There’s a documentary that will premier tonight on your local PBS channel, http://www.ciweb.org/news/2010/11/11/premiere-date-set-for-pbs-documentary-chautauqua-an-american.html
Chautauqua: An American Narrative. People ask “what is Chautauqua?” First it’s a lake whose name means “bag tied in the middle.” My aunt still lives in Westfield NY on Lake Erie, and Portage Road takes one to Chautauqua lake, where the earliest settlers portaged their canoes 12 miles.
I didn’t grow up there but worked there several summers, the first in a restaurant where I was forced to pay most of my wages to the owner for room and board even though I didn’t live there and never ate there once. I was living in the president’s home, provided by the Institution to my father, who helped preserve and enhance the Chautauqua that visitors see today.
Stories abound but mine are all work-related. After that disastrous summer I joined the program staff and with the hours I worked made much less than I did at the restaurant! The last summer I asked for hourly pay and made enough to pay my part of college tuition. The other kids there were sailing or hanging out in bars but I was working, and loving it. The people I got to meet were well worth 14-hour days. What was my job? Make people happy. Read the contracts and riders and make sure everyone was a go, run a staff of five drivers who brought lecturers, ballerinas, and other stars to their lodging and to the stage. Write gate passes (pre-computer) for hundreds of performers, order roses for divas and deliver them to my father backstage. I just thought of a funny thing – I wrote all my father’s intro’s and in the beginning he’d edit or have me rewrite but when I made it sound like him, it just worked. As president, he had to introduce every major program, from the morning lecture to evening concert.
So what is Chautauqua? Much more than the Methodist church camp it started out as, and the Sunday school teacher haven it became. Teachers used to come in from NYC every summer. Arts, recreation, education, religion, not necessarily in that order. When I was there it always had its own ballet company, opera company, orchestra and resident theatrical company. World-reknowned speakers were brought in, as were soloists in dance, music and theatre. Religion began with a speaker from a different religion every week at a service for up to 8,000 participants and added a song service and lectures during the week at smaller venues. The “practice shacks” housed pianists, violinists, tuba players and although everyone had their own practice space, walking by was a peaceful cacophany.
I can’t tell you what a kid who was brought up there summers would think, as they’d remember Boys & Girls Club and sailing. My brother used to cut B&G and go play chess with old guys at one of the hotels. I remember working and music and lectures and plays and falling asleep in my bed for a few hours to get up and do it again. People wrote in to complain that I used a car for some of my errands but I couldn’t have done my job otherwise.
Now, Chautauqua is a haven for the rich. I’ve been there over the past few years and locals can’t afford it. So, it is a gated community for so-called landed gentry and others who want privacy and don’t mind paying a price for it. When programming is at its best, it does provide a variety of activities for a daily, weekly, or season pass. It would be great to surprise my husband with a ticket to see Clint Black on August 12!
Please see the film and visit Chautauqua. Plan on leaving your car outside and walking a lot, going back over 100 years to small streets, a bell tower with concerts that an old friend used to operate, have lunch at the Athanaeum (two desserts!) and if you’re there on July 4th sit down by the lake and watch the Mayville Fire Department do their annual fireworks. Chautauqua is too many things to tell you here. Cheers, Dee