Old First Night: Chautauqua celebrates 137 years


Childrens’ School students sing “Happy Birthday” during a previous Old First Night celebration in the Amphitheater. Daily file photo.

Sarah Gelfand | Staff Writer

Let New Orleans have Mardi Gras — Chautauqua has Old First Night to celebrate its heritage.

Chautauqua’s own combination of family pride and traditions, Old First Night, will mark Chautauqua’s birthday — 137 seasons —at 7:30 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater.

“Tradition at Chautauqua, of course, is very important,” said Dick Karslake, longtime emcee of the event.

Chautauqua has celebrated Old First Night almost since its own inception; the first Tuesday of August always commemorates the Institution’s opening night.

Throughout the years, however, Chautauqua traditions have evolved or faded out, as new ones are incorporated. Karslake said Old First Night used to end with the singing of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” For many years, a large birthday cake was served to the entire audience. That tradition didn’t last long, thanks to the heat, though Chautauquans are encouraged to eat birthday cake at home.

Karslake shared a few specific Old First Night memories from his youth.

“Way back, I can remember when the Amphitheater was packed, and it was fun because I loved standing up for the roll calls,” he said. “Arthur Bestor would be seated on the stage with representatives from all different organizations who had separately raised money for Chautauqua, and they’d slowly parade up to the microphone and say ‘The Women’s Club is proud to present…’ There were a couple of old Chautauquans, Doc Sharpe and a buddy, I forget who that was, but these two guys would clown around and turn the oh-so-boring speechifying that went on into a lot of fun.”

Karslake said he would love for the Victorian costumes and houses illuminated for the walk from the Amphitheater — both signature elements of Old First Nights of the past — to make their way back in style.

In 1988, Tom Becker asked Karslake, along with several other lifelong Chautauquans, to head a task force to address ways to revive the Old First Night festivities.

Now in his 23rd year as emcee, Karslake has introduced several new components to the program. “Postcards from Chautauqua” provides an opportunity for Karslake and other Chautauquans to read from vintage postcards sent from the Institution. This year, Karslake also will read from the century-old diary of a former Chautauquan, which refers to the dedication of Miller Bell Tower as well as Old First Night activities. In addition, a new mountain bike will be raffled off from donations made using Chautauqua Fund envelopes during the program.

This year, Karslake advises his audience to get to the Amp early; at 7:30 p.m. sharp, he and his grandniece will entertain Chautauqua by playing the ukulele and singing songs about Chautauqua together. The Thursday Morning Brass will serenade early arrivers from 7 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Of course, most of the Old First Night favorites still take precedence during the evening.

Old First Night starts off with a brief Vespers service, written by Bishop John Heyl Vincent, which was used the very first night of Chautauqua’s existence.

Then there are the roll calls, one of the most popular traditions, according to Karslake. The first roll call is for the number of years individuals have spent at the Institution; the second is for the number of generations families have been at Chautauqua.

“There’s always someone who’s been here for more than 90 years,” Karlsake said.

His own mother was a Chautauquan for 93 years and at one point was the last person standing during the number of years roll call.

“Everybody enjoys participating in these roll calls,” Karslake said. “It gives them a chance to stand up, and they’re proud of how many years they’ve been coming.”

Interspersed between are the Community Gifts, presented by the Children’s School and the Boys’ and Girls’ Club, and performances by winning groups from the Boys’ and Girls’ Club Air Band competition. There’s also the War of the States, in which residents of New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania compete to see how many representatives they have on the grounds.

The program concludes on a somber note with the Drooping of the Lilies, a memorial service for Chautauquans who have died, led by George Snyder, chairman of the board of trustees.

“This is why you bring your handkerchiefs,” Karslake said. “My mother used to bring a box of Kleenex just to pass around for people who forgot them. We remember old Chautauquans — our parents and grandparents — people who went before us at Chautauqua; people who kept this place going and alive for us to enjoy. It brings tears to many people’s eyes as they remember.”

Returning to their homes at the end of the night, many Chautauquans hold neighborhood-wide parties for the occasion, stringing their streets with Christmas lights and eating birthday cake.

With its long history, Old First Night is comparable to other great American bacchanals. Incorporating the entire Institution into its rituals and traditions, Old First Night marks another year of birthday celebrations and uniquely Chautauquan customs.

“Old First Night is relating to Chautauqua over the years, and feeling close to that,” Karslake said. “It enhances your own individual feeling and connection to Chautauqua. To participate in these traditions, you now are a part of them, and it makes Chautauqua that much more meaningful to you in your own life.”