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Chautauqua Institution ... It's That Kind of Place

July 25, 2010
By Phyllis R. Sigal Design Editor

By Phyllis R. Sigal

Design Editor

"I need to clone another three of me," said a guest at the Chautauqua Inn one morning at breakfast.

Article Photos

Roger Rosenblatt, left,
shares the Chautauqua Institution amphitheater stage with colleague and friend Jim Lehrer during the first morning lecture of the 2010 season.

Photo by
Phyllis R. Sigal

That would be the only way she could attend all of the activities that appealed to her that day.

Busy, busy, busy. Chautauqua Institution. It's that kind of place.

Classes, lectures, brown bag lunches, play readings, church services, book reviews, art openings and exhibits - the events of just one day take up a good couple columns of The Chautauquan Daily.

It's also the kind of place where you can sit on a bench in Bestor Plaza or Miller Park and watch the day go by.

But few do.

Every day after my 7:30 a.m. yoga class, I'd grab the Daily, a cup of tea (organic spearmint tea from our innkeepers' garden in Pennsylvania) and my trusty highlighter and figure out what I could attend, and what I'd have to miss.

By taking my favorite yoga class, I'd miss the Mystic Heart Meditation and the Bird Walk & Talk - that and more are scheduled for the valuable chunk of time before the daily lecture.

One morning I did squeeze in a quick trip to the farmer's market before breakfast at our inn and the 10:45 lecture.

The Lectures

Mornings revolve around the lecture at the Amphitheater, or "the Amp." The schedule is pretty well cleared from 10:45 a.m. to noon; most institution attendees would never miss the lecture. In fact, it was because of the Monday through Friday lecture program that my son Leland and I planned our trip to the western New York community this year.

Roger Rosenblatt and More Friends was the week's theme. Rosenblatt, writer, professor, essayist and incredibly funny guy, met with one friend each morning to talk, laugh, reminisce and more. Two years ago was the first time Rosenblatt and a friend took over the amphitheater stage each morning. Poet Billy Collins, authors E.L. Doctorow, Amy Tan and Joyce Carol Oates, and cartoonist Garry Trudeau were his friends in the summer of 2008.

On his first day on stage this year, with colleague Jim Lehrer of the "PBS NewsHour," he apologized for taking so long to get back.

"Sorry I've been away for two years. It took that time to find more friends. You can see I scraped the bottom of the barrel," he said dryly, looking at Lehrer.

This time, his friends, along with Lehrer, were authors Alice McDermott and Anne Fadiman; Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman; and actor/author Alan Alda.

They would chat a bit and trade jabs as well as talk about the craft of writing and read some of their words.

Genuine friendship was evident in the rapport between Rosenblatt and his guests.

It was never more evident than with Alice McDermott.

We started out by singing happy birthday to her husband David.

Then Rosenblatt talked about "our family story."

He was referring to the tragic death of his 38-year-old daughter Amy in December of 2007. She collapsed while on a treadmill, suffering from a previously unknown heart ailment. She left behind three small children and her husband, Harrison. Rosenblatt and his wife, Ginny, moved in with their daughter's family, in order to help with day-to-day living. Rosenblatt's latest book, "Making Toast," about that experience recently was published.

There are lots of people in the same boat, he noted. "Too many people, too many boats," he said.

"Jim and Alice (McDermott) were right at our side the whole time."

He shared: "A couple of months after Amy died, I was scheduled to have a conversation with Alice at the 92nd Street Y. There's something about her that puts you at ease. How grateful I was to be talking to someone so kind; she ushered me back into the world."

On Wednesday, Alan Alda sat with Rosenblatt.

A dog barked.

"Is there a dog in the audience?" Alda asked. "It's MASH, not MUSH."

Thursday, we met Anne Fadiman, who was a student of Rosenblatt's.

"I just can't get over that this is my student. Was I ever impressive to you?"

"Every moment, Roger. Every moment," she told him.

She and Rosenblatt spoke about the importance of reading.

"How can we be enlarged without reading?" she said. Why read? "For inspiration, for showing us beauty, for teaching us grammar," Fadiman said.

"You're too much of a lady to say, 'And for stealing,'" Rosenblatt quipped.

And then he said of his former student, "How lucky her students are to have someone who cares about them so much."

And they talked about sorrow.

"We do deepen as people because of our sorrows," she said.

"I agree. But it's a hard way to improve," Rosenblatt said.

Friday morning was Rosenblatt's 19th time on the Amphitheater stage. ... and the last time for the week.

Friday's guest, Marsha Norman, is known for writing "'Night Mother," a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, about the suicide of a teenage girl.

Rosenblatt read a bit of it to introduce Norman.

She took a moment. "It's very upsetting to hear you read that," she told him.

"Well, I didn't write it," he retorted. We laughed.

Sitting next to Ginny Rosenblatt at the Friday lecture, I had the opportunity to chat with her.

She had a wonderful experience during the week and was sorry it was over, although she admitted that Roger was tired. They hope to bring the grandchildren sometime in the future, when the kids are a little older.

I thanked her for her and Roger's presence.

"It's a privilege to be here," she said.

Yes, indeed. It's that kind of place.

Meeting Marie

It was at the Monday morning lecture when we met Marie. Seated in the front row, she offered her copy of Lehrer's book from which he could read. He had forgotten his.

"What a great moment this is. Marie has saved your ass," Rosenblatt said.

On Wednesday, there was Marie in the front row, again. Alda flashed his book to the audience, letting us know that Marie would not have to come to his aid.

Rosenblatt said that Marie is "now wearing makeup. ... Her entire career is based on one man's incompetence," referring to Lehrer's screw-up on Monday.

On Thursday ... "Good morning, Marie," were Rosenblatt's opening words.

Later Thursday at Rosenblatt's book reading, he said, "I told you Marie was getting out of hand. She is holding up my book in case I forgot it. Thank you, dear."

On Friday, as we wrapped up - sadly - the wonderful week, he said, "And, of course I won't be seeing Marie again."

It's that kind of place.

'Making Toast'

Rosenblatt's book "Making Toast" was the Chautauqua Literary Arts & Scientific Circle selection for week one. An hour-long reading attracted hundreds to the Hall of Philosophy and surrounding lawns on Thursday afternoon.

"'Making Toast' is as real a book as you're ever going to read ... about wrenching honesty, about the presence of unmitigated pain, a story about love," said Thomas Becker, Chautauqua Institution president and good friend of Rosenblatt. "What a gift he is to his children and his friends and anyone who reads his book."

Rosenblatt said that "Making Toast" was "a book written for our family, our grandchildren especially and our friends."

I listened to an audio version of the book prior to my week at Chautauqua, and then purchased the hardbound version for him to sign after his reading.

"Every word was perfect," I told him, quoting my son Leland, as he signed my copy. "There was nothing extra."

"That was exactly the way I wrote it. No fat," he told me.

I wanted to ask him how difficult it was to read it for the audio book. But I didn't.

When I told him I had listened to him read it, he offered, "That was harder to do than I thought."

I told him I cried all the way through it.

"So did I," he told me.

Following his reading, the first question asked of him was this, from a woman in the audience: "Having shared your story, we feel as if we know your family. So how is everyone doing?"

It's that kind of place.

Life-Long Learning

Hundreds of classes beginning as early as 7:15 a.m. can keep visitors busy until at least dinnertime Monday through Friday at Chautauqua Institution.

"I Can't Believe I'm Knitting Socks," "Geocaching for Beginners," "Wallflower Be Gone: No Fear Ballroom," "Goldilocks: Is She Guilty?" "Stories From the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel," "The Vigorous Mind: Cross-Training Your Brain," "Where the Devil Did the Devil Come From," "Porch Suppers," "Numerology: An Introductory Workshop" are just a few of the interesting classes.

You can start your day with yoga or stretching or aerobics or "balleticise" or Zumba. Perk up your afternoons with a water workout or Pilates or Zen kickboxing. Learn to crochet, sing, sail, paint, play bridge, speak Spanish, improve your writing skills, make jewelry, juggle, cook, decoupage or ... the list is practically endless.

It's that kind of place.


Along with classes based on religious studies, throughout the day and on weekends there are church services and programs.

For example, here's a typical Monday-through-Friday schedule: 7:15 a.m., Mystic Heart Morning Meditation; 7:45 a.m., Episcopal Holy Eucharist; 8 a.m., Unity of Chautauqua Morning Meditation; 8:45 a.m. and 12:10 p.m., Roman Catholic Mass; 8:55 a.m., Chautauqua Prays for Peace; 9:15 a.m., daily morning worship; 10:15 a.m., service of blessing and healing.

Sundays include close to 20 programs and services from 7:45 a.m. until 9:15 p.m., from Communion to Compline.

Social hours, Bible study, brown bags and additional services round out the week.

During our visit, we were lucky to be a part of the blessing and rededication of Chautauqua's Circle of Peace Labyrinth.

The blessing was carried out by the week's chaplain, the Very Rev. Alan Jones, who created outdoor and indoor labyrinths at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and helped to stimulate modern interest in the ancient devotional form.

Also each week, the 2 p.m. daily religion interfaith lecture series features a well-known speaker. The Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong was the 2 p.m. lecturer during the week we visited. He focused on "Eternal Life - A New Vision."

He joked about telling a friend that he was writing a book about life after death. His friend said, "It's going to be a pretty short book. 'No one knows. No one can find out. The end.'"


While the daytime is all about learning, the evenings are all about entertainment.

Our week included "The Boys in Concert!" that featured the original Broadway cast of "Jersey Boys"; "Richard Glazier Salutes the American Popular Song"; Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues with Marcy Levy; The Golden Dragon Acrobats; the Chautauqua Dance Salon; a new play workshop for "Close Up Space" by Molly Smith Metzler (who is a student of Marsha Norman); and the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. We skipped the Sunday "Sacred Song Service," our only night out of seven not spent at the Amp or the theater. And we would have had to clone ourselves on Thursday evening in order to see both "Close Up Space" and the dance salon show. But we opted for the play reading.

A special play reading took place on Wednesday, with Alda and a student from the Chautauqua Theater Company Conservatory presenting Rosenblatt's work, "Blueberry." Early Wednesday morning - I got there before 7 a.m. - a line formed for those wishing to get two tickets to the afternoon performance. I was about 35th in line and we happily walked away with two tickets.

A quaint movie theater offers a couple of films each evening, some classics and some new flicks. As busy as we were, during week one, we missed "The Eclipse," "An Education," "We Believe," "Heaven," "Chloe," "Dinner at 8," "Up in the Air," "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and "Date Night."

Who Goes There?

And Why.

Extended families, and often, several generations. Retirees. Young couples. People by themselves.

Mothers and sons and daughters.

This year, it was Leland and I who carved a chunk out of our lives to experience Chautauqua Institution. In 2008, it was Leland, my daughter Amanda and me. Years ago, I spent a week by myself. The four of us -Leland, Amanda, my husband Bruce and me - spent a week during a couple of summers when the children were younger.

It's the perfect place for any of those configurations.

Children of varying ages can participate in Children's School, Boys' and Girls' Club, the Youth Activities Center and College Club, as well as special classes geared to children.

It's the kind of place where you might run into your neighbors or former neighbors. Just past the Hall of Philosophy one afternoon, there were Wheelingites Sam and Winkie Kusic and former Wheeling residents Joe and Betty Mullen, who now live in Virginia.

And why Chautauqua?

To quote Thomas Becker, president of Chautauqua Institution, from the speech he gave during the traditional Three Taps of the Gavel that officially opened the season: "My fellow Chautauquans, there is potential nobility to living. I believe the real purpose of this great institution is in service to the realization of that nobility in the practice of our lives. I believe that we come here to be present; to help our children see that life is so much more than the blur of activity and constant ding of electronic connections. ..."

Leland posted on his Facebook page that day, "A week of discovering my possible nobility for living."

So, there's that ... as well as soaking up the "intellectual, spiritual and artistic energies" (quoting Becker again) that fill the place.

Friends & Goodbyes

Rosenblatt said his farewells from the Amphitheater stage on Friday morning: "Goodbye, little soaps. Goodbye, blue hot and red cold faucets. Goodbye, toilet paper that disintegrates. Goodbye, 'exit' sign that leads to my room."

My goodbyes were to our friends, Wally and Norma from Zelienople, Pa. We met Wally two years ago at the inn where my children and I stayed. This trip, he and his wife clued us in on The Chautauqua Inn, which we enjoyed. (Sorry we got the bigger room this time, guys!) Making plans to get together soon was part of our goodbye.

We had to say goodbye to our friend Jack who works at the institution as well as to my yoga teacher Kate.

We had to hug new friends goodbye who stayed at our inn: Maxine from Cleveland and her niece, Michelle, who offered Leland a ride to New York City so he didn't have to drive to Wheeling and fly back to NYC.

We said goodbye to our wonderful innkeepers, Harry and Nancy White, at the lovely Chautauqua Inn. Leland and I had complimented Harry on the delicious mint tea we had for breakfast, along with the homemade muffins and breads and jams and apple butter.

As I took a last bite of my last muffin on that last morning, Nancy brought me a jar of spearmint leaves to take home with me.

Yes, it is that kind of place.

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