by Marguerite Sand, Times-Union Women's Editor
"The Maude Willis of yesterday is just a dirt farmer today."
This statement was made by Miss Maude Willis, 82, of near North Webster, who for more than two decades was acclaimed one of America's great chautauqua stars.
Educators, members of the nation's press, prominent personalities of the day attested to the ability of Miss Willis as an artist as she appeared in cities in every state in the union and in Canada.
The Affiliated Lyceum and Chautauqua association serving English-speaking people of th eworld had this to say about miss Willis, who today experiments with organic farming, grows flowers and is a garden leader in her community club.
"Maude Willis is a finished artist. An exacting Lyceum world places her in the foremost ranks of its great readers. Scores of enthusiastic commiteemen throughout the country have frankly acclaimed her the greatest interpreter and reproducer of plays now before the public.
"Little need be said concerning the Art of Maude Willis. It is a wonderful Art--an Art which compels and fascinates--an Art which is enhanced by the charming personality of this very talented woman.
"Her masterly presentation of plays has won her a cherished place in the hearts of her hearers. She has presented them as few readers can. She has demonstrated that plays of deepest import execute the greatest interest, providing the manner of their presentation is of the highest artistic merit."
Miss Willis had a repertoire of 300 selections, including many standard plays. Among her most popular programs were "The Fortune Hunter" by Louis Joseph Vance; "It Pays to advertise" McGrue and Hackett; "The Third Degree" Charles Klein; "Everywoman," Walter Browne; "The Copperhead," Augusta Thomas; "If I Were King," Justin McCarthy; "The Passing of the Third Floor Back," Jerome K. Jerome; "The Prisoner of Zenda," Anthony Hope; "The Witching Hour," Augusta Thomas, and "The Bluebird," Maeterlink.
Henry and Elizabeth Willis, parents of Miss Willis, came to this country in 1859. The father, a burr miller, was an Englishman; the mother a native of Prince Edward Island, They had six children, three of whom are now living. A sister, Alta Willis, will be rememered as having married Henry Kline. Arthur lives in the west. Miss Willis and her brother, Henry who has been hospitalized for the past two years, live on the old home place.
The Willis family moved to North Webster from Wisconsin when the children were small. At that time they owned the land encompassing the home farm and as far as the Yellow Bank hotel. The father operated the North Webster mill, a mecca for area artists, for many years. It was destroyed by fire.
"I have been interested in dramatics as long as I can remember," Miss Willis said. She recalled that punishment for committing a misdemeanor at the one-room North Webster school called for the recitation of a poem. This was no punishment for Miss Willis who loved to recite. In fact she spent her spare time thinking up things she could do that would involve the meting out of punishment. She was always prepared to perform.
A graduate of Northwestern University School of Oratory, Miss Willis was for three years dean of oratory at the University of Southern California. She left the university the year of the Spanish American war to lecture at state teachers' institutes in Indiana, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania.
In 1907 she formed the Maude Willis Concert company made up of a violinist, harpist, vocalist and pianist. Miss Willis gave readings. When it was discovered that the public preferred readers, the company disbanded and Miss Willis went on alone. There were no agencies at this time and she did her own booking.
Not only did Miss Willis appear in auditoriums in larger cities on regular chautauqua, but she worked circuit chautauquas, performing in the smaller towns in tents called "brown tops." As soon as one show was given, actors moved on to another location. Tickets were sold as much as one year in advance.
Funny incidents occurred, and Miss Willis remembers one in particular. Her brother-in-law and sister and children, the Ray Kline family, had come to Sterling, Ill., to see her perform. It was the year before World War I. She was against this country going to war, and at the time was presenting a dramatic play, "In the Vanguard," While reciting a line which told of the moaning and groaning of soldiers, one of her nephews, who was not much interested in the play, let go with a pig whistle.
Children in the audience presented a problem. At one performance, the emcee noticed that front rows were filled with them. Wanting to impress them into good behavior, he gave an elaborate introduction, adding that he was sure the children would be very quiet and listen to Miss Willis. As she came on stage, one little boy, unimpressed, said loudly, "Lo Maude."
While visiting her parents in North Webster, she made up a skit about the people living in the small community, using their real names. One night in Montana, there were many late-comers to the performance. She decided to kill time until the auditorium had filled, and give the skit. She noticed a couple in the audience laughing unusually hard. Later, back stage, she discovered the couple was from North Webster. She never gave the skit again.
Considering it a privilege to have been a part of the entertainment world for 26 years, Miss Willis says, "I met many wonderful people. It was a happy life.