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Denver's Legendary Ladies Bring 'Her-story' To Chautauqua's Stage

Courtesy of Legendary Ladies
The Legendary Ladies show at the High Plains Chautauqua will include (l to r) Susan Atwood, as Bertha Spears; Susan Malmstadt, as Rosamond Underwood; announcer Joyce Nelson; and Gretchen Payne as Helen Hunt Jackson.

While the history books are filled with tales of men who made a difference, a Denver group is bringing the women of the historic Wild West back to life. They're the Legendary Ladies, and they're introducing audiences to the well-known, and not so well-known, women who made their mark in history.

"We exist because we want people to know about women's history, some of the unsung heroes that are often forgotten," said Legendary Ladies Program Coordinator Joyce Nelson. "We want to write women back in the west."

The Legendary Ladies are a nonprofit educational women's performance organization that began in 1992 as The Shady Ladies. Grown from a love for history, vintage costumes and performing, the group eventually began focusing more on female historical figures from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s.

While you might think researching female historical characters might be more difficult, for Gretchen Payne, who is portraying writer and activist Helen Hunt Jackson at the High Plains Chautauqua in Greeley, said it's an advantage.

"Because people don't know a lot about them, they don't have pre-judgements when they come in to hear about this woman and they are enlightened and they learn something," Payne said. "And I had so many comments after a performance, 'I learned so much I didn't even know. Where can I find out more about this person?' And that's really our driving passion is to get people interested in finding out more about these women."

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Legendary Ladies members (l to r) Susan Malmstadt, Joyce Nelson and Gretchen Payne stopped by the KUNC studio to talk about their upcoming performance at the High Plains Chautauqua.

Of course, sometimes during the Q&A sessions after performances, they do get stumped – something that happened to Susan Malmstadt. She portrays socialite-turned-educator Rosamond Underwood.

"I was asked how many grandchildren Rosamond had and I could not come up with the answer. That made me feel so bad, so, now I know. Fourteen."

The Legendary Ladies will be performing at the 2015 High Plains Chautauqua; you can find the schedule here.

Interview Highlights

Gretchen Payne, On Her Costume Choice For Writer Helen Hunt Jackson:

"Well, my hat has an owl on it because Helen Hunt Jackson's hat, the hat that she wore when she went to Southern California to study the mission Indians there, she wore this, her favorite hat. And they were afraid of her because of this hat that she wore. She did not know that the owl was a symbol of death to them and so it was um… It was just a cultural differentiation for her. She didn't realize... The Indians always wore feathers and furs and bear tooth necklaces and things like that and so she thought she fit right in and she picked the wrong animal."

Susan Malmstadt, On Choosing Rosamond Underwood As Her Character:

"We pick our characters because we like them. I fell in love with the story of Rosamond and her friend, Dorothy, who came west to teach at the Elkhead Schoolhouse. And I admire her because she admitted she was bored. And that she wanted something more than the society life and that she did, well, kind of reject a lot of suitors because she was waiting for the right person and she wanted to do something else with her life.

I did all the research, and there's not that much because she's not really a historically famous person, but I did talk with her son, I talked with her daughter-in-law, and I thoroughly researched as much as I could about the whole area of Elkhead and I was lucky enough to go to the schoolhouse. So, to get ready I tried to put myself in her skin and when I do her, every time I start a performance I take my hands and pat myself on the back and say, 'OK Rosamond, here we go.' And I try to be her. And do things the way she might do them."

Gretchen Payne On Fascinating Facts:

"The thing that fascinated me right from the beginning, besides her work with the Indians, was that she was a classmate of Emily Dickinson in Amherst and they were lifelong friends and Emily was very shy about having her poetry published. Helen Hunt Jackson kept trying to get her to get her to publish her poetry and she never would do it. But I just thought it was fascinating that Helen Hunt Jackson was so popular during her lifetime and well known and had fans, people who looked for her writing. And nobody knew a thing about Emily Dickinson. And now that they're both gone, it's Emily Dickinson we hear about, and that we don't hear much about Helen Hunt Jackson. So I wanted to bring her back to life."

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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