Words and photos by Brian Smith | Staff Photographer
The English have the bells of Westminster Abbey declaring changes of royalty. The French have the bells of Notre Dame Cathedral calling the faithful to their knees. Chautauquans have the bells of Miller Bell Tower to serenade them throughout the season.
But who plays the tunes each day?
In spite of a world becoming more automatic and digital, a set of hands graces the keyboard at the base of the tower, which rings out the songs. Those hands belong to Carolyn Benton, Chautauqua Institution’s resident chimemaster.
“Trust me, I am not a computer,” she said.
Benton will walk down to the tower three times a day, every day, at 8 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. On Sundays, there is an extra performance at 10 p.m. Once she unlocks the tower, she sits in front of a wooden keyboard hooked up to an electric cell anode system, which rings the bells looming 65 feet above.
The 13 bells that rest at the top of the tower weigh more than 10,000 pounds, with the largest bell weighing in at 3,033 pounds. Benton plays 12 of the bells; the 13th is rung by hand on New Year’s and on Bryant Day, the opening of the new reading season for The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, when anyone on the grounds can ring it.
With only 12 bells, Benton’s repertoire is somewhat limited. When “Sesame Street” visited the Institution during the 2009 Season, she desperately wanted to play one specific song.
“Everybody — including me — wanted to play ‘Rubber Ducky,’ ” she said. “Not a chance, couldn’t do it.” Luckily, she was able to play the show’s theme song and a few of its other well-known tunes.
During her free time, Benton works on adapting songs for the bells. Her favorite song to ring out is “Simple Gifts.” It reminds her of the time she played with Aaron Copland, many years ago, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Benton has certain songs reserved for certain occasions. She will ask first-time visitors to the tower where they are from; if they are from the Golden State, for example, she will play “California, Here I Come.” If guests come to the tower on a drizzly day, she will play “Rain, Rain, Go Away.”
She also takes requests — although some are stranger than others.
“One day, it was so hot that my fingers were dripping,” she said. “A child about 6 years old asked if [I] could play ‘Jingle Bells.’ “
Benton was taken back by the request, but she happily obliged.
Another popular request from children is “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” When she is close to the last note of the song, she’ll have the child come over and play the last note.
“They just fly out of here with a smile on their face,” she said, “but I’m just trying to promote a love for the bell tower. I want this bell tower to continue.”
Benton has wanted to play songs on the 102-year-old Chautauqua landmark ever since she was 5 years old. In 2000, she begged Marty Merkley, Institution vice president and director of programming, for the job. Several months later, she finally received a call from Merkley, asking if she was serious about getting the job.
“Oh, Marty,” she said, “more serious than you’ll ever know.”
Benton was very nervous the first time she played; there are approximately 7,000 to 10,000 people that hear her play each day. And the bells aren’t something you can practice on, she said.
Since she started the job, Benton has only missed four rings — all due to mechanical issues.
“I’m one of those nuts that likes their job,” she said. “And I’ve met some wonderful, wonderful people coming into the tower.”
During the off-season, Benton returns to her winter home in DeLand, Fla. Whenever she receives mail from the Institution with the bell tower logo, she gets a little more excited for the season to start.
“Every time I see the Miller Tower, I smile,” she said. “She’s special to me.”