Six Stars

  • Cameron Minarovich

In Week Seven, we had Yo-Yo Ma. Ken Burns returns to pack the house and the grounds in Week Nine. Institution planners are wrapping up the 2018 season with a bang. And the grounds have been buzzing with some of the creative, provocative programming across various lecture programs and venues. Reimagination and change continue to pervade the Institution. While everyone is pleased when throngs arrive, they bring pressure and stretch capabilities, particularly for the seasonal staff who are mostly deployed in roles supporting Chautauquans. When the heat is on, the best emerge. Here are six of their stories.

Christa LaKotta

Easygoing but not afraid to enforce the rules, LaKotta has held the same position on the gate staff for a dozen years.

“I’ve almost always been at the entry side of the auto gate house near the Main Gate,” she said.

In discussing efforts to evade paying gate or parking fees, LaKotta smiled.

“I expect that I’ve seen most of the tricks,” she said.

A common stunt designed to evade paying gate or auto pass fees occurs at least once a week, LaKotta said.

“People will drive up to the gate and give me a story,” she said. “Often, this will involve why they should be allowed to park in a driveway or elsewhere on the grounds without a permit. If I tell them I cannot admit them without the proper passes, they will often turn around and appear to head across the street to the main parking lot, where I suggest that they can park. But when I see them turn right or left instead, I know they’re going to try their luck at one of the other gates.”

Sundays can be especially wearisome.

“People know Sunday is a free day on the grounds, but they still need a Sunday pass and a reason to drive onto the grounds,” she said. “If I have to turn them around, they will often go to the ticket office, and I know their story at the ticket window is often quite different from the one I heard.”

Starting 14 years ago as a gates rover, LaKotta spent her entire second season on the South Gate, which enjoys a reputation as the place for the best treats from Chautauquans.

“One person used to bring us brownies made with cream cheese,” LaKotta said. “We’d get chocolate chip cookies and cool drinks on hot days. You really get to know people coming and going if you stay on a gate for a while.”

After that second year, LaKotta volunteered for the main auto gate and has remained there.

“I guess I just continued to be willing to do it, as much as anything,” she said.

LaKotta’s father is Estonian, her mother German/Swedish. They met in Estonia prior to 1939 when Germany and Soviet Russia colluded to divide Eastern Europe into respective spheres of influence. Her mother’s German citizenship permitted her father to escape Estonia as it came under Soviet control. LaKotta was born in Germany, and emigrated to the United States with her family.

She initially lived in the New York City area and married and lived in Connecticut for 34 years. LaKotta worked for Simon & Schuster, specializing in business-themed books. After a divorce, her husband moved to this area, where he had family. A few years apart ensued. LaKotta retired.

“My now ex-husband asked if I would consider joining him here in Chautauqua County,” LaKotta said. “I thought, ‘Why not?’ We have lived together here for 14 years, though we never remarried. Now our three kids and eight grandchildren, aged 1 to 28, live close by. It works.”

Aaron Firster

Firster is back as a member of the Institution’s gardens and landscaping crew after a four-year break to manage his uncle’s farm near the Sherman-Mayville town line. The stretch around that farm is mostly a family compound, as Firster’s uncle owns three almost-contiguous farms that are separated only by houses owned by his brother and sister.

Only one of the three family farms still has dairy cows.

“My uncle has 30 cows on one farm,” Firster said. “We sold the cows on the other farms. Right now we can get $13 per 100 pounds of milk in the marketplace. It costs from $17 to $19 to produce that same 100 pounds of milk. At some point, it makes no more economic sense to keep doing it.”

The nondairy properties are farmed by tenants or given over to hay.

Firster’s uncle works mostly overseas, and is currently in Nigeria.

“He maintains equipment, probably mostly for the military,” Firster said. “He gets home every couple of months or so.”

Firster is a genuine local. He was brought home from the hospital to one of the houses on the current family compound, then attended the old Chautauqua High School across Route 394 after Turner Elementary School. His mother, uncles and grandmother all attended the old high school, too. After graduation, Firster worked for many years at two different enterprises as a welder. One company, Jamestown Advanced Products, is still operating.

For most of his first round at Chautauqua’s gardens department, Firster was a mower for four years under former director Ryan Kiblin. Now he’s back, still astride the large sitting mowers on Tuesday and often pushing a hand mower on other days.

“I like the instant gratification of seeing how the lawn looks after I finish with the mowing,” Firster said. “And I can do some maintenance on the machines. You could call me a shade tree mechanic — maybe not an expert, but good enough for most basic repair jobs.”

Firster now lives with his girlfriend and their combined family of eight kids. He usually works from April to November at the Institution. Deer hunting and family take up the rest of his time. Travel does not. Aside from a summer visit to Florida years ago, he has not strayed far from home. Offered a theoretical trip anywhere, he said he would choose New York City.

“I’ve always been curious about it,” he said.

Zach Stahlsmith

A good trivia question about Chautauqua might ask, “What are the responsibilities of the woods crew?” Stahlsmith, who is currently the crew’s supervisor, knows the answer.

“We are responsible for audio/visual support for every venue on the grounds except the Amphitheater,” he said. “That includes all non-Amp music venues.”

For this large and diverse task, the crew numbers eight full-time and two part-time members this season.

“Luckily, six of the 10 of us returned from last summer, so the pre-season training period was manageable,” Stahlsmith said.

Stahlsmith is accustomed to the Institution. He has been working on the grounds for over a decade, beginning as a bellboy at the Maple Inn and progressing through a couple of years as an Amphitheater sweeper and member of the Amp crew; Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall “chair-man” (i.e., mover of chairs and other heavy furniture); and, since 2014, member and now supervisor of the woods crew.

“We actually love the many different venues we support,” Stahlsmith said. “There is rarely any kind of sense of tedium or routine with our work.”

He said his thorniest situation on the woods crew occurred several years ago.

“A Christian group was appearing, and they wanted to stage a play in the Hall of Philosophy,” he said. “We had some advance notice, but there is no template for that kind of almost-unique request. We wound up moving several benches around or out of the hall altogether. There was also a requirement for extra microphones and spotlights, and scant space to place it all without getting in the way of the performance. We managed, but it wasn’t easy.”

Stahlsmith has lived in Mayville all his life. His two brothers and one sister are all working at the Institution. His father presently owns the Stedman Corners Café and was previously a chef in the Athenaeum Hotel. His mother worked for many years in the youth and recreation office in the Colonnade and is now registrar at Chautauqua Lake Central School.

A future in the United Methodist Church beckons Stahlsmith. After receiving his bachelor’s from West Virginia Wesleyan University, he is now in his second year at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. When he receives his Master of Divinity, he will be ordained in the Methodist Church. While Stahlsmith hopes to focus on youth ministry, his ordination will lead to a pastor position leading a congregation, likely in the church conference that stretches from the Hudson River Valley to Chautauqua County.

Alex Colon

Although he is in his first year at the Institution, Colon has moved right in as the events chef in the Athenaeum Hotel kitchen. Among other responsibilities, this means “I realize the vision of others, especially our weddings director Carrie Gifford,” Colon said. “And we have a group here this week from the Smithsonian Institution. I’m involved in planning for and feeding them. It’s been a busy job.”

It’s been a bit busier than usual this summer because of turnover rates in the hotel kitchen staff.

“You can only do your best,” Colon said.

Colon was born in Oneida, New York. His parents had met in school at nearby SUNY Oswego. Colon soon moved with his family to Houston, but returned to Western New York at age 15 after several years in Texas, where some members of his large family still reside.

“My niece and cousin are coming up to Chautauqua this week to see Yo-Yo Ma,” he said. “It’s their first visit to the grounds. My sister is coming from New York City. My parents and aunt are coming. It’s going to be a special family reunion.”

Family is big for Colon. His father is from Puerto Rico and, with his aunt, is now heavily involved in the Orchard Park Symphony Orchestra.

“I grew up immersed in music, and though I don’t play much anymore, getting out to music venues is my third great passion,” Colon said.

The second passion is cooking, and Colon holds a degree from Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. After college, he worked for several years at Orazio’s restaurant in Clarence, New York, northeast of Buffalo.

“The owner was also the top chef there,” Colon said. “He bought all the food himself with his own money. He wouldn’t tolerate any slackness from the staff, and everything was looked at carefully. Every dollar was counted.”

With the large volume of business at the Athenaeum Hotel and its numerous, diverse audiences and customers, life is much different for Colon this summer, and he is able to focus more intensely on his cooking.

But despite his love of music and cooking, Colon’s first passion is fishing.

“I’m never far from water,” he said.

He lives on Chautauqua Lake in Lakewood, is looking to replace his boat after the season and dreams of eventually running his own fishing business on Lake Erie and Chautauqua Lake.

“The summer is great for fishing, but the fish stay deep to find cooler water,” he said. “In the fall and spring, they go up into the tributaries, and fishing from the shore is good. I love to ice fish, too. I hope that’s where my future lies.”

Cameron Minarovich

“I mostly help people get into the world of recreation at Chautauqua,” Minarovich said.

He was talking about what he does at the Institution’s Sports Club on South Lake Drive. Minarovich is now in his third year at Sports Club.

He was born and still lives in Lakewood, where he attended Southwestern High School. Minarovich played baseball all through high school, and this summer, he has been recruited by some friends to join a the Chautauqua softball team Derogatory.

“We don’t have a great record, which is somewhat surprising because we do have a number of good players on our team,” he said. “Maybe when we get used to the softball played here, things will improve.”

Baseball was also central to Minarovich’s internship this summer with the Jamestown Jammers baseball team.

“With the Jammers, I pretty much did whatever they needed,” he said. “I’ve done everything from writing up post-game summaries to working the scoreboard.”

The Jammers, for many years a single A-class professional team affiliated with the Pittsburgh Pirates and other major league teams, is now a team of college players essentially exhibiting their skills for pro scouts in attendance at the games. The former professional franchise was moved to Morgantown, West Virginia, several years ago.

“I love Chautauqua, what it means, what it stands for, the people you meet,” Minarovich said. “I guess here at the Sports Club, we’re kind of in the happiness business. The people we serve want to play, to have fun. They are ready to enjoy games and the lake.”

A favorite memory for Minarovich happened earlier this summer. A mother from Cincinnati brought her 4-year-old son, Elias, to the club and asked if Minarovich could teach Elias to fish. They returned the next day, and tutor and pupil spent 45 minutes together on the Sports Club’s main dock, lines in the water. Later in their single week here, the mother and her son returned and reported that the fishing was “the most special part of our vacation in Chautauqua.”

Melinski is in her second and probably last year at the Brick Walk Cafe gazebo, serving this season as a barista after beginning last year as a cafe cashier.

“This has been a wild season,” she said. “We have sold far more specialty coffee drinks this season, with maybe a few less customers. That’s my impression, anyway.”

Melinski said because the gazebo serves Starbucks coffee, she and the other baristas were all trained by a roving Starbucks representative prior to the start of this season.

“His territory covers from Erie to Buffalo, and his job not only involves training. He also makes unannounced visits to check on the drinks we serve, the time it takes to prepare them and the consistency,” she said. “The visits are sort of quality-control audits.”

The Starbucks rover visited in Week Two, and at least one more unannounced visit is expected before the season ends.

Among Institution plaza cafes, Starbucks coffee is only available at the gazebo. Inside the Brick Walk Cafe and the Afterwords Café, local roaster blends are featured.

Born in Jamestown, Melinski lives in Cherry Creek, in the far northeast corner of Chautauqua County. She earned her bachelor’s degree at SUNY Fredonia in computer information systems and received a master’s degree in human computer interaction from SUNY Oswego.

“The idea of my master’s program is to make technology more usable,” she said.

As this seems to be an especially relevant field of study now, it is not surprising that Melinski has had a lot of job interviews. She will take up a new position in her field in the fall.

“There are basically two facets to my future work,” she said. “First, we test to determine what aspects of technology users struggle with. We do this one-on-one, as well as through focus groups. Then we relay our findings to the software developer. The second facet is to provide what we call front-end experience to the designer. In this case, I am my own focus group.”

Looking ahead to her future, Melinski said she would love to return to this area eventually but wants to “see more of the world first,” having spent most of her life here.

An exception was time spent in Australia in a joint program arranged through the connections of one of her professors. But for the near future, Melinski sees Boston, Seattle and North Carolina as the most likely locations for her next job.

Tags : Aaron FirsterAlex ColonCameron MinarovichChrista LaKottaKen BurnsOlivia MelinskiSix StarsYo-Yo MaZach Stahlsmith

The author John Ford

John Ford is in his ninth year with the Daily. He reports on general news, does feature reporting and writes the weekly Chautauqua Conversations column. A wire service reporter for United Press International prior to embarking on a career as a foreign service officer with the Department of State, he currently writes a regular column on American politics and foreign relations for one of the two principal daily newspapers in Nassau, Bahamas.