Big Top Chautauqua in Bayfield, Wis., has never just retired a tent. The performance venue has operated summer-long on the shore of Lake Superior since 1986, and every all-canvas tent theater the venue has acquired stood until Mother Nature intervened—once with fire, twice with hailstorms and once with wind.
When the latest tent was first installed in 2014, the Chautauqua organization expected it to last about six seasons. Going into the sixth season in the spring of 2019, the organization’s board had a frank discussion about the state of the tent, which had been leaking significantly. Phillip Anich, Big Top Chautauqua’s “canvas master,” theorizes that modern canvas and thread don’t “swell” the way fabrics of the past did. But the organization remains attached to the tradition and acoustical properties of canvas over vinyl.
“The argument I made to the board this spring was that we have a tent that’s been compromised by the UV, but it still looks fine; it’s pretty and it has wonderful acoustic properties, and it’s part of who we are. We are a tent show,” Anich says.
The solution Anich and the board agreed on was to place a Sprung structure—in the same colors as the canvas—over the tent. The 200-by-90-foot structure, by Sprung Instant Structures Ltd., fits well on the site’s pitched topography. The panels go all the way to the ground on the stage end and terminate 8.5 feet from the ground around the rest of the building, leaving the tent with an open feel. Rated for 90-mph winds and heavy snow loads, the structure is a “permanent” solution, giving the organization time to determine the future of the show and raise funds for the next venue.
“When you are in the tent, the big building goes away at night,” Anich says. “It’s dark out; you can’t see it, but we have a ring of light that goes around the structure, and then we have a secondary ring of light that goes around the tent. You don’t even know you are in a different environment aside from the fact that you are dry. I kid people when I’m announcing the shows—I’ll say, ‘Those of you that are nostalgic for the old days when you could sit on your seat and get your butt wet, we have volunteers over here with spray bottles.’”
The 900-seat Big Top Chautauqua is one of the last examples of what President Theodore Roosevelt called “the most American thing in America.” Dating back to New York State in the late 1800s, chautauquas once traveled around the country, particularly to rural areas, bringing communities together under a tent for education, music, religion and politics.
With its protective Sprung cover, the canvas tent stood tall through the 2019 season, hosting performances by the likes of Judy Collins, Rosanne Cash, Lyle Lovett and Brandi Carlile.