British invasion swarms Chautauqua Cinema

Katie McLean | Staff Photographer
Brothers Jeff and Greg Miller have been visiting Chautauqua Institution for more than 50 years. They are now giving back by teaching a Beatles class, from 9 to 10:30 a.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday of Week Two at Chautauqua Cinema. All proceeds will support the Institution.

The idea of the owner of a software training company, an English teacher and a forensic accountant teaching a group of students ranging in age from 11 to 80 seems ridiculous — unless the teachers are brothers Greg and Jeff Miller and their longtime friend Tim Renjilian, and they’re teaching a four-day seminar on the history and music of the Beatles.

The seminar will be offered from 9 to 10:30 a.m.  on July 1, 2, 3 and 5, at the Chautauqua Cinema. Greg wanted to teach the class on July 4, too, but Renjilian decided against it.

“Do we really need a British takeover on the Fourth of July?” he asked.

Participants can sign up for all four classes or just one, though it is encouraged for continuity’s sake that they attend the entire seminar.

This will be the seminar’s third year. Greg  Miller and Renjilian, who both serve on the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees, came up with the idea in 2010. Greg got Jeff involved shortly after, and the project came to life during the 2010 Season.

During the 2010 and 2011 seasons, the class was hosted at Hurlbut Church and was run through the Special Studies program. The class wasn’t offered last year, but the trio has revised and expanded the seminar for the this season. One-hundred percent of the program’s proceeds will be donated to the Chautauqua Fund, rather than to the Institution as they had in the past. The donations will go toward strengthening programming and scholarships at the Institution.

“Billy Schmidt, who runs the cinema, was incredibly gracious to let us use this space, because our program isn’t a regular thing that can take place in the cinema,” Greg said. “I think acoustically it will be better for what we’re doing.”

The new venue will prove especially advantageous on July 1 and 2 when, to accompany the seminar, the cinema will play “A Hard Day’s Night” and “The Yellow Submarine,” respectively. The screenings, held at 1:30 p.m., are also open to those who haven’t attended the seminar.

The Millers and Renjilian each have a particular area of expertise they will bring to their classes. Greg speaks mostly about the music, recording techniques and vocals. Jeff leads discussions on the lyrics, especially those from the Beatles’ later records. That leaves Renjilian to cover the cultural and historical context in which the Beatles came into prominence.

Greg said that the lectures are very informal; one teacher might jump in when another is speaking, leading to an open, playful discussion.

“We want it to be interactive, even though it doesn’t really work as a straight discussion,” Jeff said. “We want the audience to participate to whatever degree they can, so to some degree we’re striking a bit of informality in creating the tone.”

The combination of the teaching style and the subject matter has allowed past seminars to be quite successful, attracting an audience of all ages.

“The Beatles are so universally well liked,” Renjilian said, “and they keep coming up with reissues, new formats and new materials every x number of years. The music is as fresh and relevant to a 12-year-old today as it was to Greg [Miller] back when the albums were first coming out.”

At the end of the class, the guys usually host a Beatles sing-along session. In past years, they’ve had Mark Robbins from the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra burst out from behind a screen, trumpeting notes on a French horn during a singalong of “For No One” from Revolver. They’ve also been joined by a cello quartet on Bestor Plaza. Greg said that he might try to get the Chautauqua Motet Choir to sing the background harmonies of “Let it Be” at a future seminar.

During the seminar’s first year, two women at the lecture had been in the studio audience at “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the Beatles’ debut on American television.

“And we just sat down and said, ‘Well, take over — what do we know?’ ” Jeff said.

“These ladies became the focus for the end of that day’s lesson,” Greg added.

He also spoke to one of the facets of the Beatles’ career that fascinates him most.

“There’s so many different factors, like advances in recording and film technology, that came together to create the perfect storm to make the Beatles what they were,” Greg said. “If they had come around at a different time, they would have still been great musicians, but I don’t think they would have been the once-in-a-generation or once-in-a-century phenomenon that they were.”

Those interested in signing up for the seminar may do so with check, cash or credit card through the Chautauqua Foundation, by phone at 716-357-6220 or by email at They can also sign up in the Chautauqua Foundation’s office in the Colonnade.