Old First Night: 139 years and counting …

Ellie Haugsby | Daily File PhotoA young Chautauquan plays with birthday balloons ringing the Amphitheater at Old First Night 2011.

Ellie Haugsby | Daily File Photo

A young Chautauquan plays with birthday balloons ringing the Amphitheater at Old First Night 2011.

Twenty-four years ago, when eighth-generation Chautauquan Dick Karslake was first tasked with emceeing the Old First Night celebration, his stomach churned with a mixture of butterflies and dread. He was nervous about doing justice to a celebration so bound up in the history and tradition of Chautauqua Institution.

Luckily for Karslake, his son, who knew a thing or two about nerves owing to his experience in theater, called him the weekend before Old First Night with some much needed words of encouragement.

“He said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to change your outlook — you’ve got to look forward to this and work up some enthusiasm and just enjoy it,’ ” Karslake said, recalling the conversation. “And so I concentrated on it and, well, my son’s words helped an awful lot.”

Since then, Karslake has grown into the role of master of ceremonies. In fact, he said it gets easier with each passing year and that he enjoys every aspect of the programming because it offers something for everyone.

So when Karslake takes the stage at 7:30 p.m. tonight to host the celebration of the 139th birthday of the Institution, each person in the crowd of thousands — whether they’re celebrating their first or 81st year at the Institution — can take heart that the event will be both meaningful and entertaining.

Karslake explained that inclusivity is at the heart of Old First Night.

“It’s important for Chautauquans to feel a part of the community,” Karslake said. “This place is much more than a collection of morning and afternoon lectures and evening performances. This is a community of which you become a part, and you become a part of the traditions whether you realize it or not.”

Karslake added that the festivities are intended as much for newcomers as they are for longtime Chautauquans.

“Anybody who wants to feel a part of the Chautauquan community should attend,” he said.

While the evening hours are dedicated to celebration in the Amphitheater, the Chautauqua community will also celebrate earlier in the day with the Community Band, led by conductor Jason Weintraub, at 12:15 p.m. on Bestor Plaza. The Chautauqua Foundation will also host its second Annual Fund Day, which recognizes the philanthropic efforts of Chautauquans to keep the community thriving.

Tonight, the Thursday Morning Brass will kick things off with a pre-program concert at 7 p.m. in the Amphitheater. Following a welcome by Karslake and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the OFN festivities begin in earnest with the Vespers Service, which was written by Chautauqua co-founder Bishop John Heyl Vincent and recited on the very first night of Chautauqua’s existence, making it one of the strongest traditions of Old First Night.

Members of the Children’s School will then perform “Happy Birthday” and “The Children’s School Song.” Children’s School and Boys’ and Girls’ Club will also present the Institution with the Old First Night Gifts.

A highlight of this year’s OFN Program is special recognition and a tribute by Chautauqua President Thomas M. Becker of the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, who will be retiring from her position at the end of the year after 13 years of service as director of the Department of Religion.

Also of importance is a special presentation by Chautauquan Caroline Bissell in recognition of the Bird, Tree & Garden Club’s 100th anniversary.

One of Karslake’s favorite OFN traditions is the Drooping of the Lilies.

“Everybody takes a white handkerchief out and the chairman of the board of trustees leads us in the Drooping of the Lilies, with very quiet organ music in the background,” Karslake said. “We all train our memories on those who went before — anybody who’s responsible, in any way, shape, or form, for ensuring that Chautauqua is still here for us to enjoy. And so I think of my parents and my grandparents, and I thank them for passing on Chautauqua to my generation and me. It’s very meaningful.”

Another Old First Night favorite for Karslake is a tradition he started: Postcards from Chautauqua. During the event, he and fellow Chautauquan Bijou Clinger Miller display postcards of days gone by to and from older generations of Chautauquans.

“I had a gal come up to me in tears after one OFN, saying that one of the postcards was addressed to her grandmother and that it brought back all kinds of memories,” Karslake said. “She wanted to get her hands on it, and I managed to get it for her. I have people come up to me and tell me how they enjoy the tradition.”

This powerful link to previous generations of Chautauquans makes Old First Night special for Karslake.

“It puts you in touch with the original Chautauqua and the traditions of the original Chautauqua,” Karslake said. “It allows you to feel more in tune with Chautauqua and its past.”