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Chimemasters celebrate 110th anniversary of iconic Miller Bell Tower

ARDEN RYAN – CIRCULATION MANAGER

Courtesy of Chautauqua Institution Archives

The Miller Bell Tower, an iconic Chautauqua landmark, has delighted the community for 110 years, playing eclectic and beloved songs for a wide and enthusiastic audience.

One of this season’s chimemasters, Marjorie Kemper, recalls putting together a set of holiday carols to play on the bells one Sunday night this summer, after that evening’s Chautauqua Vespers celebrated Christmas in July. Her regular 10 p.m. performance was met with revelry by community members gathered outside. Kemper played “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and people in the crowd were “singing at the top of their lungs,” she said.

Playing popular music and listener requests has been one of Kemper’s favorite aspects about ringing the bells this season. Chautauquans of all ages appreciate the artistry of performing music on the bells; many want to stand to the side and watch as they are played.

“A lot of people come in while I’m playing, and they’ll ask me to play something that they like, or they want me to play Happy Birthday for a friend,” Kemper said.

The bell tower — standing distinctively over the shores of the lake at 75 feet tall — was dedicated at the Old First Night ceremony on Aug. 1, 1911. Built in a campanile style reminiscent of medieval Italy, the tower was remarked upon by Bishop John H. Vincent in his dedication address as “the most prominent object on the horizon.”

The bells in the tower’s open arcade belfry were originally hand-played by levers attached to chains which would pull the clappers against the sides of the bells. The chimes are now operated by remote keyboard, with 12 white keys and only two black, one an F-sharp and one a B-flat.

“So you can only actually play in three keys, C, F and G,” Kemper said. “Maybe a minor key once in a while. But you can’t do anything with a lot of key changes within a song, because you just don’t have the bells.”

Kemper tries her best to accommodate requests as often as she can and satisfy the interests of curious Chautauquans, performing within the restrictions of having only 14 tones to work with. “You can’t play whole tunes on 14 bells,” Kemper said. But discovering what does work on the limited keys is, for her, one of the delights of playing the bells.

“I enjoy choosing things to play and finding out what really sounds good on the bells. It’s a kind of a challenge that I like,” Kemper said.

Since the first Chautauqua Assembly in 1874, bells have been rung on the grounds. Where Chautauquans first gathered on a grandstand near the lake, a single bell heralded the start of daily activities. A 10-bell set of chimes was later donated by early Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle class members and hung in the clock tower of the original Pier Building. These bells were first rung in a program on Aug. 2, 1885. The same program played that year is reprised annually on Bryant Day.

When the pier proved too unstable a location for the bells, shaking the structure as they rang, the current bell tower was constructed, in honor of Lewis Miller. Later added to the belfry were three bells of different tones donated by Miller’s family, and one large bell dedicated in honor of American poet William Cullen Bryant, for whom Bryant Day is named.

Interim Chimemasters Marjorie Kemper and Willie La Favor stand outside the Miller Bell Tower Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Both Kemper and fellow Chautauquan Willie La Favor — a minister of music in Rochester, New York — have been substituting this season for chimemaster Carolyn Benton. Kemper had played the bells before, about 25 years ago, under former chimemaster Tom Wierbowski, and agreed to play again this summer, picking pieces from hymnals, from special requests, or just to fit “whatever the weather is.”

Kemper also enjoys coordinating bell repertoire with the Department of Religion. A hymn may be played during the morning worship service, or a preacher may mention or quote a song in their sermon that can be homaged soon after during one of three daily chime performances. Kemper said she relishes finding “hymns that fit in with what the weekly preacher is talking about.” 

Relating to Week Eight’s focus on the human brain and soul, she heard the hymn “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” referenced by the Rev. Lynn Casteel Harper in her Aug. 15 sermon “The Gift of Wisdom.” The Motet Choir sang the hymn and Kemper was able to play it several times after. The bell tower has a repository of music Kemper will pull from, “and if I have (the tune) down there I’ll use it the next time I (perform). I’ll write the name down so I remember.”

Chautauquans regularly visit the bell tower during performances and remark to Kemper how wonderful it is to have the bells played again, as an integral part of the Chautauqua experience.

“People come in and a lot of them say, ‘Oh, it’s so wonderful to have the bells played again,’ ” Kemper said. “And somebody will say, ‘Would you play “Finlandia?” Because I’d like to wake up to that tomorrow morning.’” Kemper is happy to oblige a request such as that any time.

Tags : 110 yearsbellsChautauqua VesperschimemasterlandmarkMarjorie KemperMiller Bell TowerWIllie La Favor
Arden Ryan

The author Arden Ryan