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Home » On the Cover » Under the Big Top: Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua Musicians Organize with the AFM

Under the Big Top: Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua Musicians Organize with the AFM


They may perform under a big top, but it’s no circus. The musicians of the Blue Canvas Orchestra, the house band for Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua, are musical storytellers whose performances just happen to take place in a huge tent. With a season that runs from mid-June through mid-September, the shows are as unique as the individual artists that make up the group.

Newly organized musicians of the Blue Canvas Orchestra, (L-R): Phil Anich, Tom Mitchell, Severin Behnen, Danielle Diamond, Jack Gunderson, Molly Otis, Billy Knoblauch, Vincent Osborn, and Ed Willett­—members of Local 18 (Duluth, MN).

The venue takes its name from traveling Chautauqua tent shows from the early 1900s that offered lectures and entertainment. The first was in Chautauqua, New York, in 1874. As radio became prevalent, the traveling shows gradually died out.

In 1986, Warren Nelson and Betty Ferris launched the Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua in a permanent tent on a ski hill near Bayfield, Wisconsin. The cofounders set to work using the Blue Canvas Orchestra to produce original historic musicals that told stories of people from the region. Nelson would research the islands and surrounding area and write stories about the characters he discovered. Ferris is the director of images, adding a visual component to advance the storylines.

Nelson stepped down as director in 2008, but still performs in the orchestra. Today, the stories have a broader scope, but education is still part of the mission: “to provide entertaining and educational activities with an emphasis on performances that celebrate history and the environment.”

For three decades, the nonprofit Big Top Chautauqua has shared its location with another organization, Mt. Ashwabay Ski and Recreation Area. In 2023, they combined to form the Ashwabay Alliance.

Ideal Time to Organize

Having new management provided a perfect opportunity for Blue Canvas Orchestra to organize with the AFM, according to Local 18 President Vincent Osborn. “We had been talking about the union for quite some time, and the new executive director made it easy to organize,” says Osborn, who has been performing with Blue Canvas for about six seasons and travels 100 miles to get to the venue.

Members of Blue Canvas Orchestra rehearse for New First Night, the first show of the season, which took place June 14. Clockwise, from left are: Danielle Diamond, Ed Willett, Molly Otis, Phil Anich, Jack Gunderson, Billy Knoblauch, and Severin Behnen.

While the musicians will tell you they are like one big family dedicated to Big Top’s mission, things haven’t always been easy. Currently, each of them works under a separate contract. Pay is low, rehearsals are long. And though many musicians travel in from other areas of the state and country, there is no travel or lodging compensation.

“The big thing is just keeping up with inflation and fair pay,” says Danielle Diamond, a keyboardist and vocalist who is instrumental to the organizing effort. Guaranteed employment and security in their positions are concerns, and the musicians would also like to ensure they will retain autonomy related to program creation and how the band is run.

Diamond has been with Blue Canvas Orchestra ever since winning a Big Top Idol singing contest in 2010. “It’s helped me improve every aspect of being a musician,” says Diamond, who works full-time as a middle school English teacher and spends her summers under the Big Top. “Every single component of the organization, from my fellow musicians to the sound engineers to the people who come to see the shows, just inspires me to get better at my craft. That’s what keeps me coming back.”

Storytelling Through Music

This summer she’s a lead for the show Ladies of Laurel Canyon, which celebrates the music and achievements of artists like Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA), Carole King of Local 802 (New York City), Stevie Nicks, and The Mamas & the Papas.

“The show is meant to capture the incredible era in music history that came out of Laurel Canyon during the ’60s and ’70s. It spotlights the women who trailblazed their way in the music industry, helping to lay the groundwork for so many artists who came after them,” says Diamond. It includes five vocalists who take turns leading songs from the artists’ catalogs, backed by Blue Canvas Orchestra musicians on piano, cello, fiddle, guitar, bass, and drums. 

This is typical of Blue Canvas Orchestra shows, which often include seven or eight musicians, but can call for as many as 20. Up to 30 different musicians may perform with the orchestra throughout the summer.

Local 18 followed the Juilliard Rule to establish which musicians were eligible to vote. It stipulates that voting musicians work on a production for a total of five days over a year, or at least 15 days in two years.

Fifteen musicians met the criteria and they voted 14:1 in favor of working with Local 18 to establish an AFM contract. Those musicians are: Phil Anich (guitar, vocals); Nate Bean (guitar, bass, vocals); Yazmin Bowers (keyboard, accordion, vocals); Corey Carlson (guitar, vocals); Jack Gunderson (bass, vocals); Scott Kirby (guitar, vocals); Billy Knoblauch (bass); Tom Mitchell (drums, harmonica, vocals); Warren Nelson (guitar, vocals); Rowan Nelson-Ferris (guitar, vocals); Danielle Diamond (keyboard, vocals); Vincent Osborn (bass); Molly Otis (violin, mandolin, guitar, vocals); Randy Sabien (violin, guitar, vocals); and James Shafstall (guitar).

The two directors—Ed Willett (cello, guitar, vocals) and Severin Behnen (keyboard, accordion, vocals)—are considered management and not involved in the negotiations.

Many of the shows are created by band members, from conception to composing to production, and they would like the contract to protect the rights to their creations. “Because some of the songs are our original works, we want to perhaps have the opportunity to get a percentage of royalties,” says Diamond.

For example, Chief O’Neill and the Lost Tunes of Ireland is a new show this year that was the brainchild of Belfast musician Stevie Matier, who pitched the idea to the artistic director. The theme is immigration and the path of music, and it tells the story of Chicago Police Chief Francis O’Neill, who collected thousands of pieces of Irish music to create what is now considered the definitive playbook for traditional Irish musicians.

Osborn says the draw of the Big Top shows is remarkable. “This venue exists in one of the northernmost parts of Wisconsin, in a town of 600 people. Getting an audience all the way up here is a miracle.” The capacity inside the circus tent is 900. The venue also hosts big name acts during the season, sometimes opening up the lawn space to a capacity of about 1,700.

The house shows follow the venue’s mission statement, while shows with national acts help to support the facility. This summer the venue will host Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Lyle Lovett, and Ricky Skaggs of Local 257 (Nashville, TN); Jake Shimabukuro of Local 677 (Honolulu, HI); Andrew Bird and Nickel Creek, Dessa, and Graham Nash, among others. The Blue Canvas Orchestra will perform 17 house shows throughout the 2024 season.

The AFM agreement will also cover the rare occasions the band is booked to perform away from the Big Top. The Blue Canvas Orchestra will bring its Native American show to Grand Rapids, Minnesota, in January 2025. In that show, Anishinaabe Dibaajimowin: An Ojibwe Story, the musicians collaborate with singers, dancers, and storytellers from the Bad River tribe and Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Eclectic Talent

When the musicians of the Blue Canvas Orchestra came together for their first seasonal rehearsal in mid-June, it felt like a family reunion for the talented and dedicated musicians who return year after year.

“Musicians come from all over and we have a wide range of experiences,” says Diamond, adding that the music is just as diverse. “This is a completely unique construct, a one-of-a-kind art project. This is a place for musicians who love variety—they will get to play five or six different genres in a single season.”

“Unionizing makes it much more likely that we’ll be able to attract talent. Getting $75 for a four-hour rehearsal is not sustainable,” Osborn says. “We are trying to establish a minimum with the union. The negotiations will be interesting in that they need to encompass a wide range of people’s work experiences.”

“We want to make sure that the mission statement and the lives of the musicians that are part of Big Top Chautauqua are protected and are sustained into the future,” says Diamond. “This is my 14th season, and just in that small time frame, I have seen the organization evolve and it will continue to evolve. A family needs to evolve and I think it’s time for us to finally come together collectively and support one another.”

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