Big Top Chautaqua board cancels entire 2020 season

Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua has canceled this summer's season over concerns about the spread of COVID-19. However, local musicians will be creating new shows, archived Tent Show Radio shows will be broadcast and the Tiny Tent Show will continue and expand to keep the Big Top on music lovers' minds.

Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua will take a long intermission this year after the Board of Directors canceled the 2020 season amid concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. But don't tune out just yet — part of the show will go on, albeit in different formats.

"We are deeply saddened to have to cancel the Big Top summer season, but due to the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic and uncertainty of what to expect this summer, we felt it was the ethical and right thing to do," Big Top Board President Kim Ogle said in a news release.

Executive Director Terry Matier expressed no doubt that the Big Top will survive the loss of the 2020 summer season, as the nonprofit performing arts organization is in a good financial position thanks to community support and donations.

"We will be here for summer 2021 for sure," she said.

But in the meantime, the financial repercussions from closing the canvas flaps will ripple through the organization and surrounding communities.

Big Top won't be hiring its summer crew or employ Blue Canvas Orchestra performers in the traditional way, Matier said, although the organization's small core staff will stay on duty with the help of CARES Act funding.

And without the Big Top to draw tourists from outside the Chequamegon Bay area, restaurants, hotels and retailers will feel an economic pinch as many music lovers typically made a weekend of attending big-name music events.

"It will hurt pretty big," Washburn Area Chamber of

Commerce Director Melissa Martinez said about the canceled season. "I'm concerned about how this is going to affect communities that rely on this for the economy of the area."

Besides hurting restaurants and hotels, Martinez said the "shocking" news of the season's cancellation could prove to be a blow to community morale, especially coming on top of numerous area festivals and events being postponed or canceled. She also pointed out that many graduating seniors rely on summer seasonal work to save money for college and will have little to do before fall classes begin.

Paige Rautio, marketing director for Bayfield Chamber & Visitor Bureau, said she respected the decision and applauded Big Top's concerns for the health of visitors and local residents. Nevertheless, the decision will have ramifications.

"A Bayfield summer without Big Top is going to be difficult for visitors and locals alike," Rautio said in a statement.

On the bright side, the Bayfield area will see the $10.4 million expansion of Wild Rice Retreat and publicity surrounding Travel Wisconsin's Fish Fry Faceoff, she said.

"We will make the best of our 2020 season and work on our other assets to promote Bayfield for future travel," Rautio said.

Matier estimated that about 85% of Big Top Chautauqua's audience, which numbers about 33,000 annually, comes from outside the area, although that number could include people who live in second homes in the Bayfield Peninsula. Big Top's staff understands the closure will financially impact musicians and a number of people in the restaurant, hotel and retail arenas, she said.

"Our musicians and crew rely on income from our summer shows, and the greater Ashland/Bayfield area relies on the economic impact of our events," Matier said in a statement. "We are painfully aware of the ripples that will proceed from not being able to produce our season."

Despite the season's cancellation, all will not be silent at the Big Top as its house band, the Blue Canvas Orchestra, will be creating new material for the 2021 season and preparing to stream performances from the stage once it's safe to do so.

The Tiny Tent Show also will grow and be available on Facebook and YouTube live at 7 p.m. Fridays until audiences can return to the grounds. And while waiting to hear the orchestra's new material, audiences can listen to archived episodes of Tent Show Radio to get their fix of Big Top music.

People who already hold tickets for the summer season will receive emails letting them know their options, Matier said. They can make a tax-deductible contribution to the nonprofit organization, apply the money toward future Big Top shows or receive a refund.

For more information or to donate, visit or email

(Copyright © 2020 APG Media)

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