In the age of vinyl, Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua clings to the acoustical attributes of canvas.
Every summer since 1986, volunteers have raised a canvas tent on Lake Superior’s south shore near Bayfield, Wis., and performers and fans have come together under the tent for magical evenings of song and entertainment.
“We claim to be the only all-canvas tent theater in the country that operates continually,” says Terry Meyer Matier, executive director. “We probably should say the only one surviving. At least for the next six years.”
Six years is how long the organization’s newest tent is expected to last. Anchor Industries Inc., Evansville, Ind., has manufactured all of Big Top Chautauqua’s canvas tents, but each time a new tent is ordered, the fabricating skills and materials are scarcer than the last time.
Dan Seeber, Anchor manager of outdoor amusement sales, says the first challenge is sourcing the fabric. Then the entire tent is sewn, rather than welded. Because Anchor fabricates products such as awnings and pool covers, the company has skilled sewers on staff, but few with experience on a project this large. Two supervisors were on hand at all times during manufacturing of the tent to answer questions from sewers, Seeber says.
“The people who worked on it were thrilled to do it,” he says. “We’ll continue to make them as long as we can. Getting the fabric to make the tent will be a challenge.”
Seating 950, the finished product is a 70-by-160-foot, 2,000-pound all-canvas tent with one rounded end, one square end, two marquees that stick out and additional updates compared to the tent it replaces.
“We rearranged some seating, allowing better viewing out the back of the tent on the lawn,” Matier says. “Also better viewing for our box seat patrons and bleacher seats in the back—a straight-on view as opposed to an angle. And we added around 50 additional seats to the capacity.”
Why cling with canvas? For a tent that will host musical icons such as Willie Nelson and Judy Collins—along with numerous national, regional and local acts ranging from New Orleans-style jazz to Nashville-style Big Top Opry—it’s all about the acoustics.
“The acoustics in this tent are exquisite,” Matier says. “Sound equivalent to a good performing arts center, and better than many.”
Dozens of volunteers reported to the tent raising, and the season was inaugurated with a “blessing of the tent” by a member of the local Ojibwe community and the stirring vibrations of Native American flute music.
“The other thing we do—not exactly inauguration, but important—is to soak the tent top as much as possible with a hose if the weather doesn’t cooperate to get those threads to swell and plug the holes,” Matier says. “Truth is, it leaks until it gets good and sealed.”
From Matier’s perspective, nothing else looks or sounds like Big Top Chautauqua—which may explain its staying power.
“Perched at the base of a beautiful ski hill in the natural beauty of the area, it’s an aural feast and a memorable occasion to hear a show at the Big Top.”