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Release: UI visitor to speak about Iowa as a hub on Chautauqua circuit

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Early 20th century Iowans saw Broadway plays, heard singers from the Metropolitan Opera, and engaged in discussions with some of the great political and cultural thinkers of the day -- all without ever leaving their own county. The lyceum and Circuit Chautauqua tours brought all this culture right to their hometowns as part of an educational movement started in western New York in 1874.

Iowa became something of a hub on the Chautauqua circuits in part due to its central location and railroad connections, but also because one of the key figures in organizing the Chautauqua tours was Keith Vawter of Cedar Rapids. Charlotte Canning, an associate professor of theatre and dance at the University of Texas at Austin, will discuss Iowa's role in this cultural movement in her lecture "The Most American Thing in America: Performance and the Circuit Chautauqua" Feb. 2 at 4 p.m. in Room 204 Jefferson Building.

Canning's lecture is part of the Floating Friday Lecture Series in the University of Iowa department of American studies and is co-sponsored by the UI department of theatre arts. It is free and open to the public

Canning, one of the leading scholars on the social and cultural significance of Chautauqua, says the story of Chautauqua is one of the least-known but most-fascinating aspects of American history. William Jennings Bryan regularly drew crowds numbering in the thousands to hear his populist, temperance, evangelical, and crusading message. Long before he was a star of television and radio, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen toured the Chautauqua circuit with his sidekick puppet Charlie McCarthy. Reformers like Robert LaFollette, U.S. Representative, three-term Wisconsin governor, and U.S. Senator, fostered lively political debates.

"Every issue of the day -- temperance, suffrage, isolationism and World War I, prison reform -- was covered on the Chautauqua circuit," Canning said. "The history of Chautauqua also includes some of the more unpleasant aspects of our past, things such as race relations, segregation and immigration. It's not all a sugar-coated, sentimental version of American history."

Canning's research brought her to the UI Libraries special collections department, which houses one of the largest collections of Chautauqua materials in the country. She has also interviewed a few people still living who attended Chautauqua as children and have shared their memories in vivid detail.

"These performances brought the world to their doorstep in a time before television and movies gave Americans a common entertainment experience," she said. "It's hard for us to imagine today how thrilling it must have been." One spectator went so far as to say, "[our] town was never the same after Chautauqua started coming.... It broadened our lives in many ways."

Individuals with disabilities are encouraged to attend all University of Iowa-sponsored events. If you are a person with a disability who requires an accommodation in order to participate in this program, please contact Laura Kastens in advance at (319) 335-0320.