The Dandy Dozen
Usher staff uses common sense, people skills to maintain order at Chautauqua’s main venues
It’s 8 a.m. on a monsoon Monday morning at the Amphitheater, rain sheeting down as puddles circle the venue’s concrete rim. Most of the 12 morning ushers are already here, seeing and doing what needs to be done without being asked.
One usher pushes the pooling water outside the Amp and down the hill. Another checks the first-aid kits. Others make sure the hearing assistance devices are in good order and tidy up the heavy stacks of morning worship books. Weekly activity schedules from the Daily are available so everyone knows what’s ahead this week. Pieces of paper for written audience questions are gathered.
Chautauqua’s dandy dozen swings into action for another hectic week of managing the Institution’s morning worship, morning lecture and afternoon Department of Religion Interfaith Lecture Series at the Hall of Philosophy.
Monday supervisor Cathy Floriani gathers her gang at around 8:30 a.m., and they go over the day’s special challenges. Everyone listens attentively.
Then they all scatter to their various posts around the Amp and the gazebo. Morning worshippers will be here soon.
Floriani is now in her ninth season as an usher, but she has been visiting Chautauqua for 53 years. She supervises morning ushers Monday and Thursday. Marlene Thibault, who has been an usher for 24 years, takes over Tuesday and Friday. Sixteen-year veteran Sally Aamot is in charge Wednesdays.
Floriani said the current supervisory system simply evolved.
“Years ago, there was one lady in charge,” she said. “Then she retired, and the five who were left shared daily supervisory responsibilities. When two of them left, the three of us devised the current system. Thank goodness our numbers grew so we can handle our duties. … We are all adults here. We all get along really well, and everyone shares responsibility for doing our jobs well. We are always pleased to see each other at the beginning of every new week.”
Aamot shares responsibility for the preferred evening concert seating with Floriani. Thibault is a manager at the Carey Cottage Inn on the grounds.
Eleven members of the ushers’ ranks are women. The exception, John “Jay” Peterson, “helps us a lot with the heavy lifting, especially the morning worship books,” Floriani said.
The morning worship books present special challenges. Stacked on carts, they are distributed to the faithful as they enter the Amp, but must be collected after the service concludes. It is not unusual for attendees to clutch the books as they depart. The ushers try to be gentle as they recover the books.
“You should see some of the stuff people have written or cribbed into the worship books,” Floriani said. “They often look like well-used college textbooks.”
There are days when 200 hearing devices are distributed in the morning. These have to be charged in advance and returned when the service or lecture concludes.
“Our ushers scan people in and out every day,” said Jen Jansen, overall usher supervisor and Program Office assistant. “There are judgment calls for them to make all the time. They have to rely on instinct and experience to decide whether the person in front of them has really forgotten their pass — and they have to decide quickly, because there is always a line of others waiting behind.”
As Amp house manager for the past 15 years, Jansen has supervised hundreds of ushers.
“I’ve only had to fire one of them, and I’ve only asked a handful not to return the next year,” she said. “There seems to be a good self-selection process among the ushers. Those who love people usually love the job and may stay a long time. Others will just not return.”
Overall, Jansen said the median experience level is about three years.
Vice President and Director of Programming Marty Merkley wasn’t absolutely certain when the Institution began using ushers at performance venues, but hazarded a guess that the first ushers may have begun working at the Amp in the 1950s, when the Institution began offering live popular music performances.
Merkley said a vexing problem for all of the Institution’s ushers is the changing view of space among audiences.
“More and more, people care more about their own personal space than about the greater public space,” he said. “I know this problem exists throughout society, but here at Chautauqua we see it most often with either devices or seat saving. The ushers will get complaints from across an aisle about keyboard tapping, for instance. And we have had numerous near-fistfights over seat saving. Some have involved very elderly people. The ushers are our first line of defense. They have to rely, first and foremost, on their own common sense in defusing tense situations.”
At the Hall of Philosophy, the 2 p.m. Interfaith Lectures regularly draw big crowds that spread out beyond the building’s capacity of 666 to include adjacent lawns and curbsides. Second-year usher Sarah Schmitz has worked at all the ushered events, and experiences the 2 p.m. crowd differently than the morning lecture patrons.
“The people at the 2 p.m. lectures seem much more opinionated,” Schmitz said. “Maybe it’s the relative intimacy due to much smaller audience size, and certainly the direct question format is influential, but when Chautauquans line up to question the speaker, we notice that the sequence is often: statement, question, answer.”
At the Hall of Philosophy on July 25, Church of Scientology spokesperson Sylvia Stanard drew 1,167 Chautauquans, by the ushers’ count. Almost before she finished her prepared remarks, 15 listeners had queued up to ask questions and make statements.
Through it all, the ushers’ mutual support keeps them contented. A morning highlight is what Schmitz called “our chat time.” A Buffalo State University graduate with a B.A. in photography, Schmitz relishes a few moments of quiet before things get hectic.
Usher Gina Burnett may share details of her home garden, and often brings flowers to decorate the ushers’ table near Gate 4. Mondays, there is coffee shared by the nearby Presbyterian House. Wednesday may see a cookie delivery by “Pat the Baptist,” who thoughtfully brings over treats from her denominational house.
“These seem like little things, and they are, but they are important as we navigate another busy season,” Schmitz said.
For Jansen, a recent incident epitomized the ushers’ commitment to service, which has become a Chautauqua hallmark. A small purse was inadvertently left in the Amp after a lecture. An usher found it, and made several attempts over the afternoon to see its safe return to the owner despite no identification in the purse. Finally, noticing Bratton Theater tickets for that evening’s performance, the usher went to the theater beforehand, and identified the grateful owner.
Over the course of the long nine-week season, audience members will faint. Many more serious medical incidents will occur. There will be pratfalls of various kinds. Eighty-year-olds will look everywhere but in their ear for a missing hearing aid device. The Fourth of July will feature hundreds of inquiries about the purpose of the bags at the evening concert.
The ushers will be startled anew by profanity from unlikely sources.
“They didn’t do this last year” will be offered as a defense against various transgressions. The ushers will smile and try to keep the peace.
Odds are they will succeed.