The Complete Chautauquan:

Chautauqua Platform Talent

By Jeffrey Scott Maxwell

The Platform Programs: Lecturers and Performers

I. Introduction.

The "talent" was the backbone of the circuit chautauquas, and the independents also relied a great deal on platform programs provided by chautauqua and lyceum bureaus. This page is dedicated to all those individuals and groups that comprised the chautauqua "acts." They are what made Chautauqua one of the greatest movements in American history -- in adult education , religion, art, literature, theaterical performance, entertainment, and the establishment of the American culture. These are the people who gave American's -- in both the United States and Canada -- a larger community mind or spirit, a sense of belonging to something bigger than their own local communities before radio, film, television, and the Internet were around to give them that exposure.  In rural America, these lecturers and performers were the only "stars" that many people of small towns would ever encounter. And many of the people of the platform programs were stars who went on to enjoy success in radio, film, and television.

II.  Lecturers.

While other areas are certainly important parts of Chautauqua, the lecture has served as the basis for many "educational" aspects of Chautauqua events, both historic and modern.  Many famous people were involved with Chautauqua because of their talent as orators on the public platform. Politicians, evangelists, and educators were just a few of the speakers that could be heard from the Chautauqua platform. Numerous people also became famous simply as a result of their work in Chautauqua.  

Perhaps one of the best success stories from lyceum and Chautauqua is based more around a lecture rather than the lecturer.  Russell H. Conwell was a public speaker who was interested in motivating and inspiring individuals and communities. He started out spending about 5 years "earning experience," which turned out to be a good investment of his time when he began lecturing for James Redpath in the lyceums. By the end of the 19th Century he perfected a lecture called "Acres of Diamonds" which he presented literally thousands of times (estimated to be 6000) to millions of people during many years until his death in 1924.  If it is not the most heard speech of all times, it was surely one of the most popular.  In a time before radio and television, Conwell made a good life for himself with "Acres."  Sure, he delivered other lectures, but none of those are as remembered -- or appear printed in the appendix of so many speech course textbooks.

"Acres of Diamonds" was rated number 24 on the Top 100 American Speeches of the 20th Century in 1999 by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas A&M University.  It is second only to Clarence Darrow's "Plea for Mercy at the Trial of Leopold and Loeb" (rated number 23 on the list) of speeches given by people who appeared in lyceum and chautauqua circuits -- and as far as I can see, it is the only speech on the list that was delivered to lyceum and chautauqua audiences. If you have never before read the lecture that Conwell is known for, then I would highly recommend that you do so.  Although Conwell was a great success -- and made lots of money -- he was not necessarily in it for the income.  I think it is a mistake to see this as a program on how to get rich, as some who have only scanned the speech have, but it must be recognized that the "diamonds" to which Conwell refers are also things that you cannot necessarily put a price upon. Opportunity for self-improvement was just as important to Conwell as having wealth. That is evident in his founding of Temple University and many other significant contributions he made to American society.  The full text of "Acres of Diamonds" can be found in The Project Gutenberg Etext of Acres of Diamonds, by Conwell. Be sure to check out the mini Autobiography that Conwell wrote in 1913 at the end of the lecture on the World Wide School web site.

III.  Musicians.

John Philip Sousa is a name that is very familiar to many, but to young people, he might not be so well known.  If they know anything about Sousa, it is probably that he invented the Sousaphone, that big tuba that wraps around the player to allow for better weight distribution, which made it so much easier to carry than the normal tuba.  Sousa was one of America's premier marching band directors. Follow this link to the John Philip Sousa page on the Library of Congress' American Memory project.  Since there are so many things to explore there, if you like history, it will be a good place to start to become familiar with the American Memory project as well. Be sure to check out the cool panoramic photo of Sousa at the Chautauqua Institution in the large outdoor auditorium.

III.  Actors.

IV.  Performers.

Many magicians during the time of Houdini made a name for themselves on a smaller scale through the various venues of performance of the time, including vaudeville, lyceum, and chautauqua.  One such magician was Karl Germain (1878-1959) who left the stage to become a lawyer in 1914 and became blind in 1916; Germain appears on the CBC website as being one of David Ben's Favorite magicians on the page entitled "A Conjurer in the Making" about a program where Ben reproduces one of Germain's acts.

V. Novelties.

Although a movie projector is not a person, or even a performer, it was an extraordinarily popular plaform attraction in the early days of the circuit chautauqua, popular with both the audience and the promoters.  The Tulsa Daily Democrat reported during the 1905 Tulsa Chautauqua Assembly that when the Vitagraph Company presentation of several eight- to twenty-minute films shown in sequence to produce a show of over one hour, the chautauqua had its largest turn out to date.  The Democrat printed the following report:

All records for attendence at the Chautauqua were broken last night, when three thousand people saw the greatest of all moving picture machines, the vitagraph, at the big tent. A record was also made in the quality of the pictures shown by the machine.  Despite the humid temperature, the uncomfortable position of having to stand up, there was an interested audience from start to finish, and the crowd promised to see the exhibition tonight.

The Vitagraph really was the star of the chautauqua, and it would be expected to appear in coming years by the chautauqua crowds.

Look to this page in the future for more links and tales about performers and speakers from the days of the old time chautauquas.  

Reader Writes for Information on Grandfather Who Was a Chautauqua and Lyceum Lecturer
03/03/01 The following is the letter that I received from the granddaughter of scientific lecturer Arthur DeVere Carpenter and my response:

READER: Hi Jeffrey, Have you any suggestions as to where I might find lectures that my grandfather gave - He was a lecturer on the Lyceum and Chautauqua Association Delta Upsilon He lectured until 1935. He lectured in New Zealand, Australia, and Tasmania that I know of. His name was Arthur DeVere Carpenter (1866-1958). I have the names of some of the lectures. Thanks in advance for any information you might have to give me. I found him in Who's Who in American History. I never met him. JCS

THE COMPLETE CHAUTAUQUAN: JCS, Thank you for your question. Here are some titles of the most popular lectures for which your grandfather was known:

"The Energy of the Universe"
"The Imminency of God"
"Man and Meteorology"
"Man and the Universe"
"The New Astronomy"
"Old Mother Earth"
"Other Worlds than Ours"
"Worlds in the Making"

This information came from the page on Dr. Arthur DeV. Carpenter : scientist in Traveling Culture: Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century. the Special Collections Department, University of Iowa Libraries. I will put this list on my website, along with a request for information from other readers. For anyone who might have the information as to where any of these lectures are published, please share it with THE COMPLETE CHAUTAUQUAN by EMAIL and I will pass it on to the reader and other Chautauquans. Thank you for your question. Jeffrey

Conwell's "Acres of Diamonds" Most Popular Lecture

12/15/00 Although you would need to be 90 years old to have been old enough to remember hearing first-hand a lecture called "Acres of Diamonds" -- as hundreds of thousands of lyceum and chautauqua audiences did over a 27-year period. -- many have read and studied the speech in college courses as an example of excellent American oratory. Russell H. Conwell is a lecturer's name that is not as well known to students of history as William Jennings Bryan, Henry Ward Beecher, or Ralph Waldo Emerson. We can read about those people and read their lectures as many in their day did, but perhaps no single speech was presented live to so many people over so great a span of time and so great a geographic coverage as "Acres of Diamonds" given by Russell H. Conwell. The premise of the speech is that opportunity elsewhere is not necessarily greater than that which lies in your own back yard. It is not a lecture of how to attain wealth so much as it is a lecture on the need to look in your present environment for what many believe they have to chase in order to find. "Acres of Diamonds" is a call for individuals and communities to improve their productivity in any area of interest, not just fortune. I hope all who visit here will read the "Acres of Diamonds" speech some time. For  more information, or for a link to connect to the text of the speech, visit the "Lecturers" section of The Complete Chautauquan: Chautauqua Platform Talent.

Links to Chautauqua Talent on the Internet

Joseph P. Freud (1873-1946), known to his fans as Joseffy, a remarkable individual who could play the violin with the greatest of musicians and could speak five different languages, was probably best known as a magician of the highest level. Read The Marvelous Creations of Joseffy by David P. Abbott, 1908, on the Magical Past-Times website.

Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) was the author of a book on "Joseffy" (see above). Sandburg was connected to Chautauquas in his early career as both a lecturer on Walt Whitman beginning in 1906 and an editor and advertising man for the Lyceumite in 1907. Check out this Carl Sandburg Chronology.

William S. Sadler (1875-1969) was a sort of pioneer in oration for the medical community. In a time when doctors didn't have a public presence, Sadler was a physician who worked to educate the public against quackery and medical misinformation in the early 20th Century. William S. Sadler: Chautauquas Medic Orator, is an excerpt from a dissertation by G. Vonne Meussling, Bowling Green State University.

Lyceum, Chautauqua and Magic is an incredible page by Miller Cravens about magicians who performed in the chautauquas and lyceums.  It displays a fantastic collection of programs featuring magicians. With nothing up my sleeve, I take my top hat off to Mr. Cravens.

Information about agencies that represented the chautauqua speakers and performers can be found at The Complete Chautauquan: Chautauqua Talent Bureaus.


Page Created 10/26/00
Copyright © 2000-01
By Jeffrey Scott Maxwell
Last Updated 06/23/01