February 4, 2015

[Q&A] The Chautauqua Amphitheater: An Insider's Guide

The Amphitheater's open-air construction is one of its defining characteristics. It's speeches and concerts can be heard for blocks through the warm summer air.
The Amphitheater's open-air construction is one of its defining characteristics. Its speeches and concerts can be heard for blocks through the warm summer air.

Since it opened in 1875, the Chautauqua Institution in western New York has served as one of the great centers for public discourse on the important issues facing American society. And since 1893, the Chautauqua Amphitheater has been at the center of both that discourse and the community of Chautauqua itself.

Last week, as part of an announcement of the Amphitheater as one of our newest National Treasures, we published a Q&A with Q&A with Vanity Fair architecture critic Paul Goldberger architecture critic Paul Goldberger discussing the threat to the 4,000-seat, open-air structure’s historical integrity. This week, we thought we’d follow up with a Q&A with three life-long Chautauquans about what the Amp means to them.

  • Brian Berg has been coming to Chautauqua for more than 50 years. He chairs the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater and owns a house in the community.
  • Walter Rittman’s family history in Chautauqua goes back to the late 1800s when his paternal grandmother likely watched the Amp being built. He spent his childhood summers there and now lives just a few miles down the road from the Amp.
  • The first picture of Molly W. Dunning at Chautauqua was while she was still in her mother’s womb. She can trace her family history at Chautauqua back to her great grandmother.
The "Amp" as locals call it, was built in 1893.
The "Amp," as locals call it, was built in 1893

Do you have a favorite memory of the Amp?

Brian: It was the first time I heard blues and B.B. King. I met Lucille (B.B. King’s guitar). It inspired my interest in blues -- I didn’t know at the time I was going to be led to Chicago to continue that interest. I think another one was going to hear George Shearing. A friend my mother had made that summer was friends with his drummer. After the concert, he and members of his band, we went out to dinner together. You couldn’t do that anywhere else.

Walter: [My mother] sang with the Chautauqua Opera Company and then she was a soloist with the symphony, so I got to see her on stage performing in front of a 4,000-seat capacity.

And then, the kind of cool atmosphere of walking around outside of the Amphitheater on a warm summer night and having it as your background music -- if you’re a little kid and you’re riding your bike around with your buddies near the Amphitheater, you’re riding through these dark streets at night with the sounds of the symphony coming through. It’s a magical place to be a kid.

Molly: Oh, singing “Holy, Holy, Holy.” My family sat in the front row [for Sunday service]. But my family is large and if 10 of them were in town or if 30 of them were in town, you went to church on Sunday morning. I love the fact that you had different ministers every week that would basically give their best sermon for Chautauquans. But that first song, “Holy Holy, Holy,” is the family song.

A large part of the Amp's appeal is its casual feel. It doesn't have the formality of a traditional venue.
A large part of the Amp's appeal is its casual feel. It doesn't have the formality of a traditional venue.

What makes the Amp so special?

Brian: Well, I think when you’re there, you’re always picturing who was there before. The sound and the acoustics are tremendous. I don’t remember who it was, but somebody played one of Martin Luther King’s speeches in the Amphitheater and it just came alive. It was if he was standing there right then, though he never spoke there. And you could just imagine how William Jennings Bryan or Bobby Kennedy would’ve inspired audiences. It’s kind of like envisioning Fenway Park and picturing what Ted Williams might have been like playing right field or hitting the ball around Pesky’s Pole.

Walter: It hasn’t changed for 122 years. I mean it’s literally exactly the same as I remember as a little boy. So there’s a certain element of that that appeals to anyone that’s been in there. If you ever get the chance to go to Chautauqua, and you go to stand and look at the ceiling inside, just its individual boards or if you walk on the stage, everything is hand-made. There’s a gigantic organ in the back, the back of the stage area toward the house was built to accommodate this massive pipe organ. Everything in there is just perfect the way it is.

Molly: Well, the osmosis factor for one. It’s so open-air that, walking down the brick walk to somewhere else totally different, it just reaches out and grabs you. It’s not like you have to open doors. It’s very, very welcoming. It’s just what it is. It does not have the pretense of a formal concert hall, so it makes the arts and discourse very much accessible to anyone. It just kind of seeps into your pores and changes you without you even realizing it.

A decision on the Amp's future was recently delayed until after this coming summer.
A decision on the Amp's future was recently delayed until after this coming summer.

What stands out most to you about the Amp?

Brian: The Amphitheater, being an open-air amphitheater, is really the central place and creates that connectivity to the outside and to the community. So if you’re walking by, you can look in without going in, or you can hear from outside who’s performing. Or you can see your neighbor, who hasn’t taken his seat but who might be inside the amphitheater, and you can connect with him in that fashion. Or if you’re walking the dog, you can stop lean against the wall, and be able to look in and to listen to what’s on stage.

Walter: I sneak in there at the end of the season and in the off season and go and stand on the stage. It’s really amazing to get that perspective and view of being on the stage and imagining that FDR was there and was giving his famous speech. Booker T. Washington, Amelia Earhart, people through history literally stood right where I was and had the exact same view that I had. It’s hard to describe, but you definitely feel it.

Molly: When I was little, my father and I would go and listen to the symphony. My dad would come up on the weekends because he came from Pittsburgh, and he taught me when I was really little to close my eyes and tell the story of the music in my head while I was listening to it. It gave me such an appreciation for classical music.

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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