Escape to Chautauqua

Garrison Keillor live at Chautauqua Institution
Garrison Keillor live at Chautauqua Institution

I probably wouldn’t drive seven hours from Fort Wayne to western New York to see Garrison Keillor perform at the Chautauqua Institution’s 4,000 seat amphitheater.

But one of Keillor’s last performances before his expected retirement next year was a more than worthy climax to our week at the institution this summer.

My wife Toni and I hadn’t gone to Chautauqua in a couple of years. One year, granddaughters Tanya and Cynthia joined us for the events at the Youth Activities Center – regular visitors refer to as the YAC. Depending on the children’s ages, you’ll find a nursery school and a school for professional-level dance and art.

Adults of any age can enroll in a class on writing non-fiction, religious studies or philosophy. Toni took a drawing class. This year, I skipped the classes altogether, hoping to get more reading done. (A fantasy, it turned out.)

I’d guess hundreds of Victorian-era and Victorian-style houses are situated along the many narrow streets on the lakeside campus. Some houses are private summer homes. Many others, some multi-story, rent out to vacationers like us.

Once guests arrive and unload their belongings at one of the dwellings they’re renting for a week or so, the motorized vehicles you mostly see are trucks that deliver food to the half-dozen restaurants on the sprawling campus.

Next to a spacious acre of grass, shade trees with benches nearby, a long brick two-story building called the Refectory houses a book and gift shop and restaurant, plus a post office. Every day my first stop is at the book store where I pick up my prepaid New York Times and the Chautauqua newspaper.

After an evening performance, we line up at the long cooler for a dish or cone of one of the many varieties of ice cream. I always get chocolate. Always.

Our week this year featured speakers Washington Post political cartoonist Tom Toles, Ava DuVernay director of the film “Selma” and political consultants, Mark Putnam and Fred Davis.

Toni and I enjoyed the evening symphonies at the amphitheater. For me a big hit was Carmina Burana, a 1936 cantata with, I’d guess, hundreds of performers and musicians. I don’t believe I’ve ever witnessed any stage show more inventive and more sheer fun.

Religion representing various faiths has a regular place at Chautauqua. Church buildings are scattered throughout the campus. Sunday, I heard a black Baptist preacher from Atlanta and a hundred-voice choir. One afternoon, Toni and I stopped by the Unitarian Universalist house for a reception.

I spent many hours each days walking along the lake and through the various neighborhoods. I visited with people who lived at our old house, including a college professor from Austin, Texas, and his wife and Barbara, a stock broker from New York City.

Anna, the stock broker’s friend from the D.C. area, helped me with computer issues.

This was the 142nd season for Chautauqua. Lots of regulars have been spending part of their summers there since childhood and have inherited the family home. But at one concert, I sat next to a guy from Indianapolis who was attending his first week. He told me he and his wife were sure to return.

For me it beats a week at a lake cottage or a drive to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We’ve done both.

You might say it’s almost as good as a “quiet week in Lake Wobegon.” I sure couldn’t ask for more than a chocolate ice cream cone and the stories of Garrison Keillor.

I liked his singing and the fiddlers and the drummers, too.

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