Wissot: Summer camp for seniors

I went to summer camp for the first time in 1953 when I was 8. My parents had rented a cheap bungalow in Rockland County, a few miles outside of New York City. They promptly enrolled me in the Bobbin Day Camp.

At Bobbin I played softball, made potholders, and took swimming lessons. I gave my mom a wicked potholder that she said she loved but for some unexpected reason lost. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn to swim and spent the summer inside an old tire that kept me buoyant while the other kids happily swam around me at Rockland Lake. Drowning would have been preferable to the humiliation I suffered.

I mention this childhood memory because I am now finishing up the best summer camp experience I have had since those Bobbin days. I should say we, not I, because joining me at this Vail camp are a slew of men and women my age.

The Vail summer camp for seniors is devoted to the performing arts. We don’t play softball; we listen to classical music. We don’t make potholders; we watch the artistry of dancers from stylistically different dance companies. No swimming lessons are involved (I did eventually learn to swim) but jazz musicians fill our ears with toe-tapping and hand-clapping jazz music several times a week.

The local Vail arts establishment, more specifically, Bravo! Vail, the Vail Dance Festival, and the Vail Jazz Festival, are responsible for creating a magical experience in our majestic mountain setting for folks who remember what it was like in their younger years to take lessons at an Arthur Murray Dance Studio. Don’t fret if you’ve never heard of Arthur Murray or his dance studios. Just be thankful that you’re young enough to not know.

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Us seniors are at a point in our lives where we benefit more from Prevagen than Viagra. We remember when there were more ashtrays than televisions in people’s homes. We wish there were two intermissions at concerts. The first intermission would offer us a much-needed bathroom break and the second intermission would offer us a much-needed second bathroom break.

Bravo! Vail completed its 35th season in July. The Vail Dance Festival completed its 34th season earlier this month. The Vail Jazz Festival will complete its 28th season in September. The impressive staying power of these festivals is a credit to the equally impressive staying power of the many generous donors who make it possible.

The driving force in any successful performing arts enterprise rests with the artistic director.

Bravo! Vail has been led for the past 10 years by the multi-talented Anne-Marie McDermott, who in addition to being the artistic director is a world-renowned concert pianist. During McDermott’s tenure, Bravo! Vail has extended contractual relationships with the Dallas Symphony (24 years and counting), the New York Philharmonic (19 years and counting), and the Philadelphia Orchestra (15 years and counting). The three represent the orchestral equivalent of the 1927 New York Yankees powerhouse baseball lineup of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and “Poosh ‘Em Up” Tony Lazzeri.

Damian Woetzel has been the artistic director of the Vail Dance Festival since 2006. He was a member of the New York City Ballet for 23 years, 19 of them as a principal dancer. In his “spare” time he is also the president of the famed Juilliard School in New York City. While he has choreographed for many dance companies, his ability to choreograph an entire dance festival is what makes him so special. In Woetzel’s world, dance is dance, which is why dancers with backgrounds in classical ballet and modern dance will appear on the same stage during the festival with tap dancers and Memphis jookers.

Howard Stone sadly and unexpectedly died in August. Please read Carolyn Paletta’s excellent tribute in the Vail Daily to Howard and his wife, Cathy, for their roles as cofounders of Vail Jazz.

Howard really had two lives. His first life as an attorney and real estate investor in California ended in the winter of 1995 when “after one glass of wine too many,” he decided to fulfill his lifelong passion for jazz by bringing a festival to Vail over Labor Day weekend. For the first time since then, Howard will not be here next weekend to celebrate the 28th annual Labor Day party he created.

If Vail Jazz were a building it would be named “The House That Howard and Cathy Stone Built.” The house has many rooms now. It includes a summer-long jazz festival, a winter music series, jazz soirées, a Jazz Goes to School program that introduces jazz to fourth and fifth graders in Eagle County, and the Vail Jazz Workshop, which brings 12 gifted high school musicians from around the country to study each Labor Day weekend under the tutelage of Grammy Award-winning jazz masters. In 2019, Downbeat Magazine magazine named the Vail Jazz Workshop as the nation’s best educational program.

Old-timers like me fully grasp the meaning of the lyrics in Frank Sinatra’s song, “I Did It My Way,” especially the line, “And now the end is near.” We know, as Howard knew, that our lives are stamped with a secret expiration date.

I think that’s why the arts, particularly the performing arts, take on greater importance as we age. Humans are ephemeral; the arts are eternal.  Beethoven is dead but his ninth symphony isn’t. Balanchine is dead but his ballet, “Serenade” isn’t. Louis Armstrong died over 50 years ago, but all I have to do is yell “Alexa, play Louis Armstrong” and out of that small cube comes the trumpet coarsened voice of Satchmo singing “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.”

Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at

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