New Chautauqua Institution Amphitheater

Opening night in the new Amphitheater at Chauautauqua Institution.
Opening night in the new Amphitheater at Chauautauqua Institution.

Article Contributed by
Walt Pickut

The sound of hammers and saws, the smell of new lumber and beautiful flower beds nodding in the summer breeze greeted guests who came to Chautauqua Institution last week to see if the new Amphitheater – lovingly known for the last century as “The Amp” – would be ready for the Institution’s 2017 Opening Day on June 24.

“We will be ready!” said a smiling construction worker, brushing a final coat of the Amp’s traditional Chautauqua cream-shaded paint on one of the site’s 4,400 new seats [7,000 feet, nearly 1 1/3 miles of seating]. Yellow-vested and hard-hatted construction workers swarmed around the grounds touching up, tweaking and polishing their $41.5 million masterwork. That construction cost, according to Chautauqua Institution officials, was entirely funded through generous contributor support.

“Not bad for a single winter’s work,” the painter said, standing back to admire the sparkling panorama from the back row of the new, traditionally-built but ergonomically-redesigned comfortable seats. Passers-by joined him in looking across to the wide new stage and orchestra pit and up to the choir loft, still backed by the stately old organ pipes of the world famous, $3 million Massey Memorial Organ.

“Our crews are truly working tireless, extended hours to ensure readiness for our season opening,” Michael Hill, Chautauqua Institution’s president said in his June 9 project update. “For this herculean effort, we are tremendously grateful. The story of this extraordinary project continues to unfold, with heroes emerging daily to mitigate challenges and overcome inevitable obstacles as they occur.”

What’s Old is New Again
“I can’t believe how much it still looks like the same, grand old amphitheater,” a local resident said, “but it really is all new.” That sentiment was expressed over and over again by residents and visitors alike who spoke to the Jamestown Gazette while strolling the Chautauqua Institution grounds on Opening Day weekend.

“Even some people who said they were opposed to this project last year stopped by to say ‘Thanks’ to our workers,” said Tim Stearns, supervisor for Ingalls Site Development of West Seneca, New York. “People can be proud of this for another century.” According to Stearns, the massive reconstruction work did not come too soon, as excavation showed parts of the 142-year-old structure were “…ready to fall down.”

Some of what was old has been preserved, though, and honored in a new way, according to Deborah Sunya Moore, Chautauqua’s vice president and director of program. A select portion of the old stage floor has been transplanted backstage to the performers’ green room, the Goodell Room, named to honor one of the project’s many contributors. When performers arrive, like this year’s opening night guest star, Jay Leno, they are welcomed to the Amp’s green room through the historic Back Porch of the Amp… and onto the venerable and ancient stage floor boards of Chautauqua Institution.

Changes and Updates
Overall, the Amp now offers a nearly 15 percent increase in total capacity under one roof. Adding standing-room under the shelter of a new 15-foot extended roof, the total capacity is now more than 6,300, 20 percent more than the previous structure.

“I think people will really enjoy some better viewing,” another construction worker said. “I live in Dunkirk and come here a lot. Sometimes the stage was hard to see, but now we have only half the number of interior pillars.” Modern building methods and steel construction are credited for the improvement.

Three enormous viewing screens suspended over the stage will bring the performers right down to a concert goer’s seat. In addition, the new orchestra pit [with mechanical lift if needed] is more likely to keep instruments out of sight, below the stage level, during stage performances.

“The music here is the best,” said a visitor named Arthur, looking over the new Amp with his wife and four teenagers from Toronto. “We come every year for at least one show.” A construction worker toting equipment overheard and stopped to say the Amp’s acoustics will probably be even better than before. “Look at the ceiling,” he said, pointing to the vast array of new sound [and lighting] equipment suspended high above the stage. “And we kept the old ceiling curvature like it was and raised the rake [floor angle] for some of the seating sections, too. I think the listening will be much better.”

For guests with hearing needs, the new Amp’s hearing assistance system offers lanyard, belt clip or pocket radio units available at the Chautauqua Bookstore. The new high-tech system promises clear, full-spectrum sound with exceptional noise reduction features throughout the entire seating area.

Residents Applaud Workers
“We are trying to be a great partner for Chautauqua Institution,” said Gail Ettaro, senior director of marketing for LP Ciminelly of Buffalo, the construction management firm overseeing the Amp reconstruction project, “and I think it shows.”

A quick survey of construction workers on the work site – with the Opening Day deadline looming, few of them could offer more than a comment – yielded a unanimous response about working conditions at Chautauqua Institution.

“All the residents have been very kind,” a sentiment echoed by another who said, “Even this close to the deadline nobody is uptight.” “This is a beautiful place to work,” another said, then added, “I mean that about the people who live here, too. We were lucky, construction wise, with a mild winter, but on a couple of cold days some people still came out to watch and even brought us a cup or two of hot coffee, and once, even donuts.”

“Through the winter months, with numb fingers and toes, working in the cold and snow and mud,” said Steve Dechert, Vice President and Project Executive for LPCiminelli, “the men were working long hours and long weeks, sometimes 10-12 hours a day, six or seven days a week. There was a ton of determination and passion for what they were building. We faced some incredible challenges, but we overcame them together.”

New Ups & Downs
Whether guests have mobility impairments or are simply tired of the uncomfortably steep ramps of the old amphitheater bowl, the new Amp offers welcome relief. The old ramps were too steep to meet Americans with Disability Act (ADA) requirements, and would have needed a platform for every 30 inches of rise. The Amp now features ADA-compliant steps with a “two-step and platform-at-the-bench” arrangement. Handrails also extend the full length down the center of each aisle.

Whether guests use wheelchairs, walkers or canes, or simply find climbing difficult, the Amp now features 100 accessible seats and 100 companion seats. One wheelchair-accessible location has been placed on each of the four levels along with increased aisle width, code-compliant access, steps, bench alignment and spacing.

On the Back Porch
One of the most important improvements the amphitheater needed, according to planners, was to the back stage area and facilities. One long-time resident simply called that part of the facility “embarrassing” when today’s entertainers arrived and encountered a 19th century facility still in use in the 21st century. Space, electrical service and amenities of all kinds had all become inadequate.

One venerable old feature, however, deserved preservation – the “Back Porch” – important for welcoming performers and an important community space. It is popular for meet-and-greet moments with guest performers, and for a handshake with chaplains, speakers and artists.

The back porch is only one part of the “back-of-house” – the entire, outdated backstage area – which has now been made significantly larger with expanded dressing rooms for stars and groups, storage areas, and production crew offices.

A Few Things Preferred
Preferred seating, used for select Amp performances, retains about the same floor space but the front rows designated as Preferred 1 (at a slightly higher price) and Preferred 2 seats are available on a first-come basis until show time. Management is responding to higher audience demand for reserved seating at popular performances.

Heavy construction was difficult on Institution roads, but construction crews have tended to road repairs, from patching to complete reconstruction, including all parking areas.

Learn More and Visit
Jamestown Gazette readers are invited to visit to find the schedule of daily stars and speakers, weekly themes and monthly programs, and of course, visit the new Amp in person to experience a remarkable recreation of history, ready to enjoy another century of the best Chautauqua Institution has to offer.

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Walt Pickut’s writing career began with publishing medical research in1971 while working at the Jersey City Medical Center and the NYU Hospital and School of Medicine. Walt holds board registries in respiratory care and sleep technology as well as bachelor's degrees in biology and communication, and a master's degrees in physiology from Fairleigh-Dickinson University in New Jersey, with additional graduate work in mass communication completed at SUNY Amherst. He currently teaches Presentational Speaking in the Houghton College PACE program at JCC and holds memberships in the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He lives in Jamestown with his wife Nancy, an MSW social worker, and has three children: Dr. Cait Lamberton in Pittsburgh, Bill Pickut, a marketing executive in Chicago, and Rev. Matt Pickut in Plymouth, IN.