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The majestic Athenaeum Hotel at night
Me by the iconic Clock Tower. There’s a nightly 6:00 pm bell concert…
Former Presidential Chief of Staff Andrew Card speaks at the Amphitheater
Burt W. Griffin, who had served as an attorney working on the Warren Comission speaks about investigating the JFK Assassination
There he is, top row, right in the middle. Gay Icon Bingo at a concert at the Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua County, NY
“Under Pressure” performed at the “Pride Anthems” concert
Opera outside the Athenaeum
Leyla McCalla at the Amphitheater. We didn’t know her before, but she’s great!
Banners highlighting featured performers and speakers
Me by Chautauqua Lake
NY Times columnist David French lectures at the Chautauqua Institution

Free Form Friday: Oh, Chautauqua!

Free Form Friday is my weekly non-Bowie blog post, though as is sometimes the case, Bowie makes an appearance in this one. For more David Bowie, come back tomorrow for an exclusive interview about Bowie. You won’t want to miss it. Meanwhile, read on about how I spent my week…
The Chautauqua Institution, located in the serene countryside of Chautauqua County, New York, has been a cornerstone of intellectual and cultural engagement since its founding in 1874. Originally a training camp for Sunday school teachers, it quickly expanded into a center for education, the arts, and recreation. The campus, with its historic buildings, green spaces, and beautiful lakefront, exudes an old-time charm that evokes a sense of nostalgia even for first-time visitors.

I first visited the Chautauqua Institution during my childhood with my mother, attending various lectures. Though I don’t recall my very first visit, the subsequent experiences left a lasting impression. The campus, reminiscent of a 19th-century college but with a unique array of rooming houses, the grand Athenaeum Hotel, religious-themed buildings, and a central Amphitheater, immediately captivated me. The tranquil and stimulating environment provided a perfect setting for contemplation and learning.

It isn’t all idyllic— this is where Salman Rushdie was stabbed a few years back. Security has tightened since that infamous incident, but these guys don’t really know how to do security. The result is longer, slower moving lines at the biggest events, but I’m not sure what happened to Rushdie would have been prevented under the current protocol.

Nonetheless, my wife and I have continued the tradition of visiting the Chautauqua Institution, organizing our days around attending talks and lectures. This week’s theme, “The United States Presidency,” featured a range of speakers, including historian Jon Meacham, national security expert Elizabeth Goitein, and former George W. Bush chief of staff Andrew Card. We also heard from less famous but equally compelling speakers like Marisa Riggi of the Western New York Land Conservancy, Warren Commission attorney Burt W. Griffin, Rutgers Law Professor Sahar Aziz, and Bahá’í scholar P.J. Andrews.

Among these, Elizabeth Goitein’s discussion on presidential emergency powers was particularly enlightening. She detailed the potential for abuse of these powers, highlighting the risks associated with a potential Trump presidency. Meacham, with his polished and humorous delivery, also implied similar concerns, contrasting sharply with Andrew Card’s nostalgic yet distorted portrayal of past presidents like Reagan and the Bushes. Card’s revisionist history, such as incorrectly attributing the “Morning in America” slogan to Reagan’s 1980 campaign, inadvertently illustrated the importance of critical engagement with the content presented.

Beyond the lectures, we attended several excellent musical performances including one titled “Pride Anthems,” celebrating LGBT history through iconic songs, including a cover of “Under Pressure” by David Bowie and Queen. Even here, everything connects back to Bowie. Despite technical issues and lackluster promotion, the performance by three Broadway veterans was a highlight. However, the institution’s half-hearted commitment to the event was evident, with poor attendance and some audience members leaving upon realizing the theme.

For a seperate post one one of the other concerts, The Beach Boys, click HERE.

Our time at the Chautauqua Institution wasn’t limited to intellectual pursuits. We enjoyed peaceful walks and bike rides through the picturesque countryside, which provided a calming complement to the stimulating lectures and concerts. The serene environment allowed for better focus on reading and writing, enhancing my productivity. I read one book, started another, and went through the latest issue of The Atlantic. The issue included a lengthy article about Arizona as a microcosm of America, highlighting broad societal issues and the dangers of ignoring reality in favor of conspiracy theories—a theme that resonated with some of the lectures I attended.

Chautauqua is one of my favorite places. I plan to spend the entire summer here the year I retire in 2027. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Chautauqua Institution is that few people I know know about it. While it seems at capacity every year, I seldom see anyone I know. Which, in part is why I’m writing this!

I could write an entire post about every one of the following lectures and concerts, but for the sake of organization and being concise, there are some great ones I didn’t even mention. This is a rundown of who and what we saw during Week One of the 2024 Chautauqua Institution Summer Schedule:

Martina McBride concert, country music singer
Remembering Gene Wilder, film
Jon Meacham, presidential historian, lecture
Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, authors of the historical novel, First Ladies, lecture about Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune
Pride Anthems, concert celebrating music of significance to LGBT history
Elizabeth Goitein, national security expert, lecture about presidential emergency powers
Marisa Riggi of the Western New York Land Conservancy, lecture about the building of a nature superhighway in Western New York
Sahar Aziz, Rutgers Law professor, lecture, about the racialization of Islam in America
Burt W. Griffin, former staff attorney to the Warren Commission, lecture about Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby
Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, classical music concert
Andrew Card, former George W. Bush chief of staff, lecture
PJ Andrews, director of public discourse, U.S. Baha’is office of Public Affairs, lecture
Leyla McCalla, contemporary folk singer, concert
Melody Barnes, former Obama Adminsitration director of the Domestic Policy Council, lecture
David French, New York Times Columnist, lecture about how things would be better if Congress had more power relative to the president
The Beach Boys, concert

I feel like I’m missing someone… but we’ll be back in a few weeks for more!

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