In 1946 the songwriting team of Charles Tobias and Nat Simon captured the hearts, and ears, of a post-war audience with their tune, The Old Lamp-Lighter. Band leader Sammy Kaye recorded the song, featuring vocals by Billy Williams, and the haunting melody hit the Billboard Best Sellers List by November. The Old Lamp-Lighter stayed on the charts for fourteen weeks, peaking at #1. Among Sammy and His Orchestra‘s many fans was fourteen year old Marilyn Minor, a young pianist and talented vocalist living in rural Greene County, Pennsylvania. Every Friday she traveled into nearby Waynesburg, to stay overnight with her Grandmother May Minor for her Saturday piano lesson. I imagine this young teen sitting at the bench, determined to parse out the arrangement’s rhythm of dotted eighth and sixteenth notes. And I wonder if her father, Donald, sang along, “He made the night a little brighter wherever he would go…”
CHAUTAUQUA TENT WILL RISE TODAY
During the early decades of the twentieth century, the arrival of the big brown tent was the highlight of a town’s summer. Under the canvas roof, large crowds would gather for a week’s worth of entertainment and education. The Redpath Circuit Chautauqua was part vaudeville show, part educational lecture series, and at its height in the 1920s the performers and lecturers appeared in over 10,000 communities in 45 states. Crowds, far from the cultural benefits of metropolitan areas, were thus able to hear Broadway hits, watch classic plays, and learn about the social and political ideas of the day. For many Americans the Circuit Chautauqua was an important factor in molding the very character of the nation.
CHAUTAUQUA TO HAVE JUNIOR TOWN
The chautauqua wasn’t only for adults. Thousands of children had their cultural horizons expanded through programming just for them, and for hundreds of young women, the job of supervising the children’s programs offered an opportunity to work and travel. One such lucky lady was my grandmother, Kerma Pauline Bradford. In the summers of 1928 and 1929, Kerma left her hometown, Coshocton, Ohio, to set up Junior Town in a circuit that included Canton and Masillon, Ohio, and Greene County, Pennsylvania. In each community, Kerma met with the youngsters, ticket holders all, at nine o’clock the first day of chautauqua.
From among the assembled kids, ten boys and girls were elected to the Junior Town Council, which was then charged with assisting Miss Bradford. Every day the Junior Chautauqua would meet from nine until noon, to play games, listen to stories, take hikes, and, most importantly, prepare the week’s project–a minstrel show or pageant–which was performed during the last day, for the entire chautauqua.
In 1929, Kerma Bradford traveled to Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, where she reported to the Big Brown Tent each morning from her room in the Wisecarver House. Beyond her duties to Junior Town, Kerma had time for friendships, and time for romance. When the Junior Town supervisor returned to Coshocton that fall, she had many stories to recall to her kindergarten students, including the memory of a certain young man, future husband, Donald Minor.
Photographs from the Marilyn Minor Collection, archived with the author.
For more interesting chautauqua tidbits:
The Evening Repository (Canton), “Chautauqua To Have Junior Town,” July 31, 1928. http://www.genealogybank.com (accessed January 12, 2014).
Canning Charlotte, The Most American Thing in America: Circuit Chautauqua as Performance. University of Iowa Press: Iowa City. 2005.
The Redpath Chautauqua Collection, University of Iowa digital collection: http://www.sdrc.lib.uiowa.edu/traveling-culture/inventory/msc150.html.