1917 at Big Doin’s Chautauqua

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Probably more than any other place, Vevay knows that the past still has plenty to offer. It was 1917 in front of the Vevay Historical Museum this past Saturday, as the 5th annual Big Doin’s Tent Chautauqua and Art Fair offered a chance for one to become engaged in the context surrounding the United States’ entry into World War I. Adapted from the old Chautauquas, alongside or mingled with the history was a showcase of talent, art, literature, and food, all from nearby (Vevay to Cincinnati). Admission for the annual event is free. Chautauqua is an American phenomenon of the late 18th and early 19th century, in which education and entertainment were made accessible to pre-radio rural communities by way of outside tent gatherings of speakers, performers, and educators.

Actors were busy throughout the day entertaining, describing bits of the history, or both. Dakota Phillips silently portrayed Charlie Chaplin for the entire event, perpetually jaunting, even swaying with the old-time music that went with others’ performances.

The heart of this Chautauqua was arguably the set of shows under the tent (one at 11, a longer one at 2), hosted by Dan Bixler, who opened each of the two programs with sing-alongs of “Yankee Doodle Boy” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”

Each program featured the Riverblend Quartet of Cincinnati, Ohio, where the passing cars seemed very out of place as the singers transported us back in time with charming old sounds, the effect persistent even when they covered the Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four,” which, after this, you’d swear was really written for a barbershop quartet. This was part of a range of arrangements, which also included numbers you might have heard in 1917.

Based on the audience’s reactions, the favorite seemed to be a mashup of ’50s hits, which they saved for the second show. A crowd favorite was Dr. Thelonious Balthazar, portrayed and created by Mike Follin. The character is a travelling salesman of a shady elixir, which Dr. Balthazar claims can cure anything: a popular archetype, but it was a little more involved this time. Funny and fast-talking, with great props and asking for audience participation, he presented the closest experience one can have of getting ripped off like it’s 1917.

One educational performance was pulled off by the Forget Me Not Historical Dance Company, also from Cincinnati. They showcased the rebellious side of the early 20th century with examples of dancing to “evil” ragtime and the “sexy” Argentine Tango, which “you wouldn’t want to catch your grandma doing.” Included for historical context were recitations by some of the dancers of an anti-war song (“I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” by Alfred Bryan), a pro-war poem (“In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae), and a performance as an anti-war dance (pointedly titled “Stop It”) representing the ambivalence with which the first World War was met. These were emotional and to some listeners maybe even relatable, lending to the notion that these cultural-historical moments are timeless.

My personal favorite was Lou Ann Homan as Indiana author and naturalist Gene Stratton-Porter, who told the writer’s life story. It was believable and engaging, and she could even pull off repeatedly scolding us for not knowing Stratton-Porter’s material, which got laughs (“I was going to read an excerpt, but maybe I should read the whole book.”) The best part was the simple declaration that our planet’s natural beauties need to be protected, referencing Stratton-Porter’s fight to protect the woods and swamplands where she studied, the urgency of which mirrors or in fact represents our environmental worries today.

Addressing the struggle the audience might have with seeing anything daring about these old dances, the director of the Forget Me Not performances said: “Every generation looks at their grandchildren and wonders ‘Why are they on the road to Hell?'” That’s true. But while such criticisms of the new are usually in retrospect revealed to be unfounded, Chautauqua’s a reminder that the past — the old — still has plenty to teach.

If you aren’t imagining a fun (for all ages) time from this description, be sure that there’s plenty more packed onto the lawn of the Vevay Historical Museum. This year’s event featured beside the old stuff: shops with work from local artists (wood-spinners, wood-carvers, jewelry-makers, authors, and painters); opportunities to purchase locally-made and grown foods, such as hot sauce (taste-tested and approved), rubs, and mustard from Smooth Lou’s Flavor Company; and for the kids, juggler Matt Jergens of Out of Hand Entertainment, which Charlie Chaplin seemed to really get into.

According to Martha Bladen, director for the Switzerland County Historical Society, the hope is to continue the event annually.

Anthony Henderson