Meaningful traditions at heart of Old First Night ceremony as Institution celebrates 140 years

Brian Smith | Daily file photo
Dick Karslake, master of ceremonies for Chautauqua’a Old First Night, closes the 2013 ceremony in the Amphitheater.

There’s a reason some traditions stick around.

“You build up these small ones, even in your own family,” Dick Karslake said. “The grace you say at dinner, or how you celebrate Christmas. They become important. The idea is the same at Chautauqua.”

There are so many “important, meaningful traditions” at Chautauqua, Karslake said, and many of them will be invoked during Old First Night, as the Institution celebrates its 140th birthday at 7:30 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater.

“These traditions are the foundations for why a lot of people love Chautauqua so deeply,” Karslake said. “They give a lot of meaning to things that are otherwise here today, gone tomorrow. These are traditions that Chautauquans relate to, and that bring them closer to Chautauqua.”

Karslake would know; he’s the fifth in an eight-generation Chautauqua family, and has been acting as master of ceremonies for Old First Night for 25 years.

The Old First Night celebration is a series of one tradition after the next, from the drooping of the lilies to the three-fold roll call, as audience members stand based on their home state, how many years they’ve been coming to Chautauqua and how many generations their families have been coming to the grounds.

“As a boy, I loved to stand up for the number of years you’ve been coming,” Karslake said. “I remember the first time we had a gal stay standing till the end — she’d been coming for 92 years. She was the last one standing and she got a standing ovation. Who would have thought? She was thrilled.”

Some traditions have been added over the years, like performances from the winners of the Boys’ and Girls’ Club annual Air Band competition. Karslake’s family roots have grown into numerous branches, touching all parts of life at Chautauqua, and his family had a hand in the Air Band’s inception. His niece started Air Band at Club about 40 years ago; her children went through Club, and now Karslake’s grand-niece, Sterling Smith, is a counselor for Group 2 Girls, who will be performing their award-winning “2G Goes to the Zoo” as part of the festivities.

Another relatively recent tradition is the Postcards from Chautauqua, during which Karslake and Bijou Clinger Miller project old postcards from Chautauqua onto a screen above the Amp stage, and take turns reading the inscriptions.

“The postcards give you a sense of the time in which they were written, what the people were thinking, they way they expressed themselves, what they found important,” Karslake said. “That has become the most favorite part of Old First Night for a lot of people … The inscriptions are really where the value lies. They’re very simple sentiments, but it’s so neat.”

Old First Night will also include recognitions for some of the organizational anniversaries occurring this year, like the Bird, Tree & Garden Club’s 100th anniversary, and the Chautauqua Women’s Club’s 125th anniversary. Institution employee milestones will also be announced, and the Community Gift to the Chautauqua Foundation will be presented.

But before the roll calls, the Boys’ and Girls’ Club performances, before the postcards, the Rev. Robert Franklin will deliver his first Old First Night Vespers as director of the Department of Religion. He’ll be saying words first uttered by Chautauqua co-founder Bishop John Heyl Vincent in 1874, during the first week of the first Assembly; they’re words that have been used every year since.

Like many other parts of Old First Night, the Vespers are a tradition as old as Chautauqua itself. And that means something, Karslake said.

“It’s powerful to feel a part of something. This is probably the best opportunity that people have to really feel part of the Chautauqua community,” he said. “They’re a part of Chautauqua, and Chautauqua is a part of them. Everything else is relatively superficial.”

There’s a pride on people’s faces, Karslake said, when they stand and be counted for the roll call — whether they’ve been coming to Chautauqua for one year, 12 or 82.

“They’re proud. They’re proud of that,” Karslake said. “That has a lot of meaning that you can’t really explain, but it’s there. There’s no question about it. It’s there. Old First Night has the ability to make people feel closer to Chautauqua, and what it is, and what it feels like to be a Chautauqua. With those traditions, it becomes so much more meaningful.”