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It was entertainment with a focus on culture.

by Vince Farinaccio

The book Hammonton Through the Eyes of J.G. Wilson informs us that, during the early decades of the 20th century, “when school opened in the fall, Hammonton youngsters could count on a double-dose of education,” because “the Chautauqua came to town just about the time school opened.”

Wilson describes the Chautauqua as “a traveling entertainment program with heavy emphasis on culture” that “consisted of lectures, readings, musical groups (both vocal and instrumental) and drama.” The Chautauqua, he tells us, would “set up their big, circus-size tent on the then vacant lot at Bellevue Avenue and Tilton Street, now occupied by the 7-Eleven store…”

The Chautauqua movement is considered the successor of the U.S. Lyceum movement of the mid-19th century. Lyceum presentations included drama and music in addition to lectures by guests such as suffragists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Victoria Woodhull and novelist Mark Twain. The Chautauqua offered a similar program of what was termed “adult education.”

Encyclopaedia Britannica reports that the Chautauqua movement “flourished during the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” having originated at the “Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly in western New York, founded in 1874 by John H. Vincent and Lewis Miller…At first entirely religious in nature, the program was gradually broadened to include general education, recreation, and popular entertainment.”

The success of the New York assembly, Britannica notes, “led to the founding of many similar ‘Chautauquas’ throughout the United States patterned after the original institution,” and through the efforts of former Lyceum manager Keith Vawter and Roy Ellison in 1904, “ there were hundreds of ‘tent’ Chautauquas.” According to Wilson, these tent shows, touring on various circuits with each overseen by a committee, traveled throughout the U.S, stopping at rural towns for a week at a time.

According to the August 1913 edition of The Lyceum Magazine, “The Chautauqua…grows as long as intelligently directed. We have been going over the Vawter System Chautauquas the past month and find that the towns that have had it the longest support it with the least urging.” Hammonton would qualify as one of those towns since, as Wilson writes, in 1912 it “became one of the original members of the Swarthmore Chautauqua Committee,” hosting that touring group annually for 17 years.

Wilson says, “the approach of ‘Chautauqua time’ was always awaited with keen anticipation.” During their week’s stay, the group settled into Hammonton, offering matinee and evening shows with a different program each day. “The big night was usually Saturday when a competent cast of professionals presented dramas,” Wilson reports, adding that one year the audience was treated to a production of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.

During the week, comedy was part of the agenda between musical performers and lecturers who engaged the crowd’s attention with such topics as “Effective Voting and Effective Government.” Wilson tells us that “the audience sat on folding wooden chairs and made prodigal use of hand-held fans on sunny afternoons.”

Wilson reports that the annual appearance “was largely underwritten by Kiwanis, the local teachers’ association, and other civic groups and businessmen” who “were given tickets on a basis proportionate to their contribution and these were usually handed out to anyone who asked for them.”

In their final year in Hammonton, the Chautauquas abandoned their tent and performed in the high school auditorium. By 1928, however, times were changing. “The movies, especially the new modern Rivoli [Theater] that opened at Third and Bellevue late in 1927, spelled the end for Chautauqua here, though it struggled on a short while,” Wilson explains. “The growing ownership of motorcars was another factor.”

In summing up the program’s role in Hammonton history, Wilson writes, “Chautauqua had a niche in the community for many years. A niche that it filled very well…”

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