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Celebrating 25 years, Big River Chautauqua will return with the annual three-night event July 18-20. This year’s special guest speakers, Bob Hope, Walter Cronkite, and Julia Child, will be sharing memories from their professional past.

The theme this year is “Thanks for the Memories” and actors will be portraying historical figures from around the same era of history.   

Hope was a British-born comedian who starred in 54 feature films and appeared in many more. He began his career in show business in the early 1920s after a brief boxing career. Hope is praised by many modern comedians as being one of the most influential people in the comedy world. One thing that often comes to mind when Hope is mentioned is his United Service Organizations (USO) tours. Hope made 57 tours with the USO entertaining troops up until the early '90s.

Cronkite was an renowned journalist from St. Joseph, Missouri. He hosted the CBS Evening News for 19 years where he would become well-known for his sign-off catchphrase, "And that's the way it is," followed by the date of the broadcast.

Julia Child was an American chef, author and television personality who is most notable for bringing cooking-based entertainment programs to the American public. One of the more notable pieces of Child’s work is "The French Chef," a television program that premiered in 1963 and brought the art of French cuisine to Americans.

“What we do as a group is decide on a theme first,” said Chautauqua Committee Member Paul Williams. “Then we try to get characters that have something to do with that theme…"

“Bob Hope, Walter Cronkite, and Julia Child, while they sort of have nothing in common themselves interpersonally, they are all from that era of the not-too-distant past,” said Williams. “They’ll tell interesting stories about themselves and history that they saw through their eyes.

“Then, people will have a chance to ask them questions at the end of the program and during the last 10 minutes, people can ask the actors or scholars questions about their characters,” Williams explained. “It’s a very entertaining and educational experience.”

Each year, event organizers enlist the services of college professors, historians, and actors from all over the country to portray popular figures of the past under large tents behind the Bonne Terre City Hall building.

The character portrayals are based on extensive historical research and practice by the actors in order to seem as real and accurate as possible.

The event is free to attend and food is available for purchase.

Each evening of the three night event will begin at 5:30 p.m. with barbecue items being sold to event-goers.

Pre-show entertainment will begin at 6 p.m each of the three nights featuring two acts including the guitar stylings of Darren Thomas followed by choral music performed by the Chautauqua Singers.

The character performances will begin at 7:30 p.m and generally last about two hours.

Over the past 25 years, Big River Chautauqua has been devoted to bringing hundreds of historical characters of the past back to life.

The event began in 1874 as a way to bring information and events of the day to the American masses long before television was commonly available. It has since spread throughout the country with independent groups or daughter Chautauquas, such as Big River’s, keeping the tradition alive and giving spectators an insight into what it would be like to see famous people of history speaking of their lives in person. Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt is quoted as saying that Chautauqua is “the most American thing in America.”

The event’s name comes from Lake Chautauqua in western New York where the first Chautauqua program was held.    

Big River Chautauqua was set into motion 25 years ago by then-Daily Journal Managing Editor Joe Layden, and then-assistant managing editor Sherry Greminger, who is still actively involved with Chautauqua since her retirement as managing editor six years ago. 

“The Missouri Humanities Council had put out an ad that said they were starting up this old-fangled thing called Chautauqua and we'd like to bring it to your town; all you have to do is pay us some money and we'll come to town,” explained Williams. “So we raised the money and they came to town, brought characters and the tent.

“We did publicity for the first one but we’ve been doing [the entire show] on our own ever since,” said Williams.

The shows are privately funded through donations collected throughout the year and Williams said they’ve collected many donations from very generous businesses and individuals in the area. He believes they are the longest-running privately-funded Chautauqua.

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Bobby Radford is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 573-518-3628, or at bradford@dailyjournalonline.com.

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