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Chautauqua, New York Provides 'Spa for the Mind' - 2004-09-02

Hollywood directors often like to flash back to events that led up to action that's about to happen in a film. VOA's Ted Landphair recently took a trip back in time to a slower, perhaps more thoughtful era, not in a movie theater but in a little town in western New York.

There was a time, a long time: more than 50 years, spanning the turn of the 20th century, that many people across America spent entire summers in cottages and tents, lecture halls and grand hotels in the woods, away from the smoke and bustle and cares of the big city. At more than 250 of these assemblies, called Chautauquas, they sought intellectual stimulation, oratorical inspiration, artistic enjoyment, spiritual enrichment, and physical rejuvenation.

Most of the Chautauqua assemblies disbanded in the 1930s as Americans turned to motion pictures and radio for entertainment, and stayed home to cope with the economic challenges of the Great Depression.

But the original Chautauqua, in a forest south of Buffalo, near Lake Erie, survived and is thriving today.

About 7500 people each day gather within the sound of Chautauqua's massive bell tower. Residents are invited to spend a day, a week, a lifetime! Many have owned their Victorian cottages here for decades, or reserved rooms at guest houses or the grand dame Athenaeum hotel year after year. Tom Slack, a retired businessman from New Orleans, Louisiana, is a regular visitor who calls himself a Chautauquan.

Slack: My wife actually introduced this to me. I've caught the disease, too, so to speak. This is our seventh year. We come up here for a week or two and relax, watch the theaters, the orchestra. We're big readers. It's a very warm, relaxing type of atmosphere. It's almost like a college campus.

Landphair: Lectures?

Slack: Yes, oh yes. We attend those throughout the day.

These half-hour talks run the philosophical gamut. Earlier this summer, for instance, Richard Smucker, president of an Ohio company that makes jams and jellies, spoke to a packed house about preserving values.

"Ethics matter in business because our democracy depends upon it," he says. "The entire free-market system is built upon trust. If we as citizens of a democracy begin to perceive that the markets are stacked against us, or manipulated by a greedy few who get away with it, then the free-enterprise fails. The pillar topples, and democracy is at risk."

There are also livelier doings amid the old oaks and maples: sporting contests, boating on Lake Chautauqua, and entertainments ranging from stage plays to belly dancing, and from operas to rousing organ recitals.

There's also plenty of emphasis on spiritual reflection.

Unlike younger, so-called daughter Chautauquas in Ohio and Colorado and elsewhere, this original Chautauqua in New York State has deliberately clung to its religious roots. Archivist Jonathan Schmitz notes that the Chautauqua movement was founded in 1874 by two men looking for a camp-meeting location where they could introduce curriculum reforms to Methodist Sunday School teachers. Today, people of many faiths, including Judaism and Islam, speak during the nine-week assembly.

"Underlying the idea was the belief that there should be no segregation between the sacred and the secular, or between the human and the natural, right in the woods themselves, to incorporate any appropriate leisure activity into a wholesome and complete character," explains Mr. Schmitz.

Early Chautauqua attracted women in particular, and not just because many men could not break away from the farm or business.

"It was interested in extending education to those who otherwise could not access it, such as women, the poor. It really made it a social movement," he adds.

Chautauquans were introduced to great books and powerful orators, classes in everything from poetry appreciation to the philosophy of Sophocles, and to an array of fine music. In one of Chautauqua's little wooden practice shacks, as they're called, George Gershwin wrote a sonata in 1925. Roughly 130 years after its founding, the Chautauqua institution also attracts people like Connie Krueger, of Cleveland, Ohio, just for the mind-clearing relaxation of it all.

"Oh, it's peaceful, it's beautiful, it's enlightening!" she says. "And I guess strolling around, seeing all the lovely little cottages. And all the flowers. It's a place to just come and decide what you're going to do with the rest of your life, depending on what age you're at."

Chautauqua has been called a spa for the mind. At a time when theme parks and sightseeing trips are within the reach of many Americans, more than 150,000 people each summer instead trek to the woods of western New York to commune with nature, with like-minded Chautauquans and with themselves.