It sits frozen in time, on a narrow blue lake in upstate New York, amid vineyards and farmland, protected by 1 1/2 miles of hulking iron-and steel fence. Across the road there is a miniature-golf course and further down, a disco named 2001. But in the leafy green place Teddy Roosevelt once called the most American spot in America, the Protestant Ideal continues to be served. After 104 years, the original Chautauqua cultural institution devoted to total man and a lifetime of learning is still in business. In fact, it is flourishing.
She used to come with her father in a flivver or sometimes by ferry from Janestown. In the early days, people would rent tents for 50 cents and eat in the old boarding house on the grounds, she says. Then, as now, there was always lots to do: symphony, opera, the literary and scientific circle. Sometimes she'd go for rides out on the lake with young men. Once, when she was grown, FDR came to speak. She waited 'round back of the amphitheater and saw him pass by. It was a clear August afternoon in 1936, she says, the day pressed flat and fine in her memory, like tea roses in a leather book.
"Presidents come and go," she says, smiling. "But I stay on."
Pauline Francher is one of Chautauqua's grand ladies. She sits this morning, with a white shawl around her shoulders and a large watch on her wrist, at breakfast in the Athenaeum Hotel, a creaky, century-old building with wicker furniture and antique guests. Though her own Victorian house is just up the lane at 34 Janes Street, she often comes here to dine and rock in filtered snlight on the wide manila porches that look out on the lake.
Francher was formerly the institution's libarian. She has recently written a book on Chautauqua and its architecture. For years she has known everyone who is anyone in her beloved summer colony. Sometimes she thinks she was here before she was born.
"Chautauqua is like no other place in the American mind," she said."It's of the world, and it's not of the world. Everything is here that you could want except maybe liquor, I guess. And even that is changing. We'll never have bars, or at least I hope not in my lifetime. That would change everything.But we do to take it privately now in our homes and at gatherings. Of course, we put it in red glasses or blue cups."
At first, you keep thinking you've stumbled on a gigantic, forgotten set from "Our Town." None of this seems real, somehow: these fleeced, steamboat-Gothic buildings with their green awnings and cupolas, gabled roofs and porchbulbs that glow like pale lanterns; these stretches of manicured lawns sloping to the water; these flags yapping on their poles. Maybe it's all a dream, some elaborate, time-warped fantasy.
But it can't be a dream. There are people her - 10,000 of them every summer, from kids to doddering octogenarians. They have come say the registrars, from Ohio and Pennsylvania and New Jersey, even from Florida and Texas. They will write poetry, weave rugs, listen to evening symphonies, study ballet, practice the flute, swim, play tennis, sail and, of course, worship God. Though some stay only a week or two, many come for the entire nine weeks of the season, whole families praying and playing in the fields of the lord.
Actually, say local historians, a bit stiffly, there is a long-standing confusion in American history about the work "Chautauqua." The institution founded in 1874 by Rev. John Heyl Vincent (at first as a summer retreat for Methodist Sunday-School teachers) never had anything to do - except in name only - with the "packaged tent" Chautauquas who traveled from town to town across America in the early 20th century. Those were mainly raffish carnival affairs featuring Swiss yodelers and animal magnetists, or maybe somebody trying to illustrate electricity with tissue paper and rubber combs.
That was never Bishop Vincent's idea of Chautauqua at all. Those Chautauquas simply appropriated the real one's name. And, of course, later in the century - with the coming of movies, the radio, and the horseless carriage - the tent circuits folded up and faded away. A couple of years ago, when the genuine Chautauqua celebrated its centennial, the U.S. Postal Service commissioned an artist to come up with a commemorative stamp. He drew a tent, with buggies pulled alongside. It still gets people in these parts irked.
Mark Minnerly, in Puma sneakers, specs and white gym shorts, is working on a pottery wheel in the arts and crafts building. He goes to Mount Lebanon High near Pittsburgh. He has been coming to Chautauqua all his life. This year he is here with his mom. Besides pottery, he is working at tennis and sailing.
"Right now, I'm repeating last year's mistakes," he says, not exactly overjoyed with the latest distraction. "But it's still early in the summer. Classes just started a few days ago. This week I'm working with closed forms. Next week I'll try some pots."
He looks up from his lump of clay. "The thing about Chautauqua is that there's so much to do, it's almost a cop-out to watch TV. The last time I bothered to look at a program was two summers ago, when the Olympics were on.
"And even then, I got bored."
He flashes a schoolboy grin.
The lady next to him, with sticky hands and a T-shirt that says "Wanted" nods agreeably. Abbie Kline is from Hollywood, Fla.This is her family's sixth year at Chautauqua. She found out about the place from her piano tuner. She and her husband and their four children came up for two weeks, got hooked and have come back every summer since. Only now, they stay the season. This year the Klines took the Autotrain to Washington, then drove the 450 remaining miles. They are renting a cottage on the grounds.
"You see this pot?" she asks, holding up an out-of-round object. "Tomorrow I'm going to put it in the kiln and fire it. If I like how it turns out I'll put it on sale for $3 at the end of the summer." She shrugs. "If nobody wants it, I'll give it to my landlord. Poor guy, he always gets my rejects."
Sign on bulletin board in the bookstore on Bestor Plaza: "Wanted: Blond child to play a 3-year-old in 'Madame Butterfly.' No lines to say, but must not be too shy. Apply at opera office."
TReal estate prices are surprisingly high here. A 75-foot-by-100-foot lot went several weeks ago for $75,000. That was without a house. At the moment, there are 30 available lots on the grounds. The publications office says it has a mailing list of 72,000 names interested in Chautauqua.
Dr. Robert Cleveland Holland's sermon at his morning's 9:30 devotional hour is entitled "Can Christianity answer the needs of everyday life? Three ways to grow old gracefully." The service is being held in the open-air amphitheater in the middle of the grounds. All during the pleasant breezy hour, elder Chautauquans drift in, seating themselves on the old wooden pews under the slanting, peeling roof. Some plug themselves into hearing aid facilities.
The "amph" is Chautauqua's Dowager Queen, arguably her most prominent symbol. Thomas Edison orated here. So did William Jennings Bryan and U.S. Grant. In 1935, Upton Sinclair debated Hamilton Fish in the amph on social betterment. Last night, the 70-piece Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra was scheduled to perform an all-Dvorak program in the, amph, the players sitting on one chairs in blue blazers and white slacks. Scheduled for tonight: country and western star Johnny Rodriguez.
"The Mayfly has just six hours from birth to death. And there are Sequoias in California that were young giants when the pyramids were still being built," Holland says now, in thunderous evangelistic tones. "Many of you today face the ambiguity of being arthritic in a world which seems to belong more and more to gymnasts and yet there is a Christian antidote: Keep your mind ever awake, your heart with the Lord Jesus. Which is what we try to do at Chautauqua."
The minister recites a lengthy list of famous elder achievers, a litany of hope: Arthur Rubinstein, Dame Edith Evans, Golda Meir, Margaret Meade, Albert Schweitzer, "And Grandma Moses didn't even begin her wondrous works until she was 77 years ago. The world had never heard of her. Not yet."
Lake Chautauqua, which flows eventually to the Gulf of Mexico, is 18 miles long. Its name, says Indian legend, means "bag tied in the middle." On the opposite shores are hills and farmland. Flaw: It smells. But the muskies are huge.
They are small brown buildings - hutches, really, standing in five jagged rows at the southwest corner. Some of them have names tacked over their entrances - Liszt, Ravel, Gounod. In the main, the people inside these huts are youthful and in some cases shirtless and in tennis shoes. They have been here all day, practicing piano, oboe, horn, violin and flute. It is a cacophonous concert. These practice rooms, say Chautauqua officials, nearly always stay occupied. The students, such as Vera Stern, 26, from the Manhattan School of Music, are serious musicians bent on professional careers.
"Americans are so lucky to have this," says Miss Stern, an emigre from Israel. "This is given them. In Israel, to get something hits nice, you have to take."
Directly across the street from the practice rooms: The "I play putt-putt."
Chautauqua is not cheap. Hotel rooms, with meals, can run to $63 a day for two. Gate fees, either by the season or individual event, are also high. An average ticket for a special at the amphitheater is $7.25. One sees lots of big cars in parking lots. The Protestant ethic includes making enough money.
The hall of philosophy is not at all a hall but a slightly crumbling replica of the Parthenon. A retired professor of English from Kent State University lectures on Herman Melville to the Chautauqua literary and scientific circles. The circle is celebrating its 100th aniversary this year. It proclaims itself the oldest book club in America. The prototype of Book-of-the-Month, as well as a pioneer in the American Correspondence school movement. Once, the circle's worldwide membership was in the hundreds of thousands. Today it has only a few hundred.
The lecturer is a slightly eccentric, tangent-prone and entirely entertaining professor. "I cannot tell you what this book is about," he says, thrusting aloft a classic comic of "Moby Dick." "Only that it continues to haunt every level of American life. Without Melville, we wouldn't care today about whales. The book is about America's greatest adventure of the spirit."
"Only the idea of Chautauqua rivals it," he grins.
Street names: Ramble Avenue. Longfellow Lane. Also, Palestine Street. "There is an attempt to make us more denominational," says Phil Zimmer of Chautauqua's publications office. "We even have Catholic and Jewish services now. All of them are optional of course."
He has only been in office since Jan. 1, but already Dr. Robert Hesse, 14th president of Chautauqua, is making his presence felt. He took the job, the former college president says, because of "Chautauqua's challenge to reassert itself in American life. It can no longer be just a quaint resort in upstate New York with lots of historical resonance. It has to honor the past, but look to the future too."
This might mean condominiums; extending the seasons; relating to the local community, which has regarded Chautauqua as a rich man's province; or liberalizing drinking prohibition (no thought of licensed facilities, though). There is a police car now at Chautauqua, though only the chief carries a gun. Kids have been known to smoke pot in Bestor Plaza late at night. The institution is still lilywhite, though Hesse sees a change here, too.
"I think those gates have always been imposing," Hesse says. "I would like to see my administration symbolically tear them down. We say we are a Christian community, and we are. That is our heritage. But if Chautauqua is to survive, it must look to the future as well as the past. I think we can do it."
He puffs his blue pipe and smiles. Outside, the millers bell is chiming softly. Evening was falling.