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Big Top Chautauqua creates connections
4-26 Chautauqua 1 WEB
The Blue Canvas Orchestra is the traveling troupe of the Big Top Chautauqua.


It’s said that time waits for no man. The same can be said about technology, a notion that is not lost upon Big Top Chautauqua of Bayfield, Wis.

Its traveling troupe, The Blue Canvas Orchestra, used to haul around a tremendous amount of gear, including multi-leveled platforms, scaffolding and two or three slide projectors, which required the assistance of stage directors and lighting managers.

What’s more, the slide projectors would frequently jam, which would prompt ad-libbing on the part of orchestra members until the images could once again accompany the music.

These days, the nine members of The Blue Canvas Orchestra hit the road with sound engineer Tom Fabjance, digital projectionist Betty Ferris, and concessionaire Karen Trout. Stage props are minimal, with the focus on the performers and the images.

Orchestra spokesman Phillip Anich says that the declining economic climate brought with it a change in the way Big Top Chautauqua does business.

“We had been fortunate to have the benefit of earmarks and Department of Education grants,” Anich says, “which allowed us to do school shows. But, in 2008, everything was scaled back  –  grants, donations to schools. It all dried up. It was necessary for us to adjust and slow down. We modified our shows slightly. It’s important to keep the message, images and music.”

Anich says the economy has had less of an impact on their Big Top Chautauqua operation in Bayfield. “The gigs at the tent are less labor-intensive, because they don’t have tear-down,” he says.

Long before the origin of Big Top Chautauqua, founder Warren Nelson had been playing in bands since junior high school. “Every bar in the world wanted live music in the ‘70s,” Anich says. However, in 1976 Nelson left the road and he and Betty Ferris wrote a very successful show called “Martin County Hornpipe,” which was distilled down to Lost Nations String Band, whose members lived by Mazomanie. In the early 1980s, Nelson and Ferris migrated northward and were commissioned to write a show for the city of Washburn.

Two years later the duo created their flagship show “Riding the Wind” in Bayfield. It caught the attention of Bill and Betty (Andersen) Hulings of Andersen Window Company, which bought the performers’ first tent. The Hulings are now deceased, but the Andersen Window Company continues to provide sponsorship to Big Top Chautauqua. “Their daughter Mary Rice is our patron saint,” Anich says.

The Big Top Chautauqua “family” found their niche in Bayfield. “Community-minded people created an economic engine and a higher quality of life,” Anich says. “They created a livelihood for artisans. Our mission is to contribute to society.”

Anich says the non-profit Big Top Chautauqua organization makes one-half of its funds from ticket sales and the other half comes from contributions, show sponsorship, and touring.

Big Top Chautauqua produced its first shows in Bayfield in 1986 and its members continue to write shows. “We aim to create a sense of connection between people in Bayfield and visiting people,” Anich says.

An early show produced by Big Top Chautauqua was commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service and called “Centennial Green.” Anich says it focused on land use, the creation of national parks, and stewardship. “The original land and timber were there for the taking,” he says. “It was clear cut and move on. The country learned to take care of its resources.”

About every two years Big Top Chautauqua has churned out new shows and found sponsors for them. These included a 1998 show for the Wisconsin Sesquicentennial and a 2008 show for the Minnesota Sesquicentennial. “We started work on that one six years ahead,” he says.

Once a show is written, the instrumentalists work on adding more texture to give the songs depth, while the singers separately learn the lyrics. “It’s always exciting to bring the two parts together,” Anich says. “When we work together we try different ways and fine tune the songs. We put personalization in.”

The multitude of images that accompany their music is an integral part of the shows. Often, images are found first and the music is composed to accentuate them, but other times the music is composed first and images are sought to accompany it. Ferris and others have combed through the collections of historical societies and private parties to amass the immense photo archive of Big Top Chautauqua.

Over the years, the Big Top Chautauqua stage in Bayfield has been graced by many big-name artists, including Johnny Cash, B.B. King, and The Kingston Trio. On June 30 of this year, Glen Campbell will perform during what may well be his final tour. Generally, there are 55 shows during Big Top Chautauqua’s summer season, but their biggest ever boasted 73 performances. The Blue Canvas Orchestra usually performs about 30 times there over the summer, sometimes opening for the headlining acts. Normally, Big Top Chautauqua performances run Wednesday through Sunday, but they will accommodate a performer’s schedule by occasionally running shows on Mondays or Tuesdays.

The longtime core Blue Canvas Orchestra musicians and singers are still together: Phillip Anich, Bruce Bowers, Bruce Burnside, Jack Gunderson, Cheryl Leah, Tom Mitchell and Ed Willett.

This year’s Richland Center performance by Big Top Chautauqua’s Blue Canvas Orchestra is called “American Stories.” It’s a collage of songs from various shows, with themes common to the Midwest: Native Americans; French voyageurs; waterways; lighthouse keepers; early settlers; railroads; the Conservation Corps; and Abe Lincoln.

“American Stories” begins at 7 p.m. on Saturday, April 28, at the Richland Center High School auditorium. Tickets are available at the door, at the following Richland Center outlets, Auditorium Antiques, Burnstad’s Market and Ed’s Family Foods, or at the Viroqua Food Co-op.