Vertebrae in Chautauqua’s Spine
Amp ushers greet attendees, keep order at
Institution’s biggest venue
By John Ford
Upon entering the Amphitheater, a friendly usher approaches, prepared to scan gate passes and greeting passersby as they enter the gates. Everyone, from vice presidents to first-time visitors, hesitates for a moment. Guests may feel a sigh of relief as they enter the Institution’s entertainment hub.
Everything is indeed in order.
“Yeah, we know that happens,” said Amphitheater house manager Jen Jansen. “That tiny moment of hesitation is a good reminder that our ushers are there for a purpose, and that despite their smiling helpfulness, they also have authority over those who attend evening entertainment events at the Amp.”
During the summer season, a big part of Jansen’s myriad responsibilities is supervision of Chautauqua’s 40 part-time seasonal ushers.
Jansen knows all about ushering. She began working at Chautauqua over 20 years ago, and for the past 15 years has served as a manager in the Institution’s Program Office, reporting to Vice President and Director of Programming Marty Merkley.
“I see our ushers as the vertebrae in the spine of Chautauqua,” Merkley said. “They support much of what goes on here.”
In addition to their many other responsibilities, Merkley said ushers are usually “the first line of defense” when it comes to public order or health issues, and they are “always a buffer between the public and the performance space.”
“I’d say there is an altercation or some kind of public disturbance at the evening Amp performances at least once a week,” Merkley said. “I know many people don’t believe this happens. But it does.”
Indeed, at last Friday’s sold-out Jennifer Nettles concert at the Amp, a woman was disturbing her neighbors, who called over an usher. Matters escalated, security officials arrived on the scene, and the woman, shouting and resisting for several minutes, was finally escorted from the Amp by a uniformed Chautauqua police officer.
Just moments later, Jansen took charge of a boy who had lost his parents. Making sure he felt safe at her side, she wielded her cellphone and tracked down the parents. A grateful hug from the boy was clearly all the reward she needed.
Jansen is liked and admired by her ushers. They use words like “tough,” “fair,” “busy,” “good-natured” and “phenomenally well organized” to describe her. In addition to her usher supervision responsibilities, she makes time to serve as the librarian in the School of Music and to teach private viola lessons in Erie, Jamestown and Dunkirk, where she lives. Her workday also includes the evening Amp performance.
The youngest of six children, Jansen recalls that she was “the only one who did music properly” for her musically ambitious father; now, she substitutes occasionally in the viola section of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. Now 89, her father still sings in a church choir at home on Long Island and often visits Chautauqua. The chance to earn a degree in music education and performance at Fredonia brought Jansen to this area, and she was drawn to Chautauqua.
Before the Nettles concert, all the evening ushers gathered at the edge of the Amp choir loft to go over their assignments for the evening. To get “the house” ready, preferred seating in front of the stage would need to be roped off. First-aid kits would be secured, headsets for the hearing impaired would be charged, and any trash left behind after the morning lecture would be collected.
With a big crowd expected, all six Amp gates would be fully staffed. Including three rovers, 24 regular ushers would be deployed that night. In addition, Jansen expected at least one music student to assist. Under a pilot program developed with Institution student services coordinator Sarah Malinoski, a few music students have the chance to usher and earn larger scholarship stipends.
University of Michigan sophomore Helen Peyrebrune, of Cleveland, was helping out at Gate 3 for the Nettles concert. She plays cello in the Institution’s Music School Festival Orchestra, and enjoys the opportunity to work at the Amp.
“I must say that I do enjoy the variety of musical performances I get to experience while ushering,” she said. “It’s good to take a bit of a break from our normal routine in the music school.”
Sixth-year usher Bob Boell of Media, Pennsylvania, is on very familiar territory at the Amp.
“I started coming to Chautauqua when I was 8,” he said.
The son of a minister and now a minister himself, Boell is now visiting Chautauqua for the 67th consecutive year.
“It’s 70 straight years for my wife,” he said.
The couple met at Chautauqua. Boell started his Institution work at the Athenaeum Hotel, where over six years he worked his way up from bellman to desk clerk.
“The tips were much better at the start, lugging people’s bags around,” he said.
Boell’s wife Jean worked in the hotel laundry.
“She had her hands in my pockets before she ever met me,” he said.
This is also the sixth season for Gate 3 stalwart Connie Cash of Westfield. A longtime florist in Westfield, when Cash bought her flower shop, she had a virtual monopoly in town.
“Then came the supermarkets, drug stores, even other florists — it seemed like everyone was selling flowers,” Cash said. “But you know what? We survived.”
Vince Zaleski, who often works Gate 2 at the Amp, is a school teacher from Buffalo who is in his first season as an usher. He’s familiar with the Institution, though, because his wife’s family has a house on the grounds.
For Zaleski, a highlight every year is the moment at the Fourth of July concert when veterans of military service are asked to stand with others from the same branch.
Ushers are required to scan each attendant before they can enter the Amp.
As an Army vet from a military family, Zaleski gets “a big lump in my throat every time that happens.”
Ex-Marine Fred Conrad has been ushering for six years, and was initially recruited by his wife, Sally, also an usher and a retired nurse. The couple now lives in Atlanta but have deep Chautauqua roots.
“We noticed an interesting pair of anniversaries this year,” Conrad said. “First, 60 years ago this summer my wife was watching the opera Madam Butterfly in Norton Hall with her grandmother. Also, the centennial of the Chautauqua Golf Club has special meaning for us because my grandfather Harold Smith was the head golf pro at the Golf Club for more than 30 years.”
Roving usher Brian Emert was hustling around with last-minute cleanup and Amp preparatory chores before the Nettles concert. A Penn State-Behrend student from Cochranton, Pennsylvania, Emert said he had worked 70 hours the previous week, both as an Amp usher and behind the meat counter at the Lighthouse Grocery on Route 394.
“I need to make money for school,” he said.
After receiving an associate’s degree in mechanical engineering technology, Emert continued in interdisciplinary business with engineering studies. He stays at a family cottage in Forest Park, New York, near Westfield, which he said his great-grandfather bought on a stopover while on a road trip from the Pittsburgh area to Niagara Falls.
“It was a longer trip back then,” Emert said.
The Daily will feature the morning worship, morning lecture and Hall of Philosophy ushers in a future issue.