Utopia By The Lake


Although the program got more and more sophisticated, with symphony concerts and Russian choirs, and although a yacht club was formed and an athletic program started by Alonzo Stagg flourished, nevertheless life was as strictly regulated as ever. There was a service each day in the Amphitheatre at 9:30 A.M. , directed by the chaplain of the week, who had preached to a capacity crowd of eight thousand the preceding Sunday; at eleven some political or literary lecturer spoke; and in the evening there was another lecture or concert in the Amphitheatre. The afternoon was reserved for games and naps and club meetings. Bats so the story goes—had been imported and encouraged to eat the mosquitoes, but otherwise there wasn’t much more comfort than in the first days. The hotels and boarding houses, from the grand Athenaeum dominating the lakefront to flimsy structures with crazy stacked porches leaning against the side of a ravine, housed people either wild for culture or compelled to seem so. It was surely the least relaxing resort ever conceived. The hotel help, usually college students or schoolteachers, couldn’t clear the tables fast enough lest they miss some “event”; Alexander Woollcott, when he was a Hamilton College undergraduate in 1907, wrote from Chautauqua to a friend : You needn’t sniff at my occupation for the summer. Almost all the waiters at Chautauqua are college men and we get our board and room for our pains. All we have to do is to come at meal times, serve our table and clear it away. … It’s a great place with six or eight entertainments every day all free. They have the finest music … of any resort in the country. … Last week they had the Prize Spelling Match. … I went in for New Jersey and covered her with glory by missing the first word they gave me.

The grounds, lying along the lakeAshore for about a mile and a half and stretching a half mile up the hill, were encircled, except along the lakeshore, by an iron fence of palings six feet high. There was a gate at the boat dock where the steamers arrived and a wicket gate at the top of the hill, which for a while in the early i goo’s was connected by interurban streetcars to the railroad station three miles away. For years after they appeared, no automobiles were allowed in and to this day they’re only permitted to load and unload baggage. The sole vehicles on the grounds in those days were huge baggage wagons, which loaded up at the boat dock with Saratoga trunks and then wound along shady lanes between wedding-cake tiers of porches, distributing their cargo until they got to the road gate, where they picked up another load and worked their way back down to the dock. Eventually, when contributions no longer supported Chautauqua—after the Depression—the fence came in handy; then people were charged a single admission fee to the grounds, the fee covering all the programs. But in the early i goo’s the fence still served its original purpose: to set Chautauqua apart and underline the discipline it took to get Christian culture. On Saturday night the gates were locked, and all through the Sabbath ten thousand people stayed locked in—until Monday morning only medical emergencies got through. Stories linger today of people impaled on the fence while smuggling in Sunday papers or tobacco.

Life on the grounds at Chautauqua loosened up ever so slightly after World War I; some college students were permitted to dance even the Charleston in 1930, and Chautauqua’s resort aspect became a little more evident. For one thing, Chautauqua was outmoded as a national forum. The radio, the Ford, and the movies had completely killed the travelling Chautauquas in the twenties; people didn’t need to wait in some snowbound village all year for a week of lectures. For similar reasons, the Amphitheatre also lost its place as a national podium.

But as the program was released from the necessity of being all things to all Americans, instruction no longer had to be the guiding aim. Arthur Bestor, a former history professor who was president of the institution and program chairman from 1915 until 1944, brought the first opera to Chautauqua in 1926—sung, typically, in English—and created the Chautauqua Symphony in 1929. That same year a very modern gray concrete-enclosed theatre was built, all angular planes and purple glass lanterns reminiscent of both Bauhaus and an eighteenth-century gazebo, for the Chautauqua Opera Company and the summer repertory company of the Cleveland Playhouse. A lady from Pittsburgh wrote home to her puzzled family that her party stood in line after the opera, in evening dress, to get ice-cream cones at the vine-covered pergola by the post office. The “utmost offering … to the brute animal in man” was still “ice-cream soda-water.”