Chautauquas were a successor to the Lyceum movement of the 19th century, augmenting the usual menu of educational lectures and religious sermons with music, recitals of poetry and drama, humorous monologues and light entertainment. The first of these was the institution at Chautauqua Lake, New York, founded 1874 (still extant). Other “Chautauquas” spread throughout the U.S. and peaked in popularity in the 1920s. The genteel nature of much early vaudeville stand-up comedy (as we now call it) can be gleaned by the fact that many monologists (such as the hunchbacked humorist Marshall P. Wilder, and thespian DeWolf Hopper) worked in both arenas. (Coincidentally, both gentlemen are pictured above, doing a parody of Romeo and Juliet. See the Countess’s Tumblr blog for more in this vein).
But the fare wasn’t all high brow. Animal acts and acrobats and the like could also be part of the mix. Many of Edgar Bergen’s early ventriloquism performances were at Chautauquas. There’s always a scale with poles of extremity, isn’t there? Just as vaudeville was more genteel and “proper” than burlesque and concert saloons, Chautaquas could boast to be moreso than vaudeville. At any rate, some of these institutions, like the original, remain around the country to edify and ennoble the American spirit.
To learn more about chautauquas and the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.