Chautauqua Institution has rarely seen as ambitious and momentous a project in its 144-year history as the off-season rebuild of its central gathering and programming space, the Amphitheater. Despite occasional setbacks through a nine-month process of major construction, the space was largely ready to host programs and audiences for its inaugural season in 2017. The reviews were almost universally positive. The new facility keeps and enhances what made its predecessor so beloved (among them the open-air and free-flowing atmosphere, the Massey Memorial Organ, and the cream color scheme that serves as a neutral backdrop for Chautauqua’s vivid and varied palette of programming) and introduces a number of necessary improvements (among them better accessibility, the orchestra pit and larger stage, and more seating with better sight lines) that will serve patrons and programs well for decades.
Since opening night on June 24, the venue has been in nearly 24/7 operation. When the lights fade Sunday night following President Michael E. Hill’s tap-tap-tap of the gavel, the Amp will enter a period of rest, with a few finishing touches still awaiting it over the off-season. It will be a deserved slumber.
Included in this photo spread are a selection of Daily photos from the Amp in its first season of service as Chautauqua’s primary house of worship, lecture hall, performance venue and community gathering space.
The Chautauqua Cinema, currently owned by Bill Schmidt, is hidden at the corner of Hurst and Wythe. Built of pressed brick with terra cotta trimmings, the pitch-roofed theater seats about 350. Since its construction in 1895 as Higgins Hall, the cinema has become a spot of wonder for all ages.
Through the installation of Dolby Digital six-channel sound in 2003, HD digital projection in 2007, and conversion to DCI digital distribution in 2014, Schmidt is determined to provide the best viewing experience for Chautauquans.
By 2014, major film studios stopped converting 35mm film, rebranding the standard format to DCP: “Digital copy-protected (media).” With the new equipment totaling $100,000, Schmidt turned to his patrons. Hundreds came forward, accepting lifetime admissions in exchange for donor statuses. Through this program, Schmidt came to truly get to know his audience personally.
“Programming is the hardest, most interesting part,” Schmidt said. “I have a spreadsheet of movies that might interest me, and might interest Chautauqua. We’re stretching that boundary; we’ve gone all the way to horror. I showed ‘Get Out,’ a brilliantly made debut from a great mind. Did everyone who came to see it love it? No. It may have been pushing people too far, but it’s a horror film, and a funny one. People come with their expectations — I’m trying to give people what they want.”
Movie discs addressed to “Projectionist” are sent regularly from Technicolor distributors.
“The biggest hit we ever had was the premiere for ‘For The Bible Tells Me So,’ Schmidt said. “We sold that out three days straight, every show. Thousands of people came. … One of the biggest unexpected blockbuster hits I remember was ‘March of the Penguins.’ Turns out everybody wanted to see penguins.”
The cinema’s main projector runs with Dolby’s cinema server, Doremi, with three hard drives that run simultaneously during each movie. They can collectively hold six terabytes of film — equivalent to about 15 movies.
Roger Ebert said that “cinema is a machine that generates empathy.”
“It’s a way to explore humanity and culture with three points,” Schmidt said, “music, visuals and a great story.”
Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, which opens this weekend, is the final show of the Chautauqua Theater Company season. It is the only time during the season the entire conservatory — all 14 actors, four design fellows and one directing fellow — comes together.
“I really feel like it’s our show,” said conservatory actor Jules Latimer, the production’s Benvolio and narrator. “I think it’s going to be really special, in that we all have spent so much time together here, and the whole play is about love, and it’s about things that are just incredible, that you just can’t control. I think a lot of us really identify with that at any age.”
Beyond the conservatory, the all-hands-on-deck production depends on the work of guest actors, visiting stage designers and coaches, and the backstage crew. Daily staff photographer Erin Clark has been documenting their work on Romeo & Juliet since the beginning of the season. — Text by Dara McBride