One year shy of sesquicentennial, Chautauqua gathers for birthday celebration

Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill joins kiddos from Children’s School in singing “Happy Birthday” during the Old First Night celebration Aug. 2, 2022, in the Amphitheater. Joeleen Hubbard/Daily File Photo

Sarah Russo 
Staff writer

Since its beginnings in 1874, Chautauqua has become both a movement and a place — a historic learning destination for people all over the country, drawing in world-class speakers and popular entertainment groups. For many, it’s home, and family.

And families, of course, celebrate birthdays. On Old First Night every year, Chautauquans gather to celebrate and now, tonight is that night. The celebration is set to kick off at 6:30 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater.  

The tradition of Old First Night is a celebration and time of reflection, said Geof Follansbee, a lifelong Chautauquan and the Institution’s senior vice president and chief advancement officer. 

“It’s a time where we’re honoring those who not just created Chautauqua back then, but all those who have sustained Chautauqua since 1874,” Follansbee said. “And at the same time, it’s supposed to be fun as well.” 

For the 149th birthday celebration, the evening will consist of many family-friendly activities. Music begins at 12:15 p.m. with the Chautauqua Community Band, under the baton of Aidan Chamberlain, performing on Bestor Plaza. The Amp festivities launch with a performance by Thursday Morning Brass at 6 p.m., followed by the evening program ­— beginning with Vespers followed by the Drooping of the Lilies, when those in the Amp raise white handkerchiefs or tissues to remember late Chautauquans. The celebration includes music and multigenerational audience participation, including performances by Children’s School and Boys’ and Girls’ Club, and will finish with a rendition of “Happy Birthday” accompanied by the Massey Memorial Organ.

Much like the Institution itself over the years, the Old First Night celebration has changed with it, Follansbee said. 

One part of the night that is still a focus all these years later is the community gift. Chautauqua Institution “lives off of the philanthropy of those who care about it” as a nonprofit, he said.

“It is a recognition that we’re celebrating Chautauqua’s birthday, and it’s appropriate to bring a gift to the party,” Follansbee said. “What we raise in the Chautauqua Fund and all the Old First Night proceeds keep this place operating, and the more resources we have, the better this place is going to be, the stronger the program is going to be each and every year. ” 

Everyone is invited to the celebration that is Old First Night, Follansbee said. Longtime Chautauquans and first-timers alike can enjoy a day filled with music, song and fun.

“I hope people will come and begin to get a better understanding of how the history of Chautauqua is (important) … while we also think about our future and look forward to our 150th next year, and beyond,” he said.


The author Sarah Russo

Sarah Russo is a senior at Syracuse University studying broadcast and digital journalism. At Syracuse, she reports and hosts for CitrusTV and writes for The Daily Orange and Baked Magazine. Sarah also interned at the National Comedy Center last summer. When she’s not reporting, she enjoys being outside biking, swimming or reading. As a Chautauqua County native, Sarah is excited to work in a place close to home and her heart this summer. She will be covering the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and the Chautauqua Chamber Music Guest Artist Series.