Suzi Starheim | Staff Writer
After 10 years of dedication and work with Chautauqua Theater Company and Chautauqua Opera Company, house managers Ken and Carolyn Benton have decided to retire.
Carolyn, now a retired music teacher, began coming to Chautauqua each summer as a child and is in her 10th season as the chimemaster at the Miller Bell Tower.
“I wanted to play the bell tower since I was 5 years old,” Carolyn said.
Ken began coming to Chautauqua in 1955 and has been ever since. In addition to working as house manager for CTC and the Opera Company, he also does morning custodial duty for the opera.
“The nice part about that job, even though it’s custodial, is I get to hear all those marvelous voices, and I love opera,” Ken said. “Jay (Lesenger, artistic/general director for Chautauqua Opera) has completely made a person who loves opera out of me.”
The decision to retire was something Ken said they began to discuss shortly after last season ended.
“This year, most of the free time that we had was spent sleeping,” Carolyn said. “It was not an easy decision. We shed tears over it. We agonized over it.”
Ken also said their initial hope was to continue their work for several years.
“We talked about it in Florida, and we decided maybe once we get there and get started this year everything will work out, but this summer, as we got into it, we could see that it’s time for a younger person,” Ken said. “I’m 76 years old. We’re both tired.”
On days when CTC would have two performances of a production, Carolyn said her day would be extraordinarily busy. She would have to be at the Miller Bell Tower at 8 a.m. and then be back up at the theater until noon. She would leave the theater to run back to the bell tower to work as chimemaster for the noon bells. She would then be back up at the theater by 1 p.m., would stay until approximately 5 p.m. when the show let out before running back down to the Miller Bell Tower to play the bells for 6 p.m. Her last stop for the day would be back up at Bratton Theater by 7 p.m., where she would remain until approximately 11 p.m. when the play let out.
Days like these are something Carolyn said she and Ken cannot do anymore.
“We hide it well, I know, but we’re not spring chickens anymore,” she said.
Ken said he will miss the fantastic voices of the opera he hears as he works, while Carolyn said she will miss what she sees at Bratton Theater — the progress and transformations in the stage and sets.
“It’s a Cinderella job,” Carolyn said. “You do the ‘cinder’ in the morning and the ‘rella’ at night. In the morning, the cinder part of the job is you get to clean the dressing rooms and empty the wastebaskets of the stars, but the best thing is you get to watch them build the sets.”
The decision to retire was such a difficult one to make because of the people the Bentons get to work with every day, Carolyn said.
“You can’t possibly work for better people than we work for,” Carolyn said. “Other than ‘fantastic,’ I don’t have a word. They have been just super to us; they have treated us like kings and queens. We will continue to thoroughly support the theater and the opera.”
These people include CTC artistic directors Vivienne Benesch and Ethan McSweeny as well as Lesenger.
“I don’t know if people realize how wonderful they are and how hard they work and their total commitment to Chautauqua,” Carolyn said. “They really are totally committed to the Chautauqua experience, and they add so much to this whole experience.”
While not living in Chautauqua, the Bentons live in Florida, where they spread the word about what Chautauqua has to offer.
“We take Chautauqua literature back home with us, and right now are responsible for bringing quite a few folks from the Florida area up here,” Ken said. “I call this the Disneyland for adults.”
Carolyn said she looks forward to the time she will have to attend lectures.
“You know, I hear they have lectures here,” she said.
She also just joined the Opera Guild board and said next year she finally will have the time to support the organization’s efforts.
While the couple is retiring from the position of house managers, they still will keep each of their other jobs and continue to visit Chautauqua each season.
“It doesn’t make any difference where I live; this is my home,” Carolyn said. “This is where my heart is.”