Know your neighbor: Anniversary Dinner celebrates 40 years of Museum history with Chautauqua-style show

Local talent raises funds for Museum exhibits and programs


by Roberta Werdinger

On June 24, 2012, from 3:30 to 7:30 pm, the Mendocino County Museum in Willits will celebrate 40 years of preserving and participating in local history with an Anniversary Dinner and Chautauqua-style Variety Show of music, history, poetry and theatre. The event is meant to raise funds for the Museum,  showcase local musicians and performers, and carry on the American tradition of Chautauqua. Food will be in ample supply, starting with locally-made cheese and bread and a selection of local beers and wines, then going on to a full buffet dinner followed by dessert.

Chautauqua. (Pronounced: Chuh-TAW-kwuh.) What in the world is it? According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, it is “any of various traveling shows and local assemblies that flourished in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that provided popular education combined with entertainment in the form of lectures, concerts, and plays.” The name, originally Iroquois, comes from the New York State site of the Chautauqua Institution, which originated its first events in 1873. This lively and unclassifiable blend of education and entertainment quickly became popular across the nation, answering a growing need for cultural stimulation at a time when many still lived isolated, rural lifestyles. The democratic spirit these events fostered was inspired by the Populist movement, whose evangelical and temperance-minded leader, William Jennings Bryan, was a popular speaker at Chautauqua circuits. Traveling Chautauquas also became common, performed by itinerant groups who would set up and perform under tents. Some Chautauquas were so religious as to resemble church camps, while others were more secular and resembled vaudeville or circus acts—in other words, the whole American slice of life. Chautauqua diminished in popularity with the advent of radio and television, as well as the changes wrought by improved transportation and urbanization, which lessened people’s isolation.

And yet, rural Americans still have a need to get together, especially when there is as much talent and energy as here in Mendocino County. The event will take place outside under a series of canopies, to replicate the feeling of the Chautauqua shows as old, and features an impressive lineup of the county’s best musicians, dancers, and spoken word performers. [Version 1] The latter category includes Ukiah Poet Laureate Dan Barth, who brings poetry and a bracing dash of wit to the stage. Theatre maven Kate Magruder will perform excerpts from “Voices From the Frolic and Beyond,” a play about what ensued when an American trade ship sank off the coast near Caspar in 1850. Veteran radio announcer Joe Regelski will introduce a vintage 1938 broadcast of the horse race where Seabiscuit overcame War Admiral. And oral historian Linda Pack will animate Mendocino County history with her riveting performances, based on Mendocino County Remembered, a collection of oral history recordings. [Version 2] A plethora of music and dance offerings begins with singer-songwriter Patrick Nagel, contrasting acoustic warmth with a lyric voice. The Coyote Valley Dancers of Redwood Valley share dances that draw on their rich tradition. Musician Clay Hawkins takes the stage with his rapid-fire finger-style guitar that showcase his original compositions. Pianist extraordinaire Elizabeth MacDougall’s crisp, lyrical renditions of classical suites will be sure to satisfy the most judicious music lover. Prolific songwriter and banjoist Antonia Lamb will gift the audience with her locally grown eclectic folk fusion. Finally, the Pomo Northern Drums group will provide an energetic close to the event.

Tickets for the event are $50 per person, $25 for youth 18 years and younger, and will be used for exhibits and educational programs the Museum plans to stage in the coming year.  Tickets must be purchased in advance in order for the Museum to plan the catered meal.  Purchases can be made by calling (707) 459-2736, by emailing, or by visiting the Museum at 400 East Commercial St. in Willits, Mendocino Book Company in Ukiah, Good’s Stamp Shoppe in Willits, or Cheshire Books in Fort Bragg.

The Chautauqua Anniversary Dinner is sponsored by Spare Time Supply and Yokum’s Body Shop, Inc. Additional support is provided by Frey Winery, Mendo Mill & Lumber Company, North State Café, Thompson’s Party Rental, Emandal and Très Bien Creamery. The Mendocino County Museum is located at 400 East Commercial St. in Willits across from Recreation Grove Park and the Rodeo grounds. The Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 am to 4:30 pm. For more information please call 459-2736 or visit