Presented by the Laurens County Historical Society, Dublin, Georgia. For questions and information, please contact Scott B. Thompson, Sr. at dublinhistory@yahoo.com.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

THE CHAUTAUQUA AUDITORIUM


                 If You Build It, He Will Come
                             
     Chautauqua fever was spreading across the country around the turn of the 20th Century.  No, Chautauqua fever wasn't some rare and deadly tropical disease, a Chautauqua was a summer festival which featured a week of educational, scientific, social, and musical programs.  The City of Dublin presented its first Chautauqua festival in 1901.  Every year the planning committee struggled with ideas and the necessary funds to secure the most popular performers and speakers on the Chautauqua circuit.  The most sought after speaker was William Jennings Bryan.  But Bryan didn't perform in just any one-horse town and any shoddy lecture hall. To lure the country's most famous orator to its festival, the committee had to build an impressive auditorium designed to hold hundreds if not more than a thousand paying patrons.

     When the committee on entertainment met in the winter of 1904, those who believed strongly in the future of the festival knew that a permanent home for the festival must be built and to ensure that the festival would grow into a profitable event, the appearance of William Jennings Bryan was critical.  At first, the committee believed that the hall should seat at least three thousand.  To save money, it was decided that the building be rough on the exterior, but comfortable on the inside.   The dreamers knew that the building could also house a large number of other attractions throughout the year.

     At a meeting at the jewelry store of Dr. Charles H. Kittrell, those present appointed Hal M. Stanley, H.G. Stevens, Herman Hesse, T.L. Griner, C. Grier and Dr. Kittrell to a fund-raising committee.  The committee hoped to have "some of the brainiest, most entertaining lecturers on the American platform appear before Dublin audiences" in time for the festival in the summer of 1904.   Despite the untiring efforts of Dr. Kittrell and Messers Hesse and Stevens, the building could not be readied in time.  After a profitable return was paid to the festival's investors, interest in building an auditorium swelled.  

     After two years of planning, plans to build an auditorium began in earnest in the spring of 1906.  Dublin tycoon J.D. Smith, the first person outside of the organizing committee to be solicited about the endeavor, pledged $200.00 of the estimated $2500.00 cost of construction.    H.G. Stevens, Hal M. Stanley and W.L. Mason were appointed to the building committee.  Local contractor John A. Kelley was awarded the contract to build the auditorium in time for the festival in June.  

     Many who doubted the feasibility of the project believed that the building would be nothing more than an outdoor pavilion.  The architect designed the building to be one of the coolest in town. Remember central air conditioning was decades away.  To alleviate the accumulation of hot air in the building, Kelley and his crew built an unbroken series of five- foot tall windows around the perimeter of the building, which faced and abutted the western side of South Monroe Street, across from the former location of the studios of TV-35. The building went back for a short distance before turning in a fan shape to the right in the main auditorium area.  

     After the remaining roofing materials arrived in late May, the contractors began to complete the major portions of the building by  the first of June.  The first  major portion of the building to be completed was the stage.  With the dimensions of twenty-four by forty-eight feet, it was proclaimed that it would be the best in this section of the state.  The stage would accommodate one hundred seated musicians.  The dressing rooms, first intended to be placed adjoining the stage floor, were moved to the rear of the building instead.  In the interest of time, the committee decided to install a temporary dirt floor covered with sawdust and line with primitive benches.   Reserved seats, no better than any other seat except for their proximity to the stage, were sold for $3.00 per seat during the Chautauqua. Once the stage and floor were completed, Kelley and his men began installing the fifty windows, which opened in transform form to create a breeze throughout the facility.   Kelley installed the windows as high as possible to allow the hot air to flow out and the cooler air to flow in from as close to ground level as possible.

     Though one-third smaller than originally planned, the completed building could house nearly two thousand patrons.  The well-ventilated building was illuminated at night by ten dozen electric lights.  All of the window sash was not installed in time for the opening night of the festival.  Contractor Kelley improvised and installed a canvas above the windows which ran down at a 45-degree angle to prevent any rain from coming inside, but at the same time allowing the hot air to leave the building and the cooler air in. 

     Season tickets for the week were sold for $3 for the 508 reserved seats and $2 for the 1114 regular seats.  Chautauqua times were always busy ones in town for the innkeepers as well as the merchants. Thousands of persons came into town by foot, wagon and train to see the shows.  The musicians were housed in the Patillo House on East Gaines Street and the rest of the performers stayed at the more luxurious New Dublin Hotel, just two blocks away from the auditorium on the corner of North Jefferson and East Madison streets.   Special trains hauling hundreds of customers came from Eastman, Tennille and Hawkinsville.  

     The fifth annual session, billed as the best ever, was held from June 17 through June 22, 1906.   The session opened with the sermon "Seeing Him Who is Invisible" by Dr. L.G. Herbert on Sunday morning.  Dr. Herbert, a relative newcomer to the Chautauqua circuit, was known as a forceful orator, a humorist of rare ability and a lecturer of power.  Edward Amherst Ott, of Chicago, Illinois, opened the first full day with his lecture "The Spenders." Dr. Herbert returned to the podium on Monday night with his lecture "A Man Among Men" and again on Wednesday morning with his most popular lecture "A Trinity of Power."
  
     A large crowd attended the Tuesday morning session to listen to the return of Prof. Kaler to Dublin.  Kaler, a former popular music teacher in Dublin, had to leave the city on account of his ill health.  After his recovery, Kaler assembled some of the state's best musicians to form Kaler's Orchestra out of Macon.  The orchestra was joined by The Royal Male Quartette of Des Moines, Iowa and the Star Entertainers of Danville, Michigan.  The members of the quartette also entertained the audiences with solos, duos and trios playing the trombone and the piano as they performed.   The Star Entertainers, led by C.L. Abbott and H.G. Morris, featured players playing twenty musical instruments and musical comedy skits.  Encore performances were held on Wednesday morning and Thursday night. Professor Ott, at the request of those who attended the 1905 lecture,  returned for an repeat of his lecture "The Haunted House" on Tuesday night.  

The highlight of the festival came on Wednesday night with the appearance of Congressman Richmond Pearson Hobson. Congressman Hobson, of Alabama, was one of the country's greatest heroes of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Hobson (left)  risked his own life in sinking the Merrimac in an effort to bottle up Spanish admiral Cevera's fleet.  He was arrested and placed in a Spanish prison but was soon released on account of his bravery. Upon his return to civilian life, Hobson entered the political ring and defeated long time Alabama congressman Bankhead.  Nearly fifteen hundred people paid to hear one of the most popular lecturers in the history of the Chautauqua in Dublin. 

     Herbert L. Cope, the well-known humorist from Chicago, entertained a large audience on Thursday morning with his monologue, "The Smile That Won't Come Off."   At the appointed time, Cope was a no show and nervous directors kept the orchestra on the stage while anxious audience members wanted to stop the music and get on with the fun.  But just as the orchestra ended its first number, the whistle of the M.D. & S train signaled the arrival of the main act.   The final day of the festival featured an old-fashioned song service led by J.A. Warren.  Singers from all church choirs were invited to participate.  Mr. Warren was assisted by C.C. Hutto, E.W. McDaniel, J.R. Daniel and G.N. McLeod.  The afternoon session featured an inter-public school declamation contest by students in the city  and county systems as well as those from Washington, Johnson and Bulloch Counties.  Medals were awarded to the best boy and best girl in the 6-11and 12-20 year old categories.  Mr. Cope returned to close the festival with his hilarious program "The Religion of Laughter."

     By design the annual convention of the Georgia County Officer's Association was held in conjunction with the festival.  Mayor A.R. Arnau, along with L.Q. Stubbs, John M. Williams, R.H. Stanley and Dr. C.H. Kittrell, entertained the visitors with a boat ride on "The Louisa"  down the Oconee River and a barbecue  at the picnic grounds at Wilkes Springs, one of the usual destinations for prominent guests in Dublin.  

     The festival was a critical, as well as a financial success. Investors enjoyed a return of 42 cents on every dollar invested.   After the last person left the building and all the profits were calculated, it was time to finish the project.  On September 12, 1906, the directors of the Chautauqua voted to contract with the Garing Scenic Company to improve the stage.   Scenery, totaling forty-five pieces,  for a street, a garden, a parlor and a kitchen was ordered.  A new drop curtain was purchased.  The old one was retained for scenery. It was said that the new curtain was the second largest in the state, only smaller than the one used in the Grand Opera House in Atlanta.  Mr. Garing suggested that the sides of the building be clothed and painted. The supports and the roof were painted a white or light color.  Two large stoves were put in to keep the customers warm in the winter months. 

     Dr. C.H. Kittrell, (left) the guiding force behind the auditorium, wasted no time and booked a variety of acts for the fall season.  The first show, "A Trip to Atlantic City," was performed by the John B. Willis Company. Next up was the "The Denver Express."  During the rest of the season, there were performances of "The King of Tramps"  and one by the Edwin Weeks Company.      More improvements were made in 1908. Two thousand dollars was spent on a new floor.  Five hundred opera seats were placed near the stage.  A vestibule was installed in the front of the building.  A twelve-man orchestra pit was improved to enhance the view of the stage.  The number of lights was increased three fold. The stage was enlarged by twenty feet to the rear.  Two large dressing rooms were added.  

     The results of the democratic primary in Georgia were announced in the auditorium in the spring of 1908.  Musical entertainment filled the intermissions between the announcements of vote totals.  In the fall of that year there were performances of "At the Village Post Office," "La Pooh," and "The Other Woman."   Manager Schiff announced that the Star Theater relocated to the building after its facility on Jackson Street became too small.  To boost business some suggested that the management install a roller skating rink in the building. 

     The successes of the Chautauqua festivals finally came to an end.  The first five sessions were profitable, but after the auditorium was constructed, the profits decreased slowly, then rapidly.   The property was sold for $5,500.00, but the levy and sale was invalidated as being too excessive.   In December of 1909, the Chautauqua Association was forced into receivership.  Dr. Kittrell and J.E. Burch were named as receivers to gather up and dispose all of the assets of the association.  On the first Tuesday in January 1910, the receivers sold the building and all of its contents to Thomas W. Hooks for $3,377.50, a figure which represented half of its original cost.  Hooks, a public minded man, resisted suggestions that he convert the building into a warehouse and sell the furnishings.  

     Hooks might have asked himself, what about Bryan?  In the beginning, it was believed that if the city built a large building, Bryan would come.   The dream was still alive, but barely.    The convention of the Laymen's Missionary and Christian Workers Association was held in the auditorium in March. It was enough to pay the bills and keep the building in operation.

     A year went by and still no Bryan.  And then it happened.  Bryan had agreed to the terms of an appearance during his tour of Georgia in June 1911.   With the Chautauqua Association out of business, it was decided to name the program "The Summer Festival."  The program was composed of a concert by the Dublin Concert Band, a performance by the DeKoven Male Quartette and a solo presentation by Mrs. William C. Chilton.  There was also a stage performance by the Porter-Johnson Company and arousing performance by Tom Corwine, billed as the greatest one man act in America.   The festival ended with a program of local actors, led by Maggie Rawls.  Among those participating were Teddie Grier, Candler Brooks, William Brandon, Leah Kittrell, John Shewmake, Elizabeth Garrett, Freeman Deese, Joe Mahoney, Florence Simmons, Harrison Fuller, Saralyn Peacock, Elizabeth Arnau, Frederica Wade, Ethel Pritchett, Vince Mahoney, Pickette Bush, Maud Powell, Pauline Brigham and Ray Ballard, the pianist. 

     But the highlight of the festival and the highlight of the existence of the auditorium came on the evening of June 12, 1911.  Bryan, a four-time presidential candidate, was the country's most famous orator. Five special trains from Macon, Hawkinsville, Tennille, Eastman and Vidalia were scheduled.   Bryan spoke to the largest crowd in the history of the city.  His subject was "The Prince of Peace," which was well received by the throng in attendance.  After spending the night in Dublin, Bryan traveled east on the Central of Georgia railroad for appearances in Claxton and Statesboro the following day.  

     He was here! William Jennings Bryan, the ultimate oratory master, admired by millions actually came. Then in a matter of weeks, perhaps months, the auditorium fell silent.  At some unknown date the auditorium burned.  Whether it met its death by arson or accident, the dreams of Bryan had come true.  So now, when you attend outdoor concerts at the new Farmers Market and sit in your lawn chairs as you listen to the music coming from the stage, turn back your thoughts to a century ago when the country's greatest performers entertained thousands and thousands of us a century ago.

No comments: