The World of Bestor Plaza, the free-form heart of Chautauqua

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Photos by Katie McLean | Staff Photographer

A young boy blows bubbles on Bestor Plaza. One makes it past the squealing children and over the trees. Viewed from above, the bubble is a small world, encapsulating the plaza below in a psychedelic snowglobe.

The inhabitants of the bubble are free to do what makes them happy. Whistling balloon rockets and hovering frisbees make the airspace look like a futuristic highway, complete with flying saucers and soaring airships.

The low bass of music pushes the bubble higher. Its skin vibrates and flexes with the rhythmic tones. A group of dancers have set up a sound system and twist through an impromptu routine, plasmatic and lythe. Most people watch the dancers, but others are free to wander past, unaffected, as if the dancers are just another crowd.

The dancers finish their routine. Sarah Hayes Watson is sweaty and giggling, with a post-workout flush. Still, when Don Rapp offers to teach her and the other dancers to juggle, they don’t hesitate, forming a semicircle. Rapp teaches the professional dancers a thing or two about rhythm and coordination.

This is Bestor Plaza, the front yard of a town and a small world unto itself, where everyday is a story with its own unique characters and soundtrack.

The kids are alright.

Some days, Bestor Plaza looks like Lord of the Flies: a world devoid of adults. Pick-up football games and Frisbee tosses form and dissolve with a quantum spontaneity. Those who worry that kids live exclusively in a digital realm, don’t; there are surprisingly few touchscreens being stared at on the plaza. Here, kids play.

The sound that can be most associated with Bestor Plaza, other than music and the cloying calls of the Daily newsboys, is a high-pitched whistle of rocket balloons. Rocket balloons are specifically made to be inflated and released, shooting through the air with the whine of a small missile.

Today, a squad of rocket balloon cosmonauts has formed. A dozen kids stand in a line, releasing their balloons simultaneously. A rainbow of rubber zigs and twists, the howls of each balloon a slightly different pitch, just like the laughs and howls of the launchers. It looks like something that must have been organized. It wasn’t. It started when two boys, Jackson and Kye, chose Bestor Plaza as their personal Cape Canaveral.

“Me and Jackson just started letting them go, and a few kids came over and started letting them go with us,” Kye says between launches.

So much of the recreation on Bestor Plaza works this way. People are free to do what they want, and the fact that they are doing it here means that they want to do it around others.

With the kids, there is also, inevitably, mayhem. They are kids, after all. Some of you may be parents to these little heathens, so don’t look so surprised.

Five kids linger around a tree, staring up at a backpack that hangs from a branch. How it got there is anyone’s guess. Someone is going to be in trouble. They throw a football at it, narrowly missing some of the park’s more annually advanced residents, who don’t look happy with the situation.

By the fountain, a kid hits his little brother in the head with a tennis ball when Dad isn’t looking. The little one, who looks too young to talk, wails at the heavens like the siren.

The bubble nearly pops under the sonic onslaught.

A couple of kids are mining wishes from the fountain, pulling out anything that looks silver, with their shorts rolled up high. Now I know why my hair is still gone and why I didn’t win the Powerball.

Music

Classically trained violinists play yards away from amateurs playing ukuleles and budding preteen rock stars, creating a gumbo of sound that shifts tempo and key on the whims of each player, an experimental orchestra on a green stage that inspires a level of sonic freedom that borders on anarchy.

Marvin Elster plays his harmonica while his lady friend pokes around the shops. His thick fingers wrap around the instrument like tendrils. Elster isn’t a pro; he just does it because it makes him happy — although he jokes about putting his tiny harmonica case on the ground to see if anyone will put pennies in it.

“I am just screwing around,” Elster says, squinting against the sun. “There is a lot to do, and yet you are free to do nothing. It is guilt-free doing nothing.”

Sarah Sturdevant, 15, is playing the ukelele. It is her second day with the instrument, but she is out here, unabashedly plucking. She says that she doesn’t know if she will keep playing after she leaves Chautauqua, but that doesn’t deter her today. She makes it through the first few chords adroitly before looking back down at the song book in her lap.

Eleven-year-old Eddie Keenan plays the first few chords of “Smoke on the Water” over and over with a marked vibrato, shaky but unmistakable. His guitar case lies open next to his scuffed sneakers. A man asks Keenan if he has change for a hundred, tells him he should smile more — but throws a dollar in the case anyway. Everyone’s a critic, but at least this one puts his money where his mouth is.

As good as he will do, Keenan will never pull down the kind of cash that a 4-year-old with a violin does. She plays two chords, kind of, and regularly spends more time shoveling dollar bills out of her case than playing. Image is everything. Maybe Keenan should braid his hair.

Back to the dancers. Barry Perlis is sitting on a bench watching them do their thing. He is there when the juggling breaks out and says that the things he sees in the plaza are as good as anything in the Amp.

“This is the highlight of the season for me. Totally impromptu, and that’s what makes it so great,” Perlis says.

He has a hard time explaining what makes Chautauqua special to those back home.

“Words can’t explain how I feel about it,” Perlis says. “For me to go back home and tell everyone what it is like, it just doesn’t capture the essence of it. His eyes are soft as he takes it all in, as if this may be the moment that those words will come to him. They don’t.

The bubble inevitably pops. At the end of the summer, the music and kids will mostly be gone and Chautauqua’s front yard will become just another patch of grass. Eddie Keenan will be back at school in Atlanta, and Sarah Hayes Watson will be back in North Carolina, pursuing her dance career. Summer will fade from memory into dreams, as leaves and then snow cover the plaza.

Next year, it will all happen again. A different kid will blow a different bubble inhabited by a new set of individuals, but the spirit of Bestor Plaza will remain the same. The bubble will fly again, carried by the power of people doing what they love, unashamed, for everyone to see.