Our Beginnings

In 1975 John Wenzler, retired steel worker and Summer Program Director for the 83-year-old Pennsylvania Chautauqua asked new Gretna resident, physician/flutist Carl Ellenberger, to organize two concerts in the Mt. Gretna “Hall of Philosophy.” Ellenberger seized the opportunity to invite old friends from Interlochen and Eastman to visit and play chamber music. They had so much fun that the next summer he organized 4 concerts in the Playhouse, unexpectedly dark for the first time in 50 years.

A Hershey Medical colleague, microbiologist/bassist Dr. Tim Carter, introduced Ellenberger to the Audubon Quartet, then in residence at Marywood College in Scranton and looking for a summer home. They came to Gretna in 1977 with friends and joined Ellenberger and his friends. Also that year Ellenberger heard The New Black Eagle Jazz Band on NPR and learned that his Yale Medical School friend, Eli Newberger, was their tuba player so he invited them to come from Boston.

Some Gretna denizens were taken aback by the idea of chamber music and jazz in the backwoods. Other people flooded into the Playhouse to hear the music. They came year after year because the music was played well. Shortly after Ellenberger moved to Case Western Reserve Medical School in Cleveland in 1980, he had hired a young man fresh out of the University of Michigan, Scott Kessler, who started Music at Gretna along the path it has followed ever since with generations of musicians, staff and board members, volunteers, and generous contributors. Ellenberger couldn’t stay away so he moved back to Gretna in 1987 where he has lived ever since.

The original Mt. Gretna Playhouse, built in 1894, was not a very good place for music (or anything else) and collapsed under snow and ice in 1994. Determined to replace the historic monument, Gretna residents built a more solid replica. Through no fault of anyone (except for pro bono acoustician Chris Brooks who helped fix it), the Playhouse turned out to have very good acoustics for small music and jazz concerts and somewhat more comfortable seats than the old broken benches. The special ‘ambience’ of the old Playhouse remains.

As construction proceeded on both the new Gretna Playhouse and Leffler Performing Arts Center at Elizabethtown College, President of the college, Gerhard Spiegler, invited Kathy Judd, Executive Director of Music at Gretna, to consider adopting the new Center as a permanent home and winter concert venue. The association continues today (with a slight change in our identity to “Gretna Music”) with concerts at the College in winter and at Gretna in summer.

Mount Gretna

C. & L. Station, Mt. Gretna, c. 1900

Important to Gretna Music has always been where we are, quietly hiding in the foothills of the Appalachians in the “tiny town that time forgot,” close (not too close) to metropolitan Harrisburg, Lancaster, and Hershey. Steve, the Postmaster, reminds denizens that last names and box numbers are required on all incoming mail.

For over a century the Chautauqua Playhouse has cradled players and listeners on the slope of a gentle hillside under a super-sized ‘coolie hat’ amid a jumble of Queen Anne-style cottages. You get here through rolling fields populated by placid cows. You would have passed their ancestors in a wagon 200 years ago or behind a steam engine a century later. A proud giant rooster still stands guard on top of the roadside office of a feed mill near the north entrance, just over the hill from the small Mennonite hospital. Even now as you drive into an oasis of tall oak, pine, and poplar trees and head for ice cream at the ‘Historic Jigger Shop’ or a swim in the lake, you enter a simpler past.






Why We Still Do It

At first we did it because last summer it was fun, for players and listeners alike who came for small compensation and minimal effort on our part. We all discovered that a string quartet could bring quiet magic to our open Playhouse in the woods. (The Interlochen Bowl was in my bones.) The players were people we wanted to know as well as hear. We all were grateful to be there.

I can’t say how many lives we touched along our 39-year journey: students dreaming of careers in music; Gretna denizens discovering the music of Charles Ives; young musicians trying their wings; veteran musicians warming to attentive audiences; neighborhood hosts following their favorite quintet to Spain; orchestra musicians playing happily without a conductor; board and staff members exploring their own talents, skills, and passion; innumerable friendships budding among everyone who came together to listen, volunteer, or perform; and everyone discovering of the vast universe of music to be explored.

If we had any success it was because we insisted on music and musicians we strongly believed in whether we thought they would fill the seats: the “Build it and they will come” approach as opposed to “Give them what they want.”

With the other 184 summer festivals in the US listed in the Spring issue of Chamber Music (Directory of Festivals, Schools and Workshops) we try to maintain that magic. We are proud to be among those still standing on a long difficult journey without end. These groups show what it is to be human amid the turmoil in the world around us. You can forget bombs, guns, and Congress (and whether the summer heat–though cooler in Gretna–is a warning that we may have to move to another planet) and lose yourself for a quiet interval in another world communicating in a beautiful wordless language with other souls. A small piece of Life as it should be.

–Carl Ellenberger

LefflerPhoto by Joel Fan of Musser Hall in Leffler Performance Center

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