Monday, January 5, 2009

All of Life Was a Stage for Margaret Stahl

As the curtain came down, Margaret Stahl savored the applause one last time. It would be the final performance of her professional career. Her thrilling, one-woman dramatic portrayals had captivated America’s small town audiences for nearly three decades.

Born shortly after the Civil War on a farm near Fremont, Ohio, Margaret discovered her love of acting on a Cleveland stage. Following training at a Boston dramatic school, she found her niche on the Chautauqua Circuit, an organization that brought both entertainment and enlightenment to millions of rural Americans.

Founded in 1874 in western New York at Lake Chautauqua, the Chautauqua Circuit offered cultural and religious programs that brought renewal of the mind, body, and spirit. It was an instant success. Tents sprang up across the United States. For many small town Americans, the advent of summer meant the arrival of the “big brown Chautauqua tent.” Beneath the canvas, families and communities gathered to enjoy plays, operas, symphonies and lectures on health, travel, and politics. President Teddy Roosevelt called Chautauqua “the most American thing in America.”

Margaret was a perfect fit for the Chautauqua Circuit. Bright, charming, and talented, she thrilled crowds with gripping performances. Her talent was matched only by her hard work. Whether using simple props or elaborate costumes for roles such as “Madame Butterfly” (see photo), Margaret brought life and a vivid reality to each of her characters. Critics praised her artistry, voice, and ability to perform each part from memory. Propelled to the top of her profession, Margaret became a headliner and in constant demand at Chautauqua assemblies, campuses, and local theaters across the nation.

But times changed. radio and the automobile ended the isolation that many American families felt. With the onset of the Great Depression, attendance at Chautauquas began to wane. In 1930, Margaret retired and returned to Fremont where she lived out the remainder of her life.

Margaret Stahl was grateful for her years in the limelight, her financial success, and memories of a life lived to the fullest. She had lived her dream and, as she told one reporter, “I have no regrets.”

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