Leah Harrison | Staff Writer
Roger Rosenblatt is running out of friends.
Joined by his colleagues and confidants at 10:45 a.m. each weekday in the Amphitheater, Rosenblatt will lead discussions on the literary arts ranging from cartoons to television to children’s literature. This is his third year playing the role of host — the series began in 2008 and recurred in 2010. And because each week requires a minimum of five friends, he joked that his resources are wearing thin.
“I also wanted to make sure that everyone in the group was older than me,” Rosenblatt said, “but that’s getting more and more difficult.”
Today, writer and producer Norman Lear, who will be 90 next month, satisfies Rosenblatt’s criterion. Best-known for his CBS sitcom “All in the Family,” which won the Peabody Award in 1978 and four “Outstanding Comedy Series” Emmys, Lear also wrote or produced “The Jeffersons,” “Sanford and Son,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” and “Good Times.”
In addition to Lear’s legacy in film and television writing, Rosenblatt is interested in discussing his politics. Lear founded the People for the American Way, the Environmental Media Association, and Declare Yourself, a nonpartisan initiative for youth voter registration.
When Rosenblatt was writing essays for Time magazine, Lear expressed interest in meeting him to his good friend and former CEO of Time Inc., the late Andrew Heiskell. They became fast friends, Rosenblatt said.
Rosenblatt’s other friends this week include Jules Feiffer, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and author; Meg Wolitzer, author of The Uncoupling; Derek and Sissela Bok, authors of The Politics of Happiness and Exploring Happiness, respectively; and Emma Walton Hamilton and Dame Julie Andrews, children’s literature authors.
“I tried to create a variety (of guests) because I thought the Chautauqua audience would appreciate various forms of writing being discussed by people they admire,” Rosenblatt said.
When the writer invites his friends to share the morning lecture platform, he only tells them the format of the event. In addition to the discussion and Q&A, each guest will read some of his or her work. Lear will bring a short film.
“It’s much better to be on a high-wire act if you’re doing something in public,” Rosenblatt said. “If you know what you’re talking about, it’s much more fun to just hold your nose and jump in.”
In 2010, Rosenblatt was joined by author and “PBS NewsHour” anchor Jim Lehrer.
“There has never been a bigger laugh,” Rosenblatt said, “than when Jim Lehrer forgot to bring something to read.”
Marie Weaver, an audience member sitting in the front row, offered her copy of The Franklin Affair. Rosenblatt joked for the rest of the week about Lehrer’s incompetence and rescue by Marie.
That episode points to the spirit of “Roger Rosenblatt and Friends.”
“The serious pleasure of it is, as huge as the audiences are, it still feels like a comfortable family,” Rosenblatt said. “The people share — not necessarily the same politics — but a lot of the same values. These are people who love learning and talking about art.”
Rosenblatt said he is happy to return to Chautauqua, despite the intellectual exhaustion of hosting a week of conversations without a script.
“It’s the only place in the world where you’re walking down a path minding your own business, and some intellectual will jump out of a tree and ask you a question … I told Tom Becker I’ll need to check myself into a mental institution after the week.”
True to Chautauqua tradition, Rosenblatt uses the discussions to play the role of teacher and student.
“I’ve known these people for a long time,” Rosenblatt said, “but there’s never been a Chautauqua discussion from which I didn’t learn something new.”