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An American Tradition: Virginia City Organization Hosts Chautauqua Events

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By Abbie Digel
Join members of Southwest Montana’s arts community at the Elling House Arts and Humanities Center
at their third Winter Chautauqua (pronounced
shuh – TAWK – wuh) event of the year. This cultural
event will take place in the historic ballroom on
Saturday March 19 and will host a variety of musicians, writers and comics. Toni James, founder of the
event, has left two open spots for those who wish to
perform open mic style.
The monthly event begins with a potluck dinner
at 6:30 p.m. and performances starting at 7:30. The
performances happen one after the other, and local
residents look forward to this event each month.
James said a couple from Minnesota is vacationing in
VC in April, solely to perform at the event.
Founded in 1874 as a retreat for Sunday School teachers, Chautauqua is known as a platform for sharing
entertainment and intellectual knowledge. Teddy
Roosevelt described it as “the most American thing
in America.” The original Chautauqua, located on
Lake Chautauqua in upstate New York, still stands as
a cultural mecca for summer vacationers looking to
study, play or learn.
This “vacation learning” style of education has
broadened to include academics, music, art, theater
and recreation. The name Chautauqua is used to
represent organized gatherings that introduce ideas,
thoughts and knowledge to groups of people in attendance. There is an informal network all over the U.S.,
including locations in Boulder, Colorado, Texas and
California, where James fi rst heard of the idea.
James, originally from Orcas Island, Washington
came to Virginia City with a theater troupe in 1993.
She worked for the Opera House and fell in love
with the town. She settled there in 1994 and bought
Ranks Mercantile, the oldest continually operated
store in Montana (opened in 1864). She still owns
and manages the store. James began hosting informal
Chautauquas in their home, starting eight years ago.
James currently resides in the Elling House, which
began hosting the Chautauqua events five years ago.
The Elling House was built in 1876, and has a history
as a gathering place for locals to enjoy artistic performances. Previously, it was a private residence of the
Elling family, a boarding house, and a private storage facility. James bought the property in 1996 and
is currently restoring the house, hoping to carry on
the historical tradition of hosting cultural events. In
2008, the Elling House Arts and Humanities organization was formed, and in August of 2009, they were
designated as a 501 (c) (3) non-profi t. James now rents
the space for cultural and artistic events and is excited
to continue the tradition.
“For the first Chautauqua we had a forest service
employee present his experience raising a baby porcupine, and now we’ve evolved into presenting music,
poetry and comedic acts,” said James.
The Elling House hosts Chautauqua events four
times a year in the coldest winter months. “It gives
people something to do, something to look forward to
in the winter,” said James.
These doses of culture are open to the public at no
charge. The last Chautauqua evening is scheduled
for April 16, but James doesn’t want the special
evenings to stop there. She wants to re-introduce a
lecture series, and perhaps a series of literary talks or
book clubs, in keeping with the spirit of the original
Chautauqua, which hosts the oldest book club in the
nation.
At these events, which are funded by donations,
“People get together and learn something new each
time. They are thoroughly entertained. It’s gotten
really popular, I’ve been amazed at how many people
show up.”
The Chautauqua tradition is about the connections
people make through the arts and culture. At the Elling House, James sees this happening at each gathering. “All sorts of wonderful things have come out of
it. It really goes beyond the performance.”

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