Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 20, 2022
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Pleasantville, NY...

Chautauqua carries on as if time stood still -- somewhere around the 1850s

It's been called "an idea, an experience, a place that never leaves you" -- and "as difficult to describe as the scent of a rose." The Chautauqua Institution, celebrating its 125th anniversary in 1999, survives in a delightful time warp in a sleepy corner of New York State as an intriguing bit of United States living history -- with a Canadian connection.

The Institution was founded on the shore of Chautauqua Lake as a summer school for Sunday-school teachers in 1874 by Lewis Miller, an industrialist from Ohio, and John Vincent, a Methodist minister from Pennsylvania. One of the early trustees and benefactors was Hart Massey of the wealthy Toronto family. Massey married John Vincent's sister Eliza who later donated the magnificent organ in Chautauqua's outdoor amphitheatre.

The first summer-school participants slept in tents and gathered to hear inspirational addresses on education, morality and issues of the day. Soon, pioneering correspondence courses in adult education were organized and the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle was founded. Reading groups were a key part of the Chautauqua concept and the CLSC still flourishes as the oldest continuous reading club in America. Physical education and arts and crafts were also an important part of the growing program. At the turn of the century musical recitals were added, followed later by opera, theatre and dance.

The Chautauqua idea spread like wildfire. "Independent Chautauquas sprang up in different parts of the country," says Alfreda Irwin, the community's long-time resident historian. "They were modelled exactly after this one but were smaller. People from Chautauqua went to help them, but there was no structural connection. Some wanted to be branches, but Dr. Vincent and Lewis Miller wanted them to be independent."

In 1904, the first travelling Chautauqua set up its tent in small communities across the Midwest, bringing lectures, music and drama to places where few people had ever seen live performances. By 1917, the travelling Chautauqua idea had reached Canada when John Erikson, an American, founded Dominion Chautauquas in Calgary. Until 1935 his troupes of actors, musicians and lecturers travelled a network of tent circuits from the Pacific Coast to Ontario. They put on four to six day programs of family entertainment and their return was eagerly anticipated from one year to the next.

But by the 1930s, as movies and radio took hold and visits to larger centres became routine, the travelling Chautauquas quickly became a thing of the past. Although they lasted longer in Canada than in the United States, by 1935 only the original remained. To understand why the concept not only survives but flourishes on the shore of Chautauqua Lake, you must come here.

"To enter the gates of Chautauqua today is to lose about 50 years," says Isabel Pedersen, whom I met on one of my early morning walks along Chautauqua's narrow, leafy roads. Like many other families, Isabel's was gathering for Independence Day celebrations. She also told us about the long-standing connection to Chautauqua enjoyed by many of those families and how the old Victorian cottages are passed down from one generation to the next. Some of the oldest cottages are still built upon the original tent platforms that preceded them. Fortunately, few modern homes were built to disturb the Victorian atmosphere before historic landmark protection status was bestowed on the Institution in 1989.

To wander the quiet streets of neat cottages before breakfast is like walking into a Norman Rockwell painting: People in bathrobes come out to sit on their porches with a cup of coffee and the morning paper, a golden retriever flopped out on an upper veranda chair follows you with his eyes, people on the street stop to greet old friends returning for another summer. The Stars and Stripes flutter from several houses and a young couple pull their two small children in -- yes, really -- a little red wagon.

Overlooking the lakeshore near the centre of the community is the Athenaeum Hotel, built in 1881 and now restored to all its Victorian glory. On the spacious deck of its two-storey veranda, rows of rocking chairs await the day's first occupants and waiters are setting tables for breakfast. In the main dining room, guests are entitled to two desserts for both lunch and dinner -- supposedly because one old tradition of Chautauqua still holds firm: It's dry. So if you like a gin and tonic before dinner you'd better bring your own.

Near the hotel is the 5500-seat open-sided Amphitheatre, the hub of summer-season activity. A day in the life of "The Amp" might begin with an early morning devotional service. That might be followed with a lecture on an issue related to the weekly topical theme, during which speakers respond to sharp questioning. This season will feature David Broder of The Washington Post and Roger Rosenblatt, one of America's finest contemporary essayists. Evening programs will include regular concerts by Chautauqua's resident symphony orchestra or ballet company and performances of Twelfth Night and Die Fledermaus, as well as a concert by jazz greats Cleo Laine and John Dankworth. Bill Cosby will close the season with two shows on Saturday, August 28.

Chautauqua's vice president and program director, Marty Merkly, gave us an inside look at the workings of the Amphitheatre's organ, which is now computer assisted for more direct response time. He told us that past efforts to repair the organ, while well-intentioned, had resulted in the removal of some of its pipes. These pipes soon became cherished souvenirs among the Chautauquan residents. But when word got out that the organ was to be rebuilt, the long-lost pipes were gradually returned. Now 98 percent of the 5628 original pipes are back in place and the full power and glory of the Massey Organ, built in Woodstock, ON, in 1907, can be heard once more.

Chautauqua might seem like an anachronism these days, but it has survived into the computer age because it still has something for everybody. Throughout the nine-week season, the Schools of Art, Dance and Music offer intensive programs and provide scholarships to many students. Between 2000 and 3000 visitors attend more than 200 special study courses covering everything from calligraphy, windsurfing and Mandarin Chinese to storytelling, handbell-ringing and common-sense investing.

Alfreda Irwin, who came here as a little girl and now brings her grandchildren, says: "Chautauqua continues to meet peoples' needs. It hasn't just stayed back in the 19th century." While its external face is being carefully protected, there remains a vitality and currency to its cultural and educational activities that stimulate and satisfy both residents and visitors and keep them coming back year after year. It may be a cliché, but Chautauqua truly is an "experience" in every sense of the word.


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