07/25/06

New Old Time Chautauqua

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The idea for this “new vaudeville” circus and traveling medicine show was hatched in 1981 by the Flying Karamazov Brothers, Patch Adams, and friends who had been performing at the Oregon Country Fair. The original Chautauqua concept, which remains the New Old Time Chautauqua’s (NOTC) mission to this day, was to take the show on the road, bringing family entertainment and educational workshops to rural and remote communities. Rex gave the NOTC a grant in 1995 which was used to support the traveling road show which toured throughout five states in the West, as well as Alaska and British Columbia. The NOTC continues today to follow in the footsteps of the cultural chautauquas that traveled America during the turn of the century, and later such groups as the Merry Pranksters and the Grateful Dead. Just this spring Rex confirmed our support with a grant from our Katrina Recovery Fund to help the NOTC put together a special trip to the Gulf Coast, called the Jambalaya Vaudeville Tour. Recently Joanne Murayama, one of the tour organizers, sent us a description of the trip. Excerpts follow.

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When the fifty-three of us Chautauquans gathered in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi to start our whirlwind week of free vaudeville shows and relief work, we were told with a wry smile, “After Katrina, the folks who came down to help us out were the Christians and the hippies.”

In neighboring Waveland, Mississippi, the Rainbow Family set up a huge tent, served thousands of free organic meals daily, and offered medical services, entertainment and even samba lessons. It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor as everyone was homeless. FEMA and other government workers joined survivors in the food lines. After three months Rainbow’s Waveland Café moved on to New Orleans, leaving behind a spirit of inclusion by serving everyone regardless of politics or religion or economic status.

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Many residential areas hit by the hurricane and the resulting floods are still devastated. In New Orleans we saw blocks and blocks of boarded up houses and businesses. As people wait for insurance and government assistance their houses are still uninhabitable. When I asked a Common Ground coordinator how we could help, she replied wearily, “Tell people that we need them to come and help as much as we need donations.”

On this first-ever trip out of the West, the NOTC family was witness to many profound moments filled with the grace of humanity. Our itinerary included Bay St. Louis, Waveland and Pass Christian, Mississippi, and St. Bernard Parish and New Orleans, Louisiana. We put on seven free shows in five days, plus a workshop in Bay St. Louis. Children and adults learned to juggle while others made masks. People passed a guitar around a circle and shared songs and music. It was a lovely and peaceful day in the park. We were thanked many times for bringing a fun and relaxing atmosphere to that chaotic environment.

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On the Jambalaya Tour we experienced the importance of community and the healing effects of the mutual exchange of friendship, laughter and kindness. When not performing, Chautauquans pitched-in and helped wherever needed — gutting houses, working in kitchens, staffing phones, entering data. Our shows and relief efforts were met with gratitude and genuine southern warmth. The strength, perseverance and good humor of our new friends continues to inspire us.

Organizations like the Oregon Country Fair, The Grateful Dead’s Rex Foundation have been donating to humanitarian grassroots efforts for many years, and now volunteers throughout the country have been responding to the plight of communities on the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Katrina. Our community’s valued artisans, craftspeople, carpenters, electricians, caregivers and entertainers who live on the fringes of the corporate culture are plugging in and finding their calling in service to others.

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