President to start season in tradition

Chautauqua Institution President Thomas M. Becker taps the gavel in 2010. Daily file photo.

On Sunday morning in the Amphitheater, Chautauqua President Thomas M. Becker will mark the beginning of the 2011 Season with the ceremonial three taps of the gavel.

While the gavel has come to symbolize the opening and closing of the Chautauqua Season, the history of “Three Taps” is murky at best, according to Chautauqua historian and archivist Jonathan Schmitz.

“The season has not always started and closed the same way or at the same times,” Schmitz said, “and for some years has been a matter of interpretation and a source of some confusion. There is no evidence that either (Chautauqua co-founders) Vincent or Miller ever used a gavel to open or close the season; in fact, the indications are that they did not.”

The first documented use of the gavel to open the season came in 1904. The Chautauqua Assembly Herald reported that General Director Scott Brown, standing in for President W. H. Hickman, “stepped to the front of the platform and bearing in his hand a new gavel of olive wood from the banks of the Jordan recently presented to Bishop Vincent … he struck three resounding blows on the desk.”

That tradition continues to present day. The gavel used by Becker in this Sunday’s ceremony is, in fact, the same as the one first used in 1904 and has likely been used every year since, Schmitz said.

The tap of the gavel has marked somber occasions in Chautauqua’s history. President Bestor’s three taps to close the 1933 season came at a time when the Institution was unable to announce the upcoming season. It was doubtful the season would even take place.

Three years later, Bestor once again ended the season with the gavel.

“For the first time in three years, he could confidently announce the next season as the Institution had at last escaped closure,” Schmitz said.

Though many have made the three taps since then, Schmitz said the best remembered of all may be that of President Curtis Haug in 1969.

“At the end of the summer he took the gavel in his hand and closed ‘the 96th season of this place we love (tap), of the program we enjoy (tap) and the spirit we feel (tap).’”