (best of all) of fig newtons flung into the scrambling masses of children.
Margaret Kennedy, the refined ex-schoolteacher, was not so thrilled by the political speeches or the works of Shakespeare. Inspirational talks, visions of world travel and stage comedies were what really caught her fancy. As intended, it was the chautauqua maxim, "not what to think, but how to think," that helped inspire her to become a highly learned adult.
Kate Myers, Class of '25, reiterated the general content of yearly programs, adding that, as Chautauqua Week played out, a subscriber committee canvassed the town selling tickets for the following year. And Lloyd Rittenhouse said the last day's programs ended with a not-so-subtle encouragement to pledge via a "show of hands." To assure a return of the chautauqua, several hundred advance subscribers were required. Until the last, Honeoye Falls always made the quota.
© 1992, Paul S. Worboys
Reprinted with permission from the Mendon-Honeoye Falls Sentinel. Thanks to everyone who helped bring a little of the Chautauqua experience back to life. It is for you that I do these things. And a special thank you to J. Sheldon Fisher proprietor of the Valentown Museum, Victor, NY, whose life-long efforts to preserve our regional history inspired me to lend a hand. American originals are hard to come by—I'm glad I found one. — P.S.W.