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It’s early. The 2015 season at Chautauqua Institution began only a week ago. Gate passes and parking, late spring repairs for homeowners and confirmed room reservations for visitors — all the starting-up details are taken care of. For most, it all started seven days ago. But many seasonal employees had been here for weeks or months when this season officially began. Six of them spoke to The Chautauquan Daily about their work and their dreams.
Tall and composed with an arresting island accent, Khimean Casey is now in his second year at the Athenaeum Hotel. He’s a bell captain, based at the hotel’s front entrance. Front Desk Supervisor Brittany Beckstrom recruited Casey. The two had worked together for several years at a Marriott Hotel in Savannah, Georgia.
Born on the Caribbean island of Dominica, Casey moved to St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, at age 3 and acquired American citizenship five years later. While residents of American territories such as the Virgin Islands have many privileges and responsibilities of U.S. citizenship, they still cannot vote in presidential elections, nor are they represented with a vote in Congress.
In the USVI, Casey’s father works in construction and makes and promotes natural juices as a sideline. His mother is a chef and caterer. His sister is in the army in South Korea. Now 28, Casey has been in the hospitality industry for seven years.
Casey said he finds much satisfaction in his Athenaeum job.
“Most of the guests are gracious and friendly,” he said. “While I and my colleagues certainly appreciate the tips, what we look most for are the smiles. There is a friendly spirit among the staff members, and I can attend some of the amazing cultural offerings on the grounds.”
Casey said that there was one aspect of work at Marriott he doesn’t miss.
“The members of Marriott’s various elite rewards programs — especially those who had recently joined — were always pestering us for privileges and benefits to which they were not usually entitled,” he said. “I’m grateful we don’t have those programs here.”
While Casey’s hospitality experience has helped support him and his wife, he is majoring in sound engineering with a minor in architecture at Savannah College of Art and Design.
Still, he said he can best express his passion in music. His favorite instrument is a steel drum, and he toured in France and Italy with a high school band.
“We mostly played classical hymns in our steel orchestra,” he said.
Amphitheater General Manager Keith Schmitt recalls early conversations with Dylan Brawn, his second-year orchestra stage manager.
“Dylan wasn’t sure he could do the job,” Schmitt recalled.
But the general manager knew differently: Brawn’s career counselor at Villa Maria College in Buffalo was a former assistant to Schmitt, and she sold both men on the partnership. In fact, their collaboration has expanded to include working together in Chautauqua’s off-season at Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady, New York.
“I had visited Chautauqua for a couple of summers as a percussionist with the Legion Band of the Tonawandas and the Buffalo Silverbacks, never thinking I would return as an employee,” Brawn said. “I actually thought I’d go into the music recording field, but I guess you never know.”
At the Amp, Brawn is responsible for setting up orchestra rehearsals and performances for both the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and the Music School Festival Orchestra. This involves transporting the large orchestra instruments from storage in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall to and from the Amp — often four times a week.
Brawn faces a special challenge when the front benches on the Amp’s uneven concrete floor are removed for multi-arts productions or dance concerts.
“The floor heaves over the winter and is always uneven in the summer,” Brawn said. “For large instruments like the cello and bass, carpenters’ shims are our friend as we try to set up boxes perfectly evenly for the instruments to sit on. Getting it right isn’t always easy.”
Another problem occurs when the orchestra is on the floor and it is raining. Water can collect around the players, who need clip lights which require extension cords.
“You get the picture,” Brawn said.
Brawn’s home in Hamburg, New York, got a first-hand exposure to the 7-foot snow dump in November that paralyzed a swath of suburbia just south of Buffalo.
“We were shoveling two or three times a day,” he said. “It was exciting at first, but we all developed cabin fever. It was a relief when it started to melt.”
Now in her second year at Chautauqua, Jamestown native Haley Jones is one of five members of an elite wait staff crew who serve at events at the cottage of Institution President Tom Becker and his wife, Jane Becker. The high-profile dinners and receptions are critical for the Institution.
Jones knows her role is important.
“We serve canapés and drinks at cocktail hour, then for dinner, we serve food and wine, clear off the tables afterwards, and do some washing up,” Jones said. “There’s a real sense that we are supporting something important, so we try to do our very best every minute.”
Jones worked in the hotel’s main dining room last year, and had some previous catering experience, notably at Elegant Edibles in Jamestown.
Jones is a rising sophomore at Syracuse University, where she has moved from majoring in TV, radio and film to, presently, advertising.
“I might change again, to public relations,” she said. “There’s still time.”
Meanwhile, she rows crew on the third varsity women’s eight in a program ranked 17th nationally last year.
“I’m very competitive, and I want to advance,” she said. “My coaches said I improved a lot during my first year.”
Her blond hair and blue eyes betray her “predominantly Swedish” lineage.
“I know I have some Welsh in me, and I think maybe some Russian, too,” she said. At 6-feet-1-inch, Jones’ height provokes numerous queries about whether she plays basketball (she doesn’t) and if not, why not.
“It just goes with being tall,” she said with a good-natured shrug.
She does, however, like public speaking.
“I read some survey not long ago where many Americans fear public speaking almost more than death,” she said. “I take advantage of every chance I get to stand before an audience.”
She is also indulging her competitive side this summer as a Chautauqua Voice participant. Sing-offs are held Mondays in Bemus Point, and if Jones clears the next audition, she will make the final stages of the competition.
In his first Chautauqua season, Westfield resident Leroy Stepp is becoming a jack of all trades in the gardens and landscaping department.
“They tend to send me out to whatever needs special attention at the time,” he said, “I could be planting flowers one hour, pulling weeds the next, and splitting and removing stumps that afternoon.”
He’s also known in the department as the “edging guy.” He uses a sharp edging tool that looks like a shovel with a brake plate on it, so he can’t dig too deep. Still, Stepp’s favorite task is stump-busting.
“I use a mattock, which has the features of an adze and an ax or pick,” he said. “Let me tell you, after 50 or so swings with that baby, there’s no need to go to the gym that day.”
Moving to Westfield from Texas at age 13, Stepp graduated from Westfield High School and pursued specialized vocational training there in auto mechanics. Stepp hopes in the future to build up enough capital to return to the San Antonio area and open up an auto body shop.
“What I love best is restoring automobiles, but I know about the mechanics of engines, too,” he said. “There are obviously a lot of common elements, and motors mostly do have the same general layout. If you’re talking about a new BMW or Audi, you would need a specialist. … I bet I can buy a car not in great shape for $3,000, fix up the engine the way I want and restore the body better than new, and go out and blow the doors off some $100,000 car. Then I could take the money saved and buy a house or something.”
Stepp has a 1989 Oldsmobile Cutlass in the barn at home with 487,000 miles on the clock.
“I don’t really take it out much anymore,” he said. “But I can’t make myself get rid of it.”
When he starts his business in Texas, Stepp said he would grow it slowly.
“I think the best way in a small town is to just do your job well, charge a fair price and word of mouth will bring in the customers,” he said. “If you’re just chasing money, you may not get the satisfaction that makes it all worthwhile.”
In her second year in the ticketing department, Gretchen Elwell found her experience last season is leading to more diverse roles and locations in 2015.
“They like to deploy us seasoned vets around the grounds, so I will be at the Amp gazebo, theater and opera kiosks as well as the Main Gate area,” she said.
A Mayville native, Elwell is a lifelong Chautauquan, having experienced Children’s School, Boys’ and Girls’ Club, working at Club as a counselor and also at the Sports Club. Her father is a local physician who presently oversees the Westfield Hospital’s satellite office on the grounds near the Amphitheater. She said she thinks of people on the grounds as a family.
Elwell received two degrees in geography in the SUNY system and went to work making maps for a Denver engineering firm after school.
“I got a little tired of that after a few years, and it’s expensive living out there, so it was time for a reset,” she said.
Elwell returned home after Colorado and has now completed all the prerequisite coursework for medical school at SUNY Fredonia and Jamestown Community College.
“I have lived around medicine all my life and I guess it’s just in my blood,” she said. “I’ll probably take the MCATs next spring and hope to enter medical school in 2017.”
She hopes to practice internal medicine in this area afterward. Meantime, she has taken the state EMT exams and looks forward to emergency medical technician work, possibly with the Chautauqua Volunteer Fire Department.
And in August, she leaves for a three-week mission in Mongolia organized by Mission to Heal, a non-profit delivering surgical and clinical services overseas. She had been previously on similar missions to Ghana and the Himalayan region of northern India.
“People are always asking me why I am still working,” said Dave Howard, who works at the Institution’s Main Gate. “I always tell them, ‘Where else am I going to get a job like this? Where else could I meet so many interesting people?’ ”
Pointing to his vintage Chautauqua hat and polo shirt, Howard said he has been working seasonally for the Institution since 1999 and loves his job.
Having grown up in Jamestown, Howard said, he has lived in this area all his life. After college at Jamestown Community College and Kent State University, he worked for most of his career for G.R. Bennett Co., a Buffalo-based food broker. Basically, he said, his company sold food wholesale to regional supermarket warehouses and sold retail to individual markets. A big part of Howard’s job involved troubleshooting and personal contact with warehouse and supermarket managers in his region.
In addition to his gate duties, Howard worked earlier in his Chautauqua tenure for the maintenance department, mostly before the season. In the off-season now, he delivers mail on a small route for the Lakewood post office and serves as a substitute teacher in the Jamestown school system.
“The common element in all of these jobs for me is the contact with people,” Howard said. “That’s what keeps me going.”