MOUNT VERNON — Mount Vernon’s rich appreciation for history has been rewarded. The Chautauqua Series, sponsored by the music group Elixir, will be expanding from 15 to 21 programs in 2010, adding what organizer Mike Petee has described as a Lyceum Series, featuring historical storytelling. The success of the program is drawing attention statewide, including a supporting grant from the Ohio Humanities Council.
“It is the only year-round chautauqua that I have heard of in the state of Ohio,” said Frank Dunkle, program officer for the OHC.
Dunkle said the OHC favors the chautauqua format, where a performer impersonates a historical figure, telling the person’s story firsthand, then taking questions from the audience. It allows the audience to learn about the historical figure, while being entertained in a performance setting.
Petee said Knox County audiences have turned out in force to support the chautauquas, at times leaving standing room only, provoking return engagements for some re-enactors. Petee said a big part of his interest in staging the chautauquas at ThePlace@TheWoodward was to establish a following for such programming, in hopes that it will graduate to the full stage of the Woodward Opera House when restoration is completed.
“That’s my agenda,” Petee said, “to perform in the Woodward Opera House.”
Petee said all of the organizational work handled by Elixir’s members — himself, his wife, Chris Petee, and Gerry Rensel — is done on a volunteer basis. All funds raised by passing the hat, and now the OHC grant, go to performers and rental costs for the facility. Petee said he hopes the grant will allow for collected money to go to musical opening acts, which have typically played for free in the series’ first three years.
Petee said one of the best things about this series is that it complements Mount Vernon’s rich theatrical scene, offering entertaining stage performances, sometimes featuring local actors, but in a format that isn’t direct competition to shows. Additionally, he said, the series is affordable: No tickets are taken at the door, although a basket is passed to defray expenses.
Chris Petee is pumped about the wide range of audience members seen at chautauquas.
“We have seen everything from white-haired people remembering Dwight Eisenhower from their youth, to punk rockers checking out John Lennon,” she said.
She said they see lots of children, too, who learn a great deal because the programs, while always family friendly, are nonetheless geared toward everything from ancient times to modern days. Rensel noted that even as organizer he has found himself on the receiving end of new learning, and that he is pleased to see how involved the children get, sometimes dressing up or bringing in items to discuss with the historical person.
“It gives us a local stage to perform on, too,” Mike Petee said, pointing out that professional bands such as Elixir typically play everywhere but in their own home town.
The programs allow for a mingling of local performers and ones from all over the state, which has helped the series become known far outside Knox County. Petee said they have received inquiries from Berea, Dayton, Coshocton, Columbus, Wooster and Cleveland.
All of this leads toward a desired end, Petee said.
“The arts and humanities help communities,” he said. “Statistics show that communities which start having arts events become safer to live, their children rise to higher levels of education, and the crime rates fall.”
The Chautauqua & Lyceum Series will kick off on Jan. 28, 2010, with the portrayal of United States founding father Thomas Jefferson, portrayed by chautauqua veteran Ken Hammontree of Ashland, with music from Folk Tails. The first lyceum evening comes on Feb. 11, when Wapakoneta storyteller, folk artist, archeologist, writer and teacher James Bowsher, featured in numerous books, on PBS and elsewhere in the media, comes to Mount Vernon to share his object-based storytelling, where he uses original artifacts involved in the stories he tells to bring them to astonishing life. Later highlights include Ohio poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Woody Guthrie, Mark Twain, Amelia Earhart, Mount Vernon’s own Paul Lynde, and, for Christmas 2010, the composer of “Messiah,” George Frideric Handel.