A century ago Bangor offered a wide variety of entertainment ranging from movies, vaudeville, opera and live drama to circuses, concerts, sports events and the ever popular Eastern Maine State Fair. Was there room in 1916 for any more — like a five-day Chautauqua tent show?
Chautauqua shows were part of an adult education movement that swept the country from the late 19th century into the 20th century. By 1916, tent shows featuring musicians, inspirational speakers, political lecturers, actors, preachers, comedians and the like aimed to provide family-style entertainment while promoting culture that was a notch above much of the simple-minded fare usually offered on stage and screen.
The intended audience was middle-class folks living in small towns and cities like Bangor who were seeking to improve themselves where there was little opportunity for self-improvement once they left school.
The newly formed Bangor Chautauqua Association was a group of 40 local businessmen who put up $10 each in case the undertaking proved to be a financial failure. In return, they might make a small profit if the undertaking was a success, according to the Bangor Daily Commercial on July 15.
The five-day program in Bangor between July 18 and July 22 was held in a large tent erected in Abbott Square, which had been the location of Bangor High School before the 1911 fire. Today, it is a parking lot across Harlow Street from the Bangor Public Library.
Tickets were relatively inexpensive — only $2 for an adult for the entire five days, and less for children. Child care was offered for families that arrived for the day.
A list of the performers gives the best idea of what Chautauqua was all about. Five popular lecturers formed the “backbone” of the program in 1916, according to a large newspaper advertisement. “Music and entertainment there will be … But the MEAT is in the five lectures,” it proclaimed.
The speakers included Lee Francis Lybarger, a Philadelphia lawyer who talked about how “millions of dollars that come from the pockets of taxpaying American citizens are wasted every year by means of pork barrel legislation in Congress.”
Arthur Delroy, the president of the New York Psychic Club, was an “exposer of psychic fakes” as well as “an authority on character development by suggestion.” Frederick Warde, a distinguished Shakespearean actor, aimed to bring the Bard back to earth for the average reader with his perceptive analysis and recitations from the plays. Dr. Euclid B. Rogers, educator and orator, was said to have inspired thousands to pursue “courses of higher learning.”
The most relevant speaker for a Bangor audience may have been Andre Tridon, a Mexican war correspondent who delivered a lecture on “An Inside View of Mexico.” Thousands of Bangoreans had turned out recently to see the city’s National Guard units board a train for Texas, possibly to fight a second war with Mexico.
The promise was that lectures like these would “make a man grow overnight,” and “lift him up by his bootstraps. They set him thinking in new trains of thought.”
These weighty presentations were heavily interspersed with high-quality musical performances. Topping the acts were Lenora Sparkes, a Metropolitan Opera star, and Ole Theobaldi, the Norwegian violin virtuoso considered a successor to Paganini.
Music was also performed by The American Quartet with its “platform cartoonist,” Clayton Conrad, who also did “flute imitations.” Conrad “represents the salute of two Mississippi river steamboats, the squeaking of a country sawmill, the parting of two lovers at 10 p.m. and a collision between an automobile and a dog,” a newspaper reporter explained.
Victor’s Florentine Band and other groups rounded out the performances.
How did this combination of education and entertainment go over with Bangoreans? Would it be able to compete with the city’s vaudeville and movie houses, where Charlie Chaplin, Dustin Farnum and other celebrities were held in high esteem?
The local newspaper reviewers were uniformly enthusiastic about this new effort to civilize the Queen City of the East. But a note of embarrassing doubt began to appear in these reviews beginning after the first day.
“Bangor got its first glimpse of Community Chautauqua on Tuesday, when the matinee and night performances were given to rather small audiences in the big tent at Abbott Square. As the entertainments are given in a large tent in a central part of the city and include acts, musical numbers and lectures of real entertainment it is most difficult to appreciate why Bangor people have not as yet made a more cordial response,” the reviewer for the Bangor Daily News wrote July 19. “It is believed that as soon as the object, intent and scope of this countrywide movement has become more apparent and the values of the programs have been more forcible driven home there will be seen a remarkable change in the attitude of the community towards it.”
That change never occurred. The next day both newspapers blamed the small attendance for violin virtuoso Ole Theobaldi’s performance on the heat. The day after, the Bangor Daily News declared attendance for Dunbar’s Southern Singers, which presented a repertoire of southern tunes, “all too small for the quantity and quality of the entertainment.” Ditto for Victor’s Florentine Band the next day.
The Bangor Daily Commercial declared in an editorial on July 22 that Bangor’s Community Chautauqua had been “scantily patronized.” There were two main reasons said the editorial writer: First, the public had not been given a “clear idea” of just what it was all about. (I must add here that even a century later it is very easy to figure out what it was all about from the newspaper advertisements and coverage.)
Secondly, the “intense heat” under the big top provided little incentive to attend. Yes, it was a hot summer.
The same lack of attendance afflicted the shows in Lewiston and Augusta. On the other hand, there had been “excellent attendance” in some smaller communities like Rockland, Houlton and Skowhegan, the newspaper said. The Bangor Daily News delivered a similar editorial praising Chautauqua in general and ignoring the issue of local attendance.
The press didn’t raise the possibility of competition from other popular entertainment. Perhaps vaudeville and silent films and even the city’s saloons had simply out-competed this elite traveling tent show.
Nor did anyone mention the fact that Abbott Square was located near a neighborhood known for its saloons and houses of ill repute despite the efforts to improve it by erecting new buildings since the fire of 1911. Perhaps Bangor’s seekers after self-improvement had different ideas about the best places to go to educate themselves, especially on a hot summer day or night.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His latest book, “Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at email@example.com