Share this article

print logo

Visionary Chautauqua ; Documentary traces history of this uniquely American cultural center founded in the 19th century

Chautauqua Institution is an idyllic retreat 90 minutes south of Buffalo that comes alive for nine weeks every summer, drawing 150,000 visitors with its rich daily schedule of study, discussion, recreation, arts and religious and cultural activities.

But the Institution is much more than that. For some families, it's a summer tradition that stretches back for generations. For young performers, it's a bridge between education and their professional careers. For religious people and clergy members, it's a place to explore many kinds of spirituality. For children, it's a chance to play freely in a welcoming, nearly car-free community.

The impact of Chautauqua Institution on American society is explored in the new WNED documentary, "Chautauqua: An American Narrative," which will premiere at 10 p.m. Monday on WNED and on other PBS stations across the country.

The hourlong special includes interviews with current artists, speakers, visitors and officials of the Institution, which was founded as the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly in 1874 by Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent to offer summer learning to Sunday school teachers.

"This place was founded in 19th century America, and both those qualifications are very important," says Pulitzer prize-winning author and historian David McCullough in the documentary. "It was the 19th century and it was America."

In the 1870s, people did not consider it appropriate to just "go off and do nothing" with their leisure time, says McCullough. An illuminating program of lectures and discussion, held in the amphitheater and other open-air structures on the beautiful campus, drew crowds.

Interest in sophisticated discussion of the issues of the day, combined with religion and fine arts, sparked a movement that spread far beyond the Institution's site on the shores of Chautauqua Lake. First a correspondence course was offered nationally, then regional Chautauquas sprang up across the country. The word "chautauqua" entered the national lexicon in places far removed from Western New York, and President Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as saying that Chautauqua is "the most American thing in America."

From 1904 until the 1920s, traveling Chautauqua-inspired programs toured the country, offering lectures, entertainment, cultural events and discussions, usually in tents set up in fields near towns. The Depression hit Chautauqua Institution and its traveling versions, endangering the former and wiping out the latter.

Chautauqua Institution endured, tenacious but stagnant. In the 1960s, the Institution was reinvigorated; by the 1980s, a renaissance was in full swing.

>Back in the past

Today, the gated community combines its sparkling natural beauty with an impressive array of buildings that reflects American architectural trends from the 1870s to the 1950s. Within the gates, says the Institution's archivist and historian Jon Schmitz, "Many people have the sense that they have taken a step back into the past."

The presence of the past -- from its ideals to its structures -- is hauntingly illustrated during the show. While narrator Stockard Channing describes the amphitheater, built in 1879 with a wooden roof and open sides and back, a vintage photo of the crowd changes into a modern color version of the same scene.

"I sense the presence of those people who really did feel that the love of learning was essential to the good life," says McCullough.

One guest speaker who is challenged and impressed by his appearance at Chautauqua is Daniel H. Pink, author of four provocative, best-selling books about work. While he usually illustrates his talks with plenty of high-tech support, in the open-air amphitheater, it's just him and the audience. "You have to have something to say, in the same way that someone in 1880 had to have something to say," Pink says. He praises the Chautauqua audiences as "extraordinarily engaged."

>A national audience

John Grant, the writer, producer and director of the documentary, says there is quite a bit of competition among stations to have programs shown nationally on other PBS stations.

"We try to bring attention to some of the treasures of Western New York," says Grant, ranging from WNED's 2009 program, "Elbert Hubbard: An American Original" to "Frank Lloyd Wright's Buffalo" and "Niagara Falls," which aired in 2006. "We produce these for a national audience. They are of interest to the people in this area, but we also create them in a way that resonates with viewers outside this area."

"Is there a story in Chautauqua -- is it more than simply this interesting place, is it a larger story about America?" says David C. Rotterman, vice president for television production at WNED. "And we think if there is, how does that translate to a national audience?"

Other WNED productions, such as last year's "Don't Touch That Dial: Great Moments in Local Broadcasting," are interesting only to a local audience, says Rotterman. "But with Chautauqua, we said here's a local treasure that will resonate with a national audience. Everybody knows what Chautauqua is, but they don't know what the place is all about. It's a great way to showcase the things we have locally."

The station is working on its next national project, a two-hour production on the War of 1812. Rotterman says, "It happened here, but it also happened all over the eastern half of the United States. It's not just a local story, it's a national story."

>Seeking diversity

The Chautauqua documentary features several people from Buffalo who visit the Institution. One, Angelo Gonzalez, brings his sons to a drumming class, and talks about plans for a painting class. "It's not the typical vacation, that's for sure," he says.

Helene Gayle of Buffalo, president and CEO of CARE USA, says five generations of her family have spent summer days at Chautauqua, starting with her grandmother, Elizabeth Beatrice Dabney Britt, who visited Chautauqua in the 1930s. Gayle says she has progressed from "running around" as a child, with little interest in lectures and discussions, to a recent appearance as a guest lecturer.

Gayle's is one of the few African-American families with a tradition of visiting the Institution, and although a wide variety of housing options are offered, many are quite expensive. Both cultural and economic issues limit the diversity many people wish was more fully reflected at Chautauqua.

"People without a lot of income, schoolteachers, etc., don't find it as easy to come here as they used to," says Jeffrey Simson, author of "Chautauqua: An American Utopia." "I don't think we can turn the clock back, but I do think we need to be aware of that."

A gate pass ranges from $12 for an eight-hour stay beginning at noon to $1,750 for an adult for the full season, which this year will run from June 26 to Aug. 27. There is no gate charge for children under 12 or seniors 90 and over, and admission is free on Sundays. Parking and boat docking cost extra, and separate tickets are sold to opera and theater performances.

"The founders of this place had such an amazing vision for what they were contributing to American society in terms of lifelong living," says Thomas Becker, president of the Institution. "A lot of their values that drove where they came from to begin this place are very much alive today."

In addition to the 10 p.m. screening Monday, "Chautauqua: An American Institution," will be shown again on WNED at 12:30 a.m. Thursday and at 3 p.m. Feb. 6. DVDs of the show cost $24.99 and can be ordered at




"Chautauqua: An American Narrative"

10 p.m. Monday

WNED Channel 17

There are no comments - be the first to comment