In the 1969 MGM film, The Trouble with Girls, a fedora-clad Elvis Presley steps off of a train in 1920s Iowa. As the manager of a touring chautauqua program, Elvis’s character is tasked with maintaining the show’s ongoing commercial viability while also wooing a love interest played by Marlyn Mason. The premise and setting may seem strange for audiences in the late-1960s: a midcentury rock-n-roll superstar dropped into rural Iowa during the Roaring Twenties to oversee a ragtag tent show named for a lake in upstate New York. For those typically accustomed to the flappers, speakeasies, and fast-talking gangsters that typify depictions of American life in the 1920s, small towns, canvas tents, and prayer meetings are likely to cause some confusion. Yet, for many moviegoers of a certain age in the 1960s, the former ubiquity of tent chautauqua was still a recognizable feature of a nostalgic, bygone era.
During its height between 1920 and 1925, touring circuit chautauquas attracted upwards of twenty million attendees throughout the rural U.S. with week-long programs of lectures, plays, and musical acts. The circuit model, first organized successfully in Iowa in 1908, proved to be a major money-making breakthrough for what was once exclusively a Methodist education center on the shores of Lake Chautauqua, and any given circuit would supply tents and talent to more than one hundred towns annually. With its rural audiences and Protestant underpinnings, circuit chautauqua operated apart from some of the more recognizable aspects of the so-called Jazz Age and, as such, has largely slipped from cultural memory. However, the University of Iowa Special Collections holds some 648 linear feet of materials related to the largest of the once-dominant chautauqua organizers, the Redpath Bureau. From programs to postcards, operational documents to itineraries, the University’s Redpath collections document a largely forgotten cultural phenomenon that touched much of the Midwest and its inhabitants.
During the summer, I will begin the process of digitally mapping annual chautauqua tours with the intent to create engaging visualizations of performance documents held within the collections. Using a geographic information system (GIS), I am currently exploring the possibilities for creating interactive maps of the touring opera companies related to my dissertation work. While these will form the basis for digital tools that will directly aid the completion of my dissertation work, they will also help to develop to generate a draft of a public-history website for those interested in Chautauqua’s importance to local histories. Currently, I have created the beginnings of a map and I will be spending the next few weeks refining and adding to its contents with the hopes of launching a preliminary site.