For the past several years, the annual Big River Chautauqua has brought dozens of legends to life under the sultry, summer stars of Bonne Terre.
To celebrate 25 years, this year’s scholarly portrayals feature slope-nosed comedian Bob Hope, the “Most Trusted Man in America” Walter Cronkite, and one of the world’s first TV chefs, Julia Child.
Tonight through Saturday, Chautauqua will begin with barbecue for sale at 5:30 p.m. behind Bonne Terre City Hall on North Allen Street. Guitarist Darren Thomas and the Chautauqua Singers will warm up the crowd at 6 p.m., and the performer for each evening will take the stage at 7:30 p.m. At the end of each performance, the audience can ask questions as the performer responds both in-character and out-of-character.
This year’s theme, “Thanks for the Memories,” highlights the careers and personal lives of Bob Hope, tonight; Walter Cronkite, Friday night; and Julia Child, Saturday night.
At Bonne Terre Chamber of Commerce’s special meeting Wednesday night, members met the performers and got a preview into the lives and personalities of the American icons.
Dr. William S. Worley, who will portray Bob Hope tonight, is a full-time history instructor for Metropolitan Community College’s Blue River campus near Kansas City. He is the author of "J.C. Nichols & the Shaping of Kansas City," along with several other books on Kansas City regional history. He is working on a volume that examines home building and community development in Kansas City and across the nation in the last half of the 20th century. In addition to teaching and writing, he frequently participates in community Chautauquas as a means of broadening public awareness of American history.
Worley provided chamber members with a sample of the Hope humor and style, holding Hope’s prop-of-choice, a golf club, and changing his hats when he came to various points in Hope’s career — straw hat, fez, and military cap denoting Hope’s dedication to entertaining the troops from 1941, well into the 1980s.
Larry Bounds, who will portray legendary journalist Walter Cronkite on Friday night, has appeared as a Chautauqua scholar since 2005 as Harry Houdini, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Davy Crockett, and Walt Disney. When not reading about the lives and works of America's most intriguing citizens, he teaches AP English at Wade Hampton High School in Greenville, South Carolina. A member of Mensa, he holds a certificate from the National Board of Teaching and has 35 years of classroom experience.
Bounds said Cronkite’s life should be particularly appealing to area residents because so much of the newsman’s career was developed in Missouri, where he was born, was raised, and started his radio broadcast career. “You could do a show for an entire night based only on his years in Missouri,” Bounds said.
Karen Vuranch, who will portray French chef and gourmet innovator Julia Child on Saturday night, is known for other portrayals of history-making women such as Pearl Buck, Clara Barton, Mother Jones, Mary Draper Ingles, Irish pirate Grace O’Malley and Wild West outlaw Belle Starr. Vuranch has written two plays about women in history, “Coal Camp Memories” about life in the West Virginia coalfields, and “Homefront” about women in World War II.
The Fayetteville, West Virginia, resident is also an acclaimed storyteller and performs at more than 200 colleges, libraries, schools and conferences each year. Vuranch presents a workshop on “The History of Food in America: From Feasting and Fasting, from Frozen to Fabulous” that explores how American eating habits have changed drastically throughout the years. She said she was naturally drawn to Child’s character because she herself is a foodie.
“My husband and I enjoy gourmet food and we’re constantly cooking,” she said. “This is how much of a food nerd I am, I actually watch the Food Network Awards every year. There’s nothing better.”
Paul Williams, who has been with Big River Chautauqua since its beginning in 1995, said the annual series wouldn’t be possible without the support of the local residents, and especially its sponsors, such as annual sponsors: Parkland Health Center and First State Community Bank.
“We’re proud of ourselves,” Williams said. “We might not get assistance anymore from the Missouri Humanities Council, but we have a large group of people who have made Chautauqua possible every year, and for them we’re so grateful.”
He pointed out that this year’s souvenir program, available along with a hand-held fan each night, provides pictures, years and characters of every Chautauqua that has been held since 1995.
“When we came up with this year’s theme,” Williams said, “we knew we had to observe our 25-year milestone in some way. ‘Thanks for the Memories’ just seemed fitting. We are very thankful for all the memories, and hope to gather more in the years to come.”