In the early 1900s, the biggest cultural event every summer in small towns across America was at a tent show. Not carnival sideshows with the likes Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, but sophisticated touring productions that featured nationally known educational and inspirational lecturers, opera singers, slide shows and more.
The first, staged in Chautauqua, N.Y., in the 1870s, spawned a traveling Chautauqua movement that brought enlightenment to isolated rural communities. The phenomenon was killed off in the 1930s by modern inventions: movies, radio, automobiles and paved highways.
Wytheville, in southwest Virginia, holds an annual tribute-esque Chautauqua Festival (it starts Saturday and runs through June 27; www.wythevillefestival.org).
Better yet, head over to Greenville, S.C., this weekend for the Chautauqua History Alive! Festival. It consists of five different 90-minute or two-hour shows, each a talk followed by a question-answer session with the audience. Here’s how the “History Alive!” kicks in: Four of the five shows are given by a historical celebrity interpreter – an actor who looks and acts the part and is well-schooled to ably answer questions the audience may ask of the person portrayed.
This year’s theme is “America at the Movies.”
Greenville’s Larry Bounds does the Walt Disney performance. Bounds’ resemblance to the entertainment pioneer is due to genetics: Besides being a Disney authority, Bounds is also a distant relative of the man who created Mickey Mouse and Disneyland. His outdoor show is 7:30 p.m. Friday at Falls Park.
Leslie Goddard is a Chicago actress who channels Mary Pickford for 200 gigs a year; Pickford was “America’s Sweetheart” – the famous leading lady of silent movies who, with her actor hubby, Douglas Fairbanks, was a founder of United Artists. That show is 2 p.m. Saturday in the Greenville Tech auditorium.
Out of 1920s garb, Goddard also does “Making of ‘Gone With the Wind,’” an illustrated talk about the creation of the 1939 film classic. That’s at 3:30 p.m. Sunday in the Fine Arts Center.
Texas-based actor Charles Pace portrays Gordon Parks, the ground-breaking African-American photographer and moviemaker, in his show at 7:30 p.m. Saturday under the tent at Greenville Tech. (He also leads a Parks discussion at 9 a.m. Saturday).
George Fein, of Fort Worth, Texas, makes his living as an Orson Welles tribute artist. Fein’s show about the creator of “Citizen Kane” and other film masterpieces is at 7:30 p.m. Sunday under the tent at Greenville Tech.
There’s seating at the evening outdoor performances; you can bring your own lawn chair and food if you wish. In a nod to summer weather and modern air conditioning, daytime performances are staged indoors.
Festival administrator Caroline McIntyre says the event, which started June 12 and is now in its 17th year, can attract 1,000 people to a performance. It is modeled on the old Chautauquas. And she should know: Her mother was a singer on that circuit in the 1930s; her father sold tickets.
One key difference: All the Greenville Chautauqua shows are free.
On with the shows
Chautauqua History Alive! Festival details, including maps and rain site details for outdoor shows: www.greenvillechautauqua.org.
Greenville is less than two hours southwest of Charlotte via I-85 South.