Utopia By The Lake


Looking at the pictures of the twenties and early thirties (the institution kept an official photographer), one is struck by the social nature of events—an echo, perhaps, of that false tranquillity that the world outside the Chautauqua fence felt between the wars. The ushers for the interdenominational Amphitheatre church service, young men from the best old Chautauqua families, stand in handsome rows like a chorus line, jutting chins topping Arrow collars, in blue blazers and white flannels. Genial Dr. Bestor, who grabbed every celebrity he could find for the capacity crowds in the Amphitheatre, had Amelia Earhart to tea with his family under an arbor, all of them looking stabbingly happy and young. At other times he was host to Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York, theologian Harry Emerson Fosdick, and composer George Gershwin, who wrote his Concerto in F in one of the practice sheds on the grounds.

In 1929, with the help of Mrs. Edison, Dr. Bestor staged “The Festival of Light,” a joint celebration of the centennary of cofounder Lewis Miller’s birth and the fiftieth anniversary of the invention of the electric light. It was ironic, really. Thomas Edison had never liked Chautauqua—he thought it was humbug—and while Mrs. Edison spent the season there, he was off on camping trips with his friends Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and Warren Harding. But Dr. Bestor and Mrs. Edison asked him, so he came, bringing Henry Ford and publisher Adolph Ochs with him. Mrs. Edison entertained Mrs. Ford on the white-pillared porch of the Women’s Club, and the ladies had their pictures taken, seated in rocking chairs, holding nosegays. On an evening late in July, with eight thousand people in the Amphitheatre and another two thousand standing around the rim, Dr. Bestor, Edison, Ford, and Ochs stood on the platform with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra behind them. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played, the flag waved overhead, and the light shed by electricity, by Chautauqua, and by America on all the world was celebrated.

That was the climax in a way, though Chautauqua endures. It went bankrupt during the Depression, and all the old trees covering the grounds were sold—not to be cut down but to have little tin strips fastened on them with the names of donors to the Chautauqua Foundation.

The program continues today. There are still the symphony, operas, plays, and the summer school. The special events of the past few seasons have included a typical eclectic jumble of Van Cliburn, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and Peter Nero. Robert F. Kennedy spoke there the summer before his death, and Marian Anderson gave one of her last concerts in the Amphitheatre.


There are still few cars and, supposedly, no liquor. The tranquil summer air is heavy with the scent of hollyhocks, and the sound of tennis balls makes a counterpoint to the orchestra rehearsal in the distance. But somewhere the Utopian ideal froze, and Chautauqua became less a place of pilgrimage and emulation and more, perhaps, a memory of childhood—and an irrecoverable dream.