Much like a seasoned Broadway stage manager, Wolf Fuhrig is involved in every aspect of the summertime performances known as the Chautauqua.
The 16-show, four-day event begins at 4 p.m. and concludes at 9 p.m. each day, but it takes much of Fuhrig’s time between January and early September to pull it all together. This year’s event, titled “Uniquely American,” kicks off at 4 p.m. Friday at First Christian Church at 2106 S. Main St. in South Jacksonville.
Every January, he begins the time-consuming work of developing the program. “You have to see who is available, what historical personalities they portray and how much they charge,” Fuhrig said. “I get many inquiries throughout the year from performers who would like to participate and to possibly return.”
He added that most of the performers, who have portrayed well-known Americans such as Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain and Henry Ford, hail from the Midwest. And the primary reason for that, Fuhrig said, is money; it costs too much to bring performers from the East and West coasts.
Speaking of money, Fuhrig said one of his primary responsibilities as Chautauqua director is soliciting funds and finding grants to cover the increasing costs of the event. “Most of the money raised goes to pay the performers stipends and to cover their transportation costs,” he said.
The retired MacMurray College political science and criminal justice professor has been putting the local Chautauqua together for 16 years now, and each of those events has been patterned in much the same way. Each evening begins with two performances, with one of those generally being a musical event. Those are followed by a catered meal and then two more performances.
The Prairieland Chautauqua, as it is now called, is adapted from early 20th-century Chautauquas that emphasized popular lectures, music and dramatic entertainments. The original local Chautauqua series, which began in 1912 and continued through 1930, was held for 10 days in late August in Nichols Park.
The modern entertainment event started in 1999 as a joint undertaking of the Illinois and Missouri humanities councils, along with assistance from the Morgan County Historical Society, which continues to sponsor the series.
“We decided early on that we should stay in the Chautauqua tradition of holding the performances underneath a large tent,” Fuhrig said. However, this year, all Chautauqua activities will be indoors at First Christian Church.
Fuhrig said the move to First Christian Church was necessitated because the Sophie Leschin auditorium, which was near the Chautauqua site in Community Park, was no longer available in case of bad weather. The Sophie Leschin building is on the grounds of the Jacksonville Developmental Center, which was closed by the state of Illinois.
Fuhrig believes the local Chautauqua is a way of providing informal teaching of American history and music. “I enjoy it because I think it is a valuable educational contribution to the community during the summer,” he said.
Greg Olson can be reached at 217-245-6121, ext. 1224, or on Twitter @ JCNews_Greg.