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Chautauqua brought historic figures to life

Boulder City Chautauqua. I know you know the name, but have you ever experienced it? In early September, the Boulder City Review alerted me that Chautauqua would be back on Sept. 15 at Desi Arnaz Jr.’s historic Boulder Theatre. I had been hearing about this program for years but never quite got out of my easy chair to take the big step. But this one caught my eye because one of the two shows was on Theodore Roosevelt, my favorite U.S. president. And also because Amy was hosting a sorority event at our house that night so I wanted to go somewhere else.

Tickets were $15 in advance, but I failed to think ahead and ended up in the line to buy one at the theater. Luckily, they did have one left, and that line was much shorter than the one for ticket holders so I ended up on the aisle in row three.

Standing near me was UNLV’s Michael Green, an acquaintance of mine who is a familiar face on TV and history book shelves. As moderator, Green introduced Charlie Shaffer up at the piano. Shaffer has had an amazing musical career with symphony, TV shows and a long residency at the Desert Inn. He entertained us wonderfully until a man named Doug Mishler strolled out dressed like an outdoorsman from the turn of the previous century.

Mishler teaches history at the University of Nevada, Reno, but has been nationally recognized for a quarter of a century for his Chautauqua portrayals of historical men.

He has schooled up on a couple dozen figures, such as Stonewall Jackson, Henry Ford and P.T. Barnum. He quickly launched right into role playing Roosevelt in a voice that must have sounded much like the Mount Rushmore man. He held us spellbound, as they say, for much of an hour relating the highlights of his life and I learned a lot.

Then, he surprised me by opening up the entire theater to a question-and-answer period, and his answers demonstrated an amazingly encyclopedic knowledge. Some in the audience showed their own knowledge by asking detailed questions about obscure banking or political situations of the day, and he always knew exactly what they meant and launched into savvy explanations of “his” position on that.

When I was handed the microphone, with malice aforethought, I addressed him as “Teddy,” which triggered the expected angry retort. He did not like the short name that was highjacked by the public and used on stuffed bears.

We learned the reason President Roosevelt never liked to be called Teddy. His beloved first wife Alice had always called him Teedie and, after she died, it was just too painful to hear anyone else but their daughter Alice call him that.

The origin of Chautauqua is dated to a Methodist minister who organized a public religious show on the shores of Lake Chautauqua in New York. This launched a growing adult education movement that was very popular nationally into the 1920s. Most were set up in rural areas near the train line from a big town, and many used tents to house the audience. Political rallies with men such as William Jennings Bryan became all the rage.

Locally, the Chautauqua method was introduced by Clay Jenkinson about 25 years ago and Ihla Crowley was the original chairman of the Boulder City program. The first years were hosted in a tent but the program moved into the Boulder Theater in 2003.

Watch the Boulder City Review for details of the 2019 event. I’m told the amazing Mishler will star again. See ya there.

Dave Nelson retired to Boulder City in 2003 after a career with the FICO score company. He is vice president and newsletter editor for the local Sons of Norway.

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