Chautauquans to gather for Institution’s 148th birthday at Old First Night

The deep sense of community and tradition that Chautauqua embodies shines through on Old First Night. As the Institution’s sesquicentennial in 2024 approaches, it’s time to celebrate Chautauqua’s 148th birthday.

“It’s a birthday party, which takes a few moments to honor what’s gone before us — really trying to celebrate who we are today and those that are going to be an important part of our future,” said Geof Follansbee, senior vice president and chief advancement officer.

The day features many traditions and events for first-time and long-time Chautauquans alike. The day will kick off at 12:15 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 2on Bestor Plaza with PLAY CHQ activities, as well as the Chautauqua Community Band’s annual Old First Night concert. 

“From continuing traditions, such as Community Band in the plaza, to offering cupcakes for all, to having a family movie at dark, we continue to explore how to extend the birthday party,” said Deborah Sunya Moore, senior vice president and chief program officer.

The festivities will continue with annual Old First Night event at 6:30 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater. 

“This year in particular, we are increasing our efforts to invite new people into cherished traditions that might seem difficult to decode when one experiences Old First Night for the first time,” Moore said.

The evening begins with music by Thursday Morning Brass before the official start to the program. Institution President Michael E. Hill will give remarks, followed by Vespers, and then the ceremonial Drooping of the Lilies. 

Vespers opens Old First Night every year, linking the present to the past. The litany was prepared by John Heyl Vincent for the first day of the first season in 1874, and it’s been used every year since. 

“It’s an evening where, it’s all about celebrating, and we begin by celebrating and honoring our past and recognizing how we began as an institution,” Follansbee said. 

The Drooping of the Lilies also reflects on the past, holding deep meaning as a Chautauquan tradition that remembers and honors those who are no longer with us.

After a reflection into the past, the evening moves to celebrate the present, with Children’s School and Boys’ and Girls’ Club joining for song performances and a gift presentation. The night then segues into the Chautauqua Fund’s invitation for community gifts to celebrate the birthday.

The call for of community gifts will feature a performance of “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta,” from Puccini’s La Rondine, by soprano Marquita Richardson, an Opera Conservatory student, and pianist Liza Armistead.

A stalwart of Old First Night, roll calls is next, led by Chautauquans Anita Lin and Dick  Karslake. They’ll ask questions, including a timespan of Chautauqua attendance; generational history at Chautauqua; and audience members’ home states. Chautauquans stand to convey their response. 

“All those pieces are really fun. I think they tell an important story about an intergenerational part of Chautauqua,” Follansbee said. “… I know a lot of people think it’s hokey, and there’s some hokey parts of it. Some of the roll calls are fun, and they may not be terribly meaningful right now to folks who haven’t been here as long as some others, but I also think it helps give them a sense of how Chautauqua gets into your system.”

Then, the winning Club Air Band performances begin. Group 6 Girls will perform “50 years of Title IX” and Group 8 Girls will perform “Museum Heist.”

“It’s certainly intended to be fun. For me, because I am a product of Boys’ and Girls’ Club and my children are as well, … it’s hard not to fall in love with Air Band,” Follansbee said. 

The celebration concludes with a rendition of “Happy Birthday,” accompanied by the Massey Memorial Organ. 

In an attempt to open the festivities to a larger audience, everyone is invited to dig into birthday cupcakes outside the Amp at Gates 2 and 3 in between the evening’s events.

To conclude the day of Old First Night celebrations, at 7:30 p.m., the Stars of Peking Acrobats take the Amp stage, and Disney’s “Encanto” will be screened at 9:30 p.m. on Bestor Plaza. These events specifically work to make Old First Night accessible and enjoyable to everyone.

“We want to offer a spirit of welcome and belonging to all Chautauquans — especially Chautauquans experiencing OFN for the first time,” Moore said. “Welcoming first-time Chautauquans to the party means it’ll be extra fun.”

Although Old First Night is a significant day steeped in tradition, at the same time, “none of us should take this too seriously. We should enjoy it, have fun with it,” Follansbee said. “We are 148 years old, and not a lot of organizations are able to say that.”

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The author Cassidey Kavathas

Cassidey Kavathas, a Buffalo native, is a rising junior journalism student at St. Bonaventure University. This is her first summer at the Daily. She is covering Advancement, Institution administration, the board of trustees, the CPOA and dance. She serves as editor-in-chief at her college’s newspaper, as well as news director at her college’s radio station. Cassidey has previously reported for PolitiFact NY, The Olean Times Herald, TAPInto Greater Olean and St. Bonaventure University’s advancements office.