Residents, Old And New, Return To Chautauqua

CHAUTAUQUA – The lines at the Welcome Center at Chautauqua Institution wound around the corner near the ticket booths on Saturday as visitors and residents prepared for the opening of the 2014 season.

“It’s really busy here,” said Reba Quastler, who has worked at the center for the past two years. “But opening day is always an up day.”

The nine-week season kicked off Saturday night with an ABBA tribute band and continues into next week with guests including Roger Rosenblatt and Tom Brokaw.

It was perfect weather for opening day with cloudless skies and sunshine that greeted returning residents on old, familiar porches, now swept of winter’s cobwebs.

On shady streets, suitcases, beach bags and books were unloaded from the trunks of cars, and at the bookstore Devon Southwick stood ready behind the counter.

“I’m a newbie,” he said. But like everyone else trickling through the gates, he said he was thrilled to be there.

Also new this season is the Heirloom Restaurant in the historic Athenaeum Hotel, which will no longer be serving traditional buffet meals in favor of a new a la carte menu. The restaurant is also offering a daily tapas menu beginning at 4:30 in the afternoon with lighter fare.

A restaurant staff member said they had more than 300 reservations on the books for opening night, where new executive chef Travis Bensink and his crew were poised in the kitchen to prepare dishes like pan-seared scallops and a basil-shrimp pasta with a pomodoro sauce.

“We’re excited about the changes we’ve made at the hotel this year,” said hotel Front Desk Manager Brittany Beckstrom. “We’re hoping to have a better price option for our guests and to make it easier for the outside world to come visit us as well. It’s more accessible to people outside the grounds and more accessible to people not staying in the hotel.”

Along with a new restaurant, guests can look forward to a renovated amphitheater in the future. Rehabilitation for the more than 100-year-old building will begin after a capital campaign raises $30 million of the total goal of $98.3 million dollars slated for improvements on the grounds.

Chief Marketing Officer George Murphy said that the more than 2,000 events packed into the nine-week season provides “something for everyone.”

“Our program addresses the diverse interest of the crowd that we bring in. People interested in arts, education, religion, recreation … we have the ability to provide programing for all their interest in those areas.”

This year’s lecture platform features Roger Rosenblatt discussing the art of storytelling with Tom Brokaw, Margaret Atwood, and others. Other weekly themes include “Feeding a Hungry Planet,” partnering with National Geographic, and “Emerging Citizenship: The Egyptian Experience,” which is a collaboration with Colonial Williamsburg.

Entertainment this summer includes performances by Grammy Award-winning country singer Jennifer Nettles and Pittsburgh, Pa. native Jackie Evancho, who will make her Chautauqua debut accompanied by 28 musicians from the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra.

The Institution attracts an average of 7,500 residents each season and more than 100,000 people attend the public events.

This past April, Smithsonian magazine named Chautauqua, N.Y., as the No. 1 “Best Small Town to Visit in 2014” in the cover story of its April issue. But the Institution’s many fans say it’s not just the small town feel that attracts them – but also its diversity.

Jamestown resident Alex Kulakowski – who has been working as a bell captain at the Athenaeum for the past three years – noted that his favorite part of working at Chautauqua is the people he meets.

“I love their stories,” he said, remarking that one of his favorite guests was a world-traveling World War II veteran who moved to Ukraine to open an oboe factory after the war.

“He’d been to 30 countries,” Kulakowski said. “I’d love to do that one day.”

For others, it’s their memories that draw them back.

On a park bench in Bestor Plaza sat Ken Kister, who was reminiscing about the good old days in the 1960s when he and his then-girlfriend worked on the grounds of Chautauqua for three straight summers. When his wife died several years ago, he bought a house in Mayville, because, he said, “my bucket list was Chautauqua.”

His friend, Robert Selke, said he loves Chautauqua because even though he isn’t a “culture vulture,” Chautauqua gives him a unique opportunity to keep learning.

“When I came to Chautauqua the first time, I had no idea what bluegrass was. Now I’m an avid fan.”

Chautauqua seems to mean something different to everyone: Rocking on her porch, Edna Posner – who has been coming to Chautauqua for 50 years – said, “This is what Chautauqua is all about … the porches.”