Flying Karamazovs and friends bring Chautauqua spirit to Juneau

When the New Old Time Chautauqua marched into a TEDx talk in Seattle in 2012, there were jugglers, marching band musicians with mismatched uniforms, a saxophonist with a fez and a mustachioed ringmaster in a kilt.

Now, the motley troupe of almost 60 performers and educators is in Juneau for three days of workshops, shows and activities that start Thursday.

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A selfie shot while the New Old Time Chautauqua band marches through a Wrangell supermarket, June 25, 2015. (Photo courtesy Eben Sprinsock/New Old Time Chautauqua)
A selfie shot while the New Old Time Chautauqua band marches through a Wrangell supermarket, June 25, 2015. (Photo courtesy Eben Sprinsock/New Old Time Chautauqua)

The traveling Chautauqua movement began on Lake Chautauqua in New York in the late 1800s. They brought lectures, theater and music to rural communities but it mostly died out after the rise of radio and motion pictures.

“School Children’s ‘Chautauqua’ Demonstration” in Juneau, Sept. 21, 1921. (Alaska State Library, David & Mary Waggoner Photographs & Papers, 1900-1940, Winter & Pond, ASL-PCA-492)
“School Children’s ‘Chautauqua’ Demonstration” in Juneau, Sept. 21, 1921. (Alaska State Library, David & Mary Waggoner Photographs & Papers, 1900-1940, Winter & Pond, ASL-PCA-492)

In 1981, Patch Adams — yup, the one Robin Williams played — and the Flying Karamazov Brothers revived the movement. Natalee Rothaus was with the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council in 1992 when the New Old Time Chautauqua first visited Juneau.

“It’s so much fun and it’s so much goodwill, spirited. You know, you’re working with people who are doing this for the love of it. They’re not coming in just to do a show. It’s not just a gig, it’s a Chautauquan family,” Rothaus says.

The New Old Time Chautauqua is a nonprofit whose members volunteer their time and fund their own travel during their month-long tour each summer. It’s Chautauquan tradition to share knowledge, partner with local organizations and build community through laughter, entertainment and education.

“The last time we did do a parade, it was quite wonderful. I myself wanted to run away with the circus,” says Rothaus.

One Juneauite actually did. Valerie Snyder, owner of Douglas’ BrownBoots Costume Company, joined the Chautauqua in Bellingham last month for a crammed week of rehearsals before they hopped the ferry up to Ketchikan. During their parades, Snyder says, “People are genuinely surprised and we get community members to march with us. In Ketchikan, I ran up the sidewalk and I did a little face painting to all the little kids waiting on the side of the street. ”

So far on this jaunt, the group has performed in Ketchikan, Wrangell and Petersburg.

A New Old Time Chautauqua performer in the streets of Wrangell, June 26. (Photo courtesy Zachary “Skip” Waddell/New Old Time Chautauqua)
A New Old Time Chautauqua performer in the streets of Wrangell, June 26.
(Photo courtesy Zachary “Skip” Waddell/New Old Time Chautauqua)

Snyder is the only Alaskan from Southeast in the troupe. She plays violin, juggles, hula hoops, and contributes a little singing and dancing.

“Just expect fun and warmth and friendship. We’re just here to entertain and put a smile on your face,” Snyder says.

Their three-day routine begins with an open potluck Thursday at the Douglas library. Think of it as a Chautauqua launch party with a chalk drawing competition and community music jam.

Friday is the workshop day at Centennial Hall, where the Chautauquans and community members will teach circus skills, how to build a fire using friction, the Chinese meditative art of Qigong, how to fold a fitted sheet, and lecture on health.

There will also be pop-up performances downtown. The only ticketed part of their visit is their headlining vaudeville show Friday evening, which features music, aerialists, the Flying Karamazov Brothers and lots of shtick.

On the Fourth of July, they’ll march in both the downtown Juneau and Douglas parades.

New Old Time Chautauqua founder and original Flying Karamazov Brother Paul Magid hopes to inspire change person to person. The troupe will perform at the Johnson Youth Center and the Juneau Pioneer Home, too, as part of their service mission.

Magid describes the spirit behind their group in his 2012 TEDx talk:

“And it’s a our love of music, play, laughter and for each other that bridges all religious and political differences whether it’s on a baseball field, in a grocery store, or at a maximum security prison.”

After Juneau, they’re headed to Hoonah, Haines and Sitka.

Full disclosure: All proceeds from Friday’s ticket sales benefit KTOO Public Media.