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Chautauqua looks behind silver screen

This article appeared in the Jacksonville Journal Courier on August 31, 2016. You may access the original article here


The 18th Prairieland Chautauqua is telling the classic stories of the silver screen.

Not those captured on screen, but the stories lived by the people making some of cinema’s earliest hits.

“Some months ago, maybe late last year, I started thinking about using the silver screen as a theme,” Chautauqua program director Dave Truesdell said. “I went out and found people who could become the characters related to Hollywood from about 1910 to 1960.”

“The first person we’re dealing with, chronologically, is Thomas Edison,” Truesdell said. Edison patented a kinetoscope, a large box that allowed people — one at a time — to watch a film. Workers in his lab also developed a kinetograph film camera.

“He had the idea, but he didn’t understand what it could be used for,” Truesdell said. “Most of his films were little documentaries. Even in the silent era, most of what he did was not what we look at as cinema.”

While many of those presenting programs during the Chautauqua present the programs around the region or country, the Edison program will be unique to Jacksonville.

“Hank Fincken created a special program just for this,” Truesdell said. “He’s never (given a presentation that) dealt with just the film part of Edison’s life.”

Another presentation unique to Jacksonville is Sherri Mitchell’s program on “Gone with the Wind” star Vivien Leigh. Mitchell recently staged a one-woman play looking at Leigh’s life.

“I asked her, ‘Can you do what you’ve done here and adapt it as something we can do on the stage at First Christian Church?’ She said, ‘Yeah, I can do that’,” Truesdell said.

Most of the performers — actors and musicians — participating in the Chautauqua are from Illinois, with Mitchell, Diane Dietz, Terri Benz, Rob Killam and Keith Abner living in Jacksonville or central Illinois. Walter Metz is from Carbondale. Ed Finch, Leslie Goddard and Jenny Riddle are from the Chicago area, while Fincken is from Indianapolis and George Frein is from Texas, Truesdell said.

“Some of these are re-enactors who take on the guise of these people,” he said. “But they’re not all like that.”

The musicians, for example, aren’t focused on being the person whose songs they’re performing.

“I don’t expect you to sound like Judy Garland,” Truesdell said he told Dietze. “I want you to do your interpretation.”

Along with music and the one-person theatrical presentations, the theme lends itself to using film clips to illustrate points being made, Truesdell said.

“It’s going to be more multimedia than it’s ever been before,” he said.

Part of that, too, is thanks to the facilities at First Christian Church, where the three-day event is being held.

“Instead of a tent, in which you can get rained on or sweat in,” the church is handicapped-accessible and has air conditioning, comfortable seating and the technology to make such multimedia presentations easy, Truesdell said.

He’s hoping that degree of comfort, along with the theme, will draw in a larger audience.

“I hope they get an appreciation for the history of American cinema,” Truesdell said.

Admission to the Chautauqua is free, with funding provided via private donors and a grant from Illinois Humanities. Programs start at 4 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Monday at First Christian Church in South Jacksonville.

Each day features four programs, with the last program each day starting at 8 p.m.

Hamilton’s Catering is offering a dinner each night from 6:10 to 6:50 p.m. Cost is $10. Reservations are required at least 24 hours in advance by calling 217-675-2720.

Angela Bauer can be reached at 217-408-2057.