History in first person
June 23, 2005
Everyone knows the name Calamity Jane, but few people know why they know her name.
When Glenda Bell, a Chautauqua character actor and storyteller, chose to portray Calamity Jane, she wasn’t exactly sure why Jane was famous, either. But after 18 years of playing Calamity Jane at festivals and events such as this weekend’s Chautauqua program at Colorado Moun–tain College, she knows almost as much about the historical figure as she knows about herself.
Bell is a Chautauqua performer, participating in an American oral history tradition that dates back to 1874. Actors tell the life story of one historical figure from the perspective of that figure.
Calamity Jane, it turns out, was best known in her time because she “put on a pair of britches, smoked a cigar and did as she darn pleased,” Bell said.
She was discovered by a novelist from back East who used her as the main character in his books. All of his Calamity Jane stories were fiction.
In the West, Jane was known as a kind woman who helped people out whenever they were in need. She helped miners who had small pox because she was immune to the disease.
Today, Bell will tell Calamity Jane’s story in costume — wearing men’s clothes and a buckskin jacket. On Saturday, Opalanga Pugh will continue the “Women of the West” Chautauqua theme by playing the part of Clara Brown. Brown was born a slave in Virginia in 1800. She traveled by wagon train as a cook to Denver in 1859. When free, Brown spent her life searching for her children and helping freed slaves relocate to Colorado.
Later Saturday, Lynne Swanson will share the story of Isabella Bird, an explorer and naturalist from the late 1800s.
Chautauqua festival organizer Carolyn Peters hopes to see this become an annual event with a different theme each year.
“I think Chautauqua is important because it’s a focused look at one person,” Peters said. “It makes you realize how great an impact one person can have on the world.”