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In spite of a Syracuse University program that offered summer-school courses for college credit; a bevy of Amphitheater speakers who examined issues such as the United Nations and the Korean War; a new ballet program; and the sound of New Orleans Jazz, 1950s Chautauqua was, in writer Jeffrey Simpson’s words, a time “when complacency and conservatism were the order of the day, and Chautauqua, in its life on the Grounds, was in an especially conservative mode.”
Evidence for this can be found in a number of places. Simpson wrote that Chautauqua became conservative even in appearance, the once-colorful Victorian cottages slowly having been painted white. Historian Theodore Morrison, in his book Chautauqua: A Center for Education, Religion, and the Arts in America, recognized that, by its very nature as a summer institution, “it is a place of withdrawal, where people can retreat from the world.”
And, in the 1950s, there were significant and frightening social and political things from which to retreat.
The attraction to Chautauqua tradition had always been great, but possibly not so great that the headlines of its daily organ, The Chautauquan Daily, would so closely resemble each other in the opening numbers of seasons 1950–1956.
Tradition and the Institution’s familiar rituals played the lead.
In 1950, the headline read, “Tradition Marks 77th Season Opening.” In 1951, “Historic Rites Herald Assembly Opening.” But the heading of the specific article elaborating the historic opening rite is familiar: “Tradition Marks Official Ceremony At Sunday Service.” Headline for 1952: “Traditional Service Opens Assembly As Chautauqua Plans Record Season.” Heading for the specific article on the ceremony: “Words From History Inaugurate Official Start of Program.”
So on and so forth, the seasons continued to the 1956 headline: “New Season Has Enlarged Program,” and the specific article on opening day titled, “Tradition Is Keynote For First Service.” Perhaps some tectonic shift in culture grew between the newspaper headline and the individual article title, but it was a sign of some kind of change.
Virgil Freed had been editor of the Daily all these years and continued on into the later ’50s when, by headline accounts, the program became more diverse and elaborate — at least not one so single-mindedly based on history and tradition. (“Marion Anderson To Give Concert Here Tonight,” was the 1957 season headline.)
Indeed, a generation had ended.
A man of quiet conservation
Samuel M. Hazlett, whose Three Taps of the Gavel began the 1956 season as well as every season since 1946, passed away on July 23, 1956. A short tribute on the front page of the July 24 Daily stated, “When we enjoy an opera or a play, listen to great music, attend a class or lecture, or take part in any of Chautauqua’s manifold activities, we will pay deep homage to one of Chautauqua’s great leaders who helped keep the heritage of the ages intact.”
Citizens of the 1950s remembered well World War II and trauma attendant to it. They, too, worried about the spread of communism, proliferation of nuclear bombs, and cultural diversity. But they also remembered the 1930s, a time in the not-so-distant past when economic collapse was the headline of too many newspaper stories. For Chautauqua citizens, the Great Depression reminded them of almost losing their beloved retreat.
Hazlett was not a Chautauqua musician or lecturer or recreation director. He was not a preacher or an artist or Chautauqua groundskeeper. But measures he took during the 1930s ensured that Chautauquans would continue on, in the face of the greatest economic adversity, to enjoy the Institution that had so enriched them.
“Chautauquans will not soon forget their quiet, unpretentious yet friendly and devoted leader,” the Daily reported. “Nor will they soon forget his foresight, determination and resourcefulness in guiding the Institution through a perilous post-Depression era.”
The 1950s were a conservative time by many measures. For Chautauqua that meant white houses, or, as Jeanette Wells wrote in her History of the Music Festival at Chautauqua Institution, music limited to “monuments of the musical past” and, possibly, as Simpson wrote, “traditions entrenched and valued for their own sake.”
A frequent photo of Hazlett, a head shot repeated through the years of his presidency, shows him with a jaunty flair, his face turned to the right, looking straight into the camera, his mouth raised in a smile on one side, straight and serious in shadow on the other.
He embraced tradition, and each year — as others had done before and after him — he would repeat the words of Bishop John H. Vincent who first spoke them in 1874 at what was then Fair Point on Chautauqua Lake: “The simplicity of the ceremony emphasizes the unobtrusive administration and democratic spirit which dominates Chautauqua.”
In eulogizing Hazlett, W. Walter Braham, acting president of Chautauqua Institution, said, “When he came to Chautauqua with his young family, he came seeking rest and relaxation. He came because he loved the forest atmosphere, the winding roads and the shining face of the lake.”
When trouble came in the 1930s, Hazlett responded to the call of duty.
“He left us a priceless legacy,” Braham said. “If he were with us today his advice would be ‘enjoy only what you can pay for,’ ” a suggestion that is as cautious as it is conservative.
“Mr. Hazlett knew the deep taproots of Chautauqua,” Braham concluded. “He appreciated that Chautauqua was founded upon a love of piety and the love of learning. These are the motives which have made it an Institution almost unique in its kind, and which will guarantee its future,” motives well worth cautious observance, and diligence to conserve.