Tent Chautauqua flourished in the United States for more than 20 years, and in the Manning area from the summer of 1916 through the summer of 1924. It covered a period roughly synonymous with that of the Model T Ford. To most Americans over 40, Chautauqua still brings back memories of circuits of traveling tent shows that brought to the most remote midwestern small towns, exciting programs in theater, theology, music, science, and the moral uplift of many oratorical preachers and politicians.
In his book, "The Chautauqua Movement", Joseph E. Gould states that an Iowan, Keith Vawter, was the originator. He was the manager of the Chicago branch of the Redpath Lyceum Bureau in 1904, when he decided to try tents. With maps, calendar, railroad timetables, and his list of available Redpath talent, Vawter planned a summer season program with a balance of serious lecturers, humorists, magicians, popular music companies, play-readers, bands, and a few famous preachers to operate on a five or seven day schedule. By 1907, the brown Chautauqua tent became a familiar summertime sight in the small towns, as there were 22 separate tent circuits operating in as many different areas of the United States. By 1918, tent Chautauqua was flourishing in Manning.
Chautauqua week was an exciting time. Entertainment was scarce and everyone looked forward to the music, plays, lectures and good times for all that these strangers would bring to their community. Sunday morning trains brought the crew boys, many of whom were vacationing college athletes, and the big brown tent would be set up on the southeast corner of the old school ground on Second Street.
Opening day was usually band or orchestra day, featuring such artists as Miss Gone and her Pilgrim Girls Orchestra, or the Knox Company Saxophone Quartet, or the Venetian Troubadors seven musicians in bright costumes singing and playing bright music with brass, violin, mandolins and occarines. Then came the oratory; stirring speeches by Dr. James Nichols, world traveler who had been to Europe twice in one year, or Dr. Thomas Clark Hinkle lecturing on world liberty to give all a new grip on patriotism, or Alva M. Reitzel with a message from the government, an inspiration to high thinking, clean living, and patriotic service.
Programs also included health lectures on keeping fit; comedy acts by the Cambridge Players presenting such excruciatingly funny plays as "The Rivals"; miscellaneous programs in which the follies of man were delightfully portrayed (to see the costumes was worth the price); U.S. government war pictures showing latest releases of actual war scenes from the front in World War I; the Sterling Male Quartet with songs old and new to rest the mind and delight the ear; science lectures; and travelogues.
In the morning there were strong speeches for adults, but the main programs were for the children. Plays were practiced and performed by the children and usually on the last day there was a fair ending with a parade and picnic. Some years they formed a "Junior Town Week", and elected officers of law and order, health service and thrift, which met each day.
Season tickets for all of this cost $1.50 for adults and $1.00 for children. The prices were higher if the tickets were purchased after the shows started. Prominent members of the Manning community would band together and pledge themselves to a flat guarantee of 150 tickets; thus the responsibility for promoting season ticket sales was theirs. At least one performance during the week was interrupted or sometimes even cancelled, due to a summer rain, complete with thunder and lightning.
The shows were so favorably received that advanced sale of tickets was never a problem until a most unfortunate incident happened during the second to the last Chautauqua tent showings. Elmer Mueller relates the story as he remembers it: "After the war, the speakers continued to reflect the feelings of the country.
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Manning was predominantly a German community, but when one of the speakers, mounting the platform for the adult's program of the afternoon, said, 'As the train neared Manning this morning, I knew I was coming to a German community because of the terrible odor!', he struck the death knell for Chautauqua shows in Manning. A majority of the people walked out of the show. Feelings ran high through the community. Ed Farrell, who was mayor of Manning, sent Conrad (Coon) Dietz, the marshal, to safely escort the speaker out of town. The next year, when the advance man of the show came to sell tickets, the prominent citizens of the community refused to back him. However, the show came and set up tent on the school grounds as usual, but the attendance was so small, its week was a financial disaster. It never returned to Manning."
After the summer of 1926, Keith Vawter, the man who had started it all, sold his tents and contracts. By 1932, the last Chautauqua circuit had ground to a halt. Its collapse was attributed to the rapid popularity of radio, the improved roads and mass production of automobiles, to the coming of talking pictures; and perhaps, too, the circuit managers in their desire to make more money, concentrated on hiring crowd-pleasing talent.
Thus read the show bill, printed in the Manning Monitor, to be distributed iin the Manning Community. Chase Lister shows were again coming to town. Now for an entire week there would be high class entertainment for all. Matinee and evening shows would be presenting new plays, comedians, tap dancers with top hat and cane, piano and violin artists, vocalists singing the latest songs, such as: "Time to Pass the Apples Again", and "The Skirts Are Getting Shorter".
As early as 1910, the actors and actresses, the tent and all of the equipment, including piano and scenery, would arrive by rail. At that time Manning had three railroads: the Milwaukee, the Northwestern, and the Great Western. These convenient train connections were partly responsible for the company returning every year.
The big tent would be set up on the lot now occupied by The Manning General Hospital or in the Fuss pasture south of the American Legion Hall. The shows always came in the month of June, so help was available from the local high school boys.
Home base for the company was Newton, Iowa. It was organized by Mr. Chase and Mr. Lister and most of the actors and actresses came from that part of the state. They usually had other business interests, and acting in the summer shows was their avocation. Caroline Clark and Ila Rix remember well some of the group, as they would room and board for the week with their families, Mrs. Frank Stammer on Elm Street, the C.J. Claussens and the G.E. Holmbergs.
The shows started promptly at 8:15. Between the third and fourth acts there was always an intermission. As the scenery would be changed, a salesman would pass among the crowd selling candy, all beautifully boxed, and containing a prize. Some had prizes of worth, such as a $10.00 gold watch, or a pair of ladies' bloomers, and the salesman was always sure the big prize went to someone in the front of the tent so the sale of the boxes would be lively. Every year there was a new kind of candy - always delicious and delectable.
The plays, always in good taste and culturally high class, were presented by talented actors and actresses who returned year after year. Many local friendships developed. For approximately 20 years the entire Manning community looked forward to June and the return of their old friends, The Chase Lister Company, who would be back with refreshing and new entertainment.
I CAN REMEMBER---
One Saturday night at the Sportsman Club, a man got into the wrong car, and fell asleep in the back seat. The car was owned by Ben and Hattie Asmus; they and Harry Koester got into the front seat, and started home. Halfway up the hill, the man in the back seat rose up and scared Harry so much that he ran back to the club white as a sheet.