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The 24th Annual Big River Chautauqua is quickly approaching and organizers are excited for the free three-day event scheduled for July 19-21 behind Bonne Terre City Hall.

This year’s theme is “A Night of Laughter, Gossip and Magic, Entertaining America” and will feature three nights of educational entertainment portrayed by actors/scholars who have studied their characters extensively.

Chautauqua Committee Member Paul Williams said they will feature four different characters this year, with two of them on the same night. 

“Minnie Pearl will provide the laughter to kick off the event on Thursday evening,” Williams said. “On Friday evening Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper will provide the gossip. Those two will be performing the same night together.”

Williams explained that Parsons and Hopper are from the 1930s, 40s and 50s and they will be gossiping about movie stars and other people from that era.

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Chautauqua, less than two weeks away

Minnie Pearl will be portrayed by Elsa Wolff.

“Minnie Pearl was country music’s preeminent comedian and one of the most beloved performers American country culture ever produced,” Williams said. “With her gingham dress and a price tag dangling off her flower-strewn straw hat, Minnie Pearl became known worldwide as an icon of rural America.”

Williams added that Parsons and Hopper were both gossip columnists of their time and were known rivals. The rival columns had a combined readership of 75 million people in the 1940s, which was during the height of their success.

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Chautauqua, less than two weeks away

Luella Parsons will be portrayed by Ruth Pangrace.

“They are known for being the earliest gossip columnists,” William said. “They could ruin a Hollywood career with just one sentence. They were the most feared women in Hollywood.

"It didn’t matter if the rumor was true or not. They could either make or break a career. It will be interesting to see them both on stage together and how they interact with each other and what they say.”

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Chautauqua, less than two weeks away

Hedda Hopper will be portrayed by Ellen Rooney.

Williams said Saturday, for the final evening of the three-day event, Harry Houdini will be featured for the entertainment portion. Houdini was an illusionist and stunt performer, noted for his sensational escape acts in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“His grand illusions and daring, spectacular escape acts made him one of the most famous magicians of all time,” Williams said. “Houdini was fascinated with magic and when he began performing he drew attention for his daring feats of escape.

"In 1893, he married Wilhelmina Rahner, who became his onstage partner as well. Houdini continued performing escape acts until his death, on October 31, 1926, in Detroit, Michigan, from a ruptured appendix.”

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Chautauqua, less than two weeks away

Harry Houdini will be portrayed by Larry Bounds.

Williams said he is excited to see what Houdini’s show has in store for everyone during Chautauqua. It should be an interesting evening for all who attend.

Each evening will begin with food at 5:30 p.m., and pre-show entertainment starting at 6 p.m. The Chautauqua Singers will take the stage at 6:30 p.m., followed by the featured speaker at 7:30 p.m.

Williams stressed that each year the Chautauqua performances are not only educational, but quite entertaining.

Bonne Terre Chautauqua is the longest running, privately-funded Chautauqua west of the Mississippi. It was co-founded in 1995 by Joe Layden and Sherry Greminger.

Chautauqua began with real-life performers who traveled the country telling stories of the events that made them famous. Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt is quoted as saying that Chautauqua is “the most American thing in America.”

Williams said lawn chairs and blankets are always welcome during the event. There are usually plenty of chairs under the tent, but every once in a while they run out chairs because of such a large crowd.

A sneak preview of the event will take place on July 18 during the monthly Bonne Terre Chamber of Commerce monthly meeting, which will be held that evening at 6 p.m. at Heritage Hall. For more information on the chamber dinner contact the Bonne Terre Chamber Office at 573-358-4000. 

If anyone would like to donate or become a member of the Big River Chautauqua Committee, they can contact Williams at 573-358-5146, or for those who would like to mail a donation they can make checks out to Old Bonne Terre Inc., in care of Paul Williams, P.O. Box 105, Bonne Terre, Mo 63628.

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Renee Bronaugh is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3617 or rbronaugh@dailyjournalonline.com

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