WHY GO: As far west as you can get in New York State, Jamestown NY and the nearby Chautauqua Institution, are not easy places to get to. But, man, the journey is worth it. Hometown to Lucille Ball, Jamestown has cornered the market on comedy with the opening of the National Comedy Center in August 2018. And the Chautauqua Institution, a summer study, lecture, and performing arts center, has done the same with intellectual and cultural pursuits. Just a 20-minute drive from each other, you can combine a trip and make a week or more out of this region that is soon to be on everyone’s radar. The Mavens tell you how here:
Things to Do in Western NY State
VISIT: National Comedy Center, Jamestown. This zingy, incredibly interactive 50-exhibit museum is an outgrowth of the annual Lucille Ball Comedy Festival, and the biggest thing to hit this remote area of New York in, well, forever. And we have our beloved Lucy to thank for it. The daffy but shrewd businesswomen, Ms. Ball, didn’t want a shrine to her alone – she preferred that her hometown be a destination for comedy as a whole. Of course, her fans just had to open a Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez Museum (see below), but now the focus of Jamestown NY is on the Titans of Titter, the Champions of Chuckle, the Lions of Laughter.
The museum lobby is a mini Times Square, with videos of stand up comedians on massive screens. Plunk down your money, and you’re issued a “laugh band” – a computerized wristband that you can program at entry kiosks, with your photo, email address, and comedy preferences. Do you like witty banter? Irreverence? Sarcasm? Wackadoodle? Wordplay? Do you prefer nuanced to in-your-face? Canadian-nice to American snark? The programmed band enables you to interact at various stations in the 37,000 sq. feet museum, and have certain results emailed to you.
Drizzled among the interactive exhibits, you’ll find static artifacts on display: Seinfeld’s “Puffy Shirt,” Rodney Dangerfield’s necktie, Lucy’s polka dot dress, Joan River’s well worn list of “How to Handle Hecklers.” One theater features a hologram of Jim Gaffigan, explaining how he got his start. George Carlin’s daughter, Kelly, donated her father’s complete archives – and you can spend a whole day just watching his concert tapes and going through his papers.
The Stand Up Lounge projects routines based on the type of comedy that everyone who has “tapped in” has in common. In other exhibits, you can manipulate a “Late Night” camera, find out how your favorite comedians are “related” on the Comedy Continuum, manipulate props used in comedy bits, create cartoons, match sound effects to movie clips, make your own social media meme, practice your acting chops in front of a green screen, and engage in a “Laugh Battle” with friends.
For shock value, head to the basement – the Blue Room – where boundary-pushers abound. A recorded George Carlin greets visitors with “the seven words you can’t say on TV.” The trench coat of the most censored comic of his day, Lenny Bruce, is on display, and you’ll learn about the bawdy woman-before-her-time, Rusty Warren, who shocked the public in 1960 with her “Knockers Up” album and routine. Plan to spend at least 4 hours here – for comedy lovers there’s nothing better. Open Sun-Thurs 10-5, Fri/Sat 10-9, $23.50 adults, $12.50 kids.
VISIT: Lucy-Desi Museum and Desilu Studios. You’ll learn all about Lucille Ball, the groundbreaking Queen of Comedy, spirited from the get-go, in these two museums located side by side. There are poignant videos of family members, lots of costumes worn by Lucille and Desi, and in the Studio portion, the Ricardo’s New York and Los Angeles apartment sets.
Born in Jamestown in on August 6, 1911, at age 3 Lucille moved to the nearby town of Celoron NY to live with her grandparents after her 27-year-old father died of typhoid. A handful and a beauty, Ball was sent to New York City at age 15 to pursue a modeling and drama career. She lasted three months. But after her grandfather was involved in an accidental shooting death (he allowed a minor to use his gun), she went back to Manhattan to make money and “bring the family together.” By the ’30’s she was bound for Hollywood.
In 1939, Cuban heartthrob, Desi Arnaz (whose wealthy family had fled from Cuba to Miami after the 1933 Revolution) came to L.A. to film Too Many Girls – starring, as it turns out, Lucille Ball. They met cute on an RKO Soundstage, and eloped in 1940.
Ball had starred in a radio program for CBS, and the network asked her to develop a program for television. She insisted on working and acting with her husband, Desi, but CBS declined, believing that the public wasn’t ready for an all-American woman married to a Hispanic man on TV. So Ball and Arnaz established their own studio – Desilu Productions, and had complete control over their work. The girl-clown and the fall-guy husband with the funny accent worked so well, the show became an instant hit.
I Love Lucy debuted on Oct. 15, 1951 and ran until 1957. It was replete with “firsts:” The first time a show was shot on film in front of a live audience. The first time a pregnant woman was shown on TV (although the word “pregnant” was off limits, which led to Desi’s famous “ ‘spectin”). Though they divorced in 1960, Lucy and Desi remained friends until his death in 1986. She passed away in 1989. Open year round Mon-Sat 10-5, Sun 11-5, $16 for both museums – includes audio-tour of Desilu Studios.
GO: Lucille Ball Gravesite, Lakeview Cemetery, Jamestown. Pay respects to Lucille Ball in her family plot. In 2003, her cremated ashes were removed from a Hollywood cemetery and moved here – without Desi. To find her grave, just follow the I Love Lucy hearts on the cemetery road.
PHOTO OPS: Jamestown Lucy Murals. Just drive around town and look for the exterior building-wall renderings of Lucille Ball at various times of her life.
MORE PHOTO OPS: Celoron NY. This was Lucille Ball’s “second hometown” – just 3 miles from Jamestown. Her grandfather’s house at 59 Lucy Lane, where she moved to as a toddler, is in private hands and not open to the public, but has become a touchstone for many.
More well known are the two statues at Lucy Memorial Park. A sickly grinning Scary Lucy, erected in 2009 looked nothing like her and caused such an outcry that in 2016, Lovely Lucy was added in the Park. Both still stand today.
GO: Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History, Jamestown. A museum, archival library, and resource for students at Jamestown Community College, this homage to the later-day Audubon, the Jamestown-born Roger Tory Peterson, is a must see for birders of every stripe.
SHOP: Biodome Project, Jamestown. This Etsy-made-manifest has popped up next door to The Sprinkle Cone (see below). Along with crafts made by locals, you’ll also find organic produce.
DO/STAY: Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua (20 minute drive from Jamestown). In the wilderness of Western NY State on the pristine Lake Chautauqua, the Chautauqua Institution was founded in 1874 as a retreat from “everyday life” for Methodist Sunday School teachers. Since then, this 9-week-long summer learning/recreational village has grown into a multi-faith lakefront resort, with fine and performing arts, classical and rock concerts, lectures by stellar politicians, scientists, academics, religious figures, and visionaries, movies, golf (two 18-hole courses), sailing, tennis, fitness centers, two beaches, and so much more. It is, as those involved say, “a festival for the mind, body and spirit.”
Music and drama students from around the world come for instruction and performances. Individual air-conditioned rehearsal “shacks” are arrayed like tiny homes near large classroom buildings. Chautauqua maintains its own dance troupe, symphony orchestra, opera and theater companies, and School of Music. It hosts one of four Steinway Summer Programs worldwide.
Each week from June to August corresponds to a particular theme (e.g. Comedy, Nature, International Affairs). Influential speakers and experts engage a wide range of ages and backgrounds – it’s not unusual to see hundreds of people on amphitheater seats and lawn chairs enjoying a lecture mid-day.
As many as 10,000 guests per day can be found in the Chautauqua Institution, most staying a week in hotels, condos, or private homes on its 225 lakefront acres. (Yes, Airbnb!). Accommodations range from your basic hotel room to mansions akin to the opulent lakeside Packard Manor (now in private, oil executive, hands). And, lest you think this is a stern, religiously-opposed-to-alcohol dry experience; for the first time ever (beginning in 2017), you can order wine, beer, and cocktails at any on-site restaurant, without food. The Lakeside Porch, overlooking Lake Chautauqua, at the historic 1881 Athenaeum Hotel is a popular place for a drink.
The architecture of homes and public buildings reflect all eras, from neo-classical to Victorian to Modern. The just renovated Amphitheater serves several functions: as a House of Worship and Lecture hall in the mornings, and a concert/dance venue at night.
There are daily camp programs for kids, and all lectures and performances, restaurants, a library, post office, bookstores, and even a cinema, are within a walk or bike ride of all homes and lodgings. It is a self-contained world, and an achingly gorgeous, pastoral one at that. Many programs are free with Gate Pass. For some popular entertainment (in 2018, Alison Krauss, Pilobolus Dance, Gin Blossoms, Huey Lewis and the News, Frankie Vali and the Four Seasons, movies at the cinema, and some live theater) there’s a fee ($30-$150 per ticket) for guaranteed seats in the floor section of the Amphitheater and for those without Gate Passes.
Who comes to the Chautauqua Institution? Multi-generation families, older couples, people of all ages with a healthy dose of intellectual curiosity. Most first-timers access Chautauqua through the Athenaeum Hotel, for an all-inclusive stay. Though there are a couple of Visitor’s Centers, if you’re unfamiliar with Chautauqua, go first to Main Gate Welcome Center at 1 Massey Ave, which is accessible without a Gate Pass. There are three components to get the most out of a stay here: 1) on-site lodging, 2) Gate Passes (required to get inside the compound), and 3) parking pass for those who arrive by car. Lodging in a basic-room Athenaeum Hotel is roughly $450 per night per room and includes parking and gate passes for 2, (other rental options on the property range from $150 to hundreds per night and require separate Gate Pass Purchases, which cost about $500 per person per week). Parking is $54 per week in a lot outside of the Institution grounds.
GO: Lily Dale Assembly, Lily Dale NY. It’s sort of like Chautauqua Institute, but for Mediums – as the World’s Largest Center for Spiritualism. Plenty of programs and workshops (one on how to bend spoons), a “fairy trail,” the famous “Inspiration Stump” will keep you plenty busy. If you don’t want to stay, and just want to come for a “reading” – you can sign up for that as well.
Where to Eat in Jamestown NY
EAT: Labyrinth Press. You know this sub-street vegetarian eatery has to be good: it was chosen as the concession provider for the National Comedy Center a few blocks away. The no-fuss hippy-dippy counter-service vegetarian eatery draws all those who appreciate fresh-brewed ice-teas, salads, sandwiches, and Signatures like the Beer and Cheese Soup, made with IPA, a variety of cheeses, potatoes, carrots, onions, Dijon Mustard and Frank’s Hot Sauce (Cup $3.50, Bowl $4.63). There’s open mike night, and plenty of board games scattered about, one indication that you can nurse that ice-tea and hang out for as long as you’d like.
ICE CREAM: The Sprinkle Cone. Owners of this ice-cream establishment have glammed up the plain ole waffle cone by embedding it with rainbow colored sprinkles. But that’s not where the goodness ends. The locally made Addie’s Ice Cream sold here is the stuff summer memories are made of.
Where to Stay in Jamestown NY
For those not staying on the Chautauqua Institution campus, Jamestown offers a variety of franchise hotels, with more coming onboard. The Comfort Inn, just a few miles from downtown, convenient to I-86, is a friendly, clean, reasonably priced hotel with refreshed rooms from $129 per night.