Now in its twenty-second year, Big Top Chautauqua is a renewal of the historical traveling chautauqua, meant to educate and entertain with lectures, vaudeville shows and musicians. The Big Top’s mission to “enhance cultural opportunities and create a sense of community and connection to the life and history of the Upper Midwest” has supported founder and artistic director Warren Nelson in writing and performing 11 original house show musicals that combine stories, songs and historic images. The Blue Canvas Orchestra & Singers-playing together since 1984-accompanies his productions with an original score. Warren has played with members of the Blue Canvas Orchestra since the 1970s.
Big Top’s permanent home is at the base of Mt. Ashwabay Ski Hill in Bayfield County. Performers from all over the world come to play-including Greg Brown, Taj Mahal, Dar Williams, The Smothers Brothers and Willie Nelson. New and veteran performers always marvel at the tent: its lighting, surroundings and acoustics. The sound is like nowhere else. Old-fashioned on the outside, the tent is fully equipped with top-of-the-line sound and light systems on the inside.
Still intimate with 900 seats, the padded benches are close to the stage, and the sound is good anywhere you sit. If you listen, laughter always punctuates the murmurs of the crowd before the show. There’s a relaxed atmosphere; people come to be taken away with music, dance and theater.
Warren, with his bushy white mustache and sassy tenor voice, leads the crowd in “Ballyhoo!”-his original tribute to the tent, getting the crowd to laugh and yell along. “Is this anyone’s first night at the tent? Raise your hands!” He leans in with a smile when hands timidly raise. “Shame on you! Where ya been?”
Musician, actor, composer and poet, Warren, with his partner Betty Ferris, has created a variety of original shows including: A Martin County Hornpipe, Souvenir Views and Riding the Wind-which is about the city of Bayfield. These shows combine historic images, storytelling, dancing, acting and original music to create an entertaining trip through time. Focusing on local history, Warren incorporates lumberjacks, voyageurs, sailors and lighthouse keepers into his shows, giving them voice and remembering their importance in making the North what it is. His newest show, Old Minnesota, premiered in his hometown of Fairmont, Minnesota and will tour all over the state. He’s been on public radio’s Prairie Home Companion and has his own radio show of tent performances. Tent Show Radio broadcasts on many stations around the country.
“As a showman, I have always wanted a tent show,” says Warren. He could have had anything, but he just wanted an all-canvas tent. The tent has since opened every summer, bringing in over 70 locally and nationally known performers each year.
“It’s just good people,” says Kay Putnam, who has volunteered at the tent with her husband, Don, for 12 years. “We have a lot of fun, and we see a lot of good shows,” she says. The Big Top is mostly volunteer-run, from the ticket booth to the ushers, and people just keep coming back. With performances five nights per week from early June through the beginning of September, the Big Top is true Northwoods summer entertainment for locals and tourists alike.
As the Blue Canvas Orchestra & Singers end their upbeat last tune, the crowd claps and laughs, lingering in the after-show buzz before saying goodnight under the wide open sky … and another night at Big Top Chautauqua comes to a close.