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History on the Hoof

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I was bragging up my family's bloodline not long ago to a rube. I told him how one of my ancestors, a Benton, shot Andrew Jackson in the pooper during a duel. The story may not be precisely true, but it's scandalous. A genealogical coup.

Was the rube rapt? Was he impressed? Hardly. "What's a Benton?" he asked. "Who's Andrew Jackson?"

Call it historical illiteracy if you must. But it's name-dropper hell, any way you cut it.

It's why we have chautauquas. A chautauqua is like a fair, only with a lot of high-minded talking heads — often dressed up like, oh, a Benton, or Andrew Jackson.

Chautauquas trace back to a school for Sunday School teachers set up in 1874 in Chautauqua, N.Y. In time, the enlightenment got diluted by music, swimming and what not, and chautauqua entrepreneurs took tent shows on the road, eventually reaching tens of millions of people. After an early 1900s peak, chautauquas declined, not to return until the 1970s, when entrepreneurs of the educational variety started pitching the concept to humanities councils. Lone Star Lib Jim Hightower's sensational RollingThunder/Chautauqua/Democracy tour notwithstanding, most chautauquas these days are the products of such pitches and have an overtly educational cast.

In most cases, they involve impersonations of historical personages with whom the audience gets to interact. The basic draw is this: you get to talk to someone who's famous AND dead.

Such is the case with CHAUTAUQUA 2003: Florida's Stories, America's Voices. The Florida Humanities Council's 30th annual chautauqua tour features professional actors such as J.D. Sutton, Phyllis McEwen and Betty Jean Steinshouer. Everyone's invited, rubes most of all.

Events transpire in three Plant City locations:

Thursday, Nov. 13: The Southern Bluegrass Band at 6 p.m.; meet-and-greets with Thomas Jefferson and Harriet Beecher Stowe at 7 p.m. Hillsborough Community College Auditorium, Plant City Campus, 1206 N. Park Road.

Friday, Nov. 14: 7 p.m. Post-mortem wisdom from James Weldon Johnson and Eleanor Roosevelt; gospel music from Oracles of Prophecy choir. Cornerstone Community Center, 315 N. Collins St.

Saturday, Nov. 15: 7 p.m. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Zora Neale Hurston; Vic Larsen's Dixieland jazz Combo. 1914 Plant City High School and Community Center Auditorium, 605 N. Collins St.

A full schedule and description of the programs, which are FREE, can be found at http://bml.hcplc.org/chautauqua.htm.

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