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A change that’s hard to fathom at Chautauqua

The Duke Ellington Band was one. Masters and Johnson were another.

Those are just a couple of the memorable things I covered at the Amphitheater of the Chautauqua Institution. That edition of the Ellington band was irreplaceable and priceless. It still, somewhat remarkably, contained Johnny Hodges, whom Duke always liked to refer to as his band’s “concertmaster.” It was the last edition of the band that did. Hodges’ feature medley in that concert was a long luxurious immersion in the most beautiful alto saxophone sound ever created by a human being.

Listening to Masters and Johnson speak to the Amphitheater audience was a lesson in sublimated excitement as it occurs in society. The audience couldn’t possibly have been more genteel and mannerly. And yet, when Masters, with characteristic clinical bluntness, blandly recited the frequency of sexual arousal during the average good night’s sleep of the American male, there was a sharp, collective intake of breath from the eminently proper mature women in my vicinity. (The woman next to me continued her knitting despite it all without dropping a stitch.)

The Amphitheater of the Chautauqua Institution is among the truly miraculous places in all of world culture.

And this week begins the process of its coming down. As a colleague pointed out to me, don’t use the word “demolish.” “Renew” – a wonderful flourish of Orwellian Newspeak – is as far as Institution’s management will go. After much bitter and secret wrangling, accompanied by outcry and lamentation, the Institution’s board decided to demolish as much as possible and build anew what many now scoff at as a “facsimile” of one of the wonders of Western New York Life … with, of course, a larger audience capacity in order to sell more tickets.

You never know, after all, when the Institution might want to have a concert by Kanye. Or Justin Bieber.

I’m kidding, of course. At least I hope I am. I hate the executive board’s decision so much that I’m not entirely sure how they envision the facsimile that’s going to take the place of one of the greatest places in Western New York.

I’ve been in love with the Chautauqua Institution since the first time I laid eyes on the place. It was my late wife who first showed it to me. She’d gone to summer camp 15 minutes away and remembered it lovingly from her childhood. When she first showed it to me, I was flabbergasted. It was like a 19th century wonderland that had somehow survived into the century of rock ’n’ roll and moon landings. To walk around was to be in America’s happiest suburb of the Twilight Zone.

When my daughter was little, we’d spend increasing amounts of time every summer renting places on the grounds. As our real estate intermediary kept getting to know us better, the places we rented kept betting better and better.

In the final summer, we rented for a month a house that was about 20 steps from the lake. We could virtually roll out of bed and walk to the beach. And, at night, when I explored the books in that house’s shelves, I was astounded to find an ancient bound volume of Century Magazine which had inside original serialized excerpts from Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

Everything about life on the Institution grounds was wonderful in those years: the marvelous bookstore; its characteristic places to eat; the Athenaeum, its major hotel – which a colleague casually informed me was the place where he drank the greatest cup of coffee he ever had.

It is truly an American treasure and only minutes away.

All sorts of friends would visit us while we were in summer houses on the grounds. They too were always bowled over the first time they saw it.

And now the heart of it is being replaced by a new century “renewal” of the amphitheater whose effect none of us can imagine right now.

The institution was, once upon a time in its primal era, a refuge for teachers.

In my case, it was also a refuge for at least one journalist – as I’m sure it always has been in previous and subsequent – years.

With a new Amphitheater with a larger seating capacity, it’s hard to predict what will happen in the future Chautauqua.

Who knows? Donald Trump might even buy a mansion on the grounds, to go along with so many other American millionaires and billionaires.


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