The beat is leisurely at Quisisana Resort on Kezar Lake - and the staff often appears to be having all the fun.
At precisely 6:20 on an early August morning - you could set your watch by it - a sprightly, deeply tanned senior citizen emerges from the Love Nest, a cottage on the eastern shore of Kezar Lake in western Maine, and strides athletically to the railing of the front porch, which overhangs the lake. He is wearing a robe against the early morning chill, and he hums an operatic aria as he studies the placid waters of the lake. A patchy mist is beginning to rise as the first rays of a new day strike the mountain peaks that line the western horizon. A loon calls from somewhere out on the lake, and the man hurries back into the cottage, emerging a few minutes later from a rear door, wearing bathing trunks and clutching a towel.
Meanwhile, a second cottager, of somewhat less advanced years, has strolled down from his own cabin in a pine grove that backs the shore and is standing on a nearby dock, whistling a show tune as he surveys the fleet of canoes and small sailboats that neatly line an adjacent white sand beach. As he hears the rear door of the Love Nest flung open, this second early riser steps quickly into one of several rowboats lying alongside the dock, drops a pair of waiting oars into the oarlocks, and pulls smartly out into the lake just as his friend from the cottage drops his towel on the end of the pier, plunges into the water, and begins to stroke, slowly but steadily, toward the far shore, a mile away.
While this daily ritual has been unfolding, life has been stirring in the woods, back from the shore. The clatter of pots and clinking of silverware can be heard, mingling with crescendos of song as several dozen young music students prepare to serve breakfast in a large, rustic dining room.
Thus begins another glorious summer day at Quisisana, a unique musical resort in Central Lovell that has been a haven for connoisseurs of good music, good food, and healthful outdoor living for more than seventy years; a venerable and deeply venerated old-world resort that was headed for extinction only five years ago, but whose fiercely loyal guests would not let it die.
Typical of these “Quisi” loyalists is the swimmer, seventy-year-old Bob Lemley, a real estate manager from New York who, with his wife, Peggy, has worked his way up to the choicest cottage in the forty-four-cottage resort after twenty-nine years of faithful patronage. His rowing escort is Dr. Jerry Sandler, a Connecticut obstetrician.
Like many of their fellow guests, Bob and Jerry had never met before they came together at Quisisana (an Italian word meaning “a place where one heals oneself”) and rarely see each other during the rest of the year. But now they plan their two-week vacations in Maine to coincide each August so they can perform their early-morning ritual together - twenty-five minutes across, forty minutes back, according to the doctor’s prescription. Although each of these two successful, still hardworking men may seek respite in other places at other seasons, Quisisana remains, for them, as for scores of other regulars of all ages, a major lodestone in their lives. Two weeks of “Maine and Mozart”, as the resort’s ads put it, represent the highlight of any year for all Quisi loyalists.
By the time Bob Lemley wades ashore at the beach, and Dr. Sandler secures his boat, a second early swimmer will be drying her long limbs on another beach, just south of the first, from which it is separated by a grass-covered point of land. She is Jane Orans, a recently widowed, fifty-two-year-old educator from Larchmont, New York, who took over the failing resort in its hour of need and has restored it to its former glory - many say raised it to new heights of style and service. Fresh from her mandatory morning dip in her beloved lake, Jane will be joining her staff of seventy-eight (most of them talented, young, aspiring musicians) in catering to the every whim of 150 demanding guests - “a bookish crowd”, as one observer put it, “the kind that does The New York Times crossword puzzle at one sitting - in ink.”
Quisisana days tend to have three focal points: the big dining hall, adjacent to the main lodge; the waterfront; and the Music Hall, which is also on the water. The food, generous servings of what chef Lenny Hawes describes as “good, quality food, but simple in the garnishings and preparation,” is a highlight of everyone’s day. Hawes’ gastronomic artistry, combined with Maine woods appetites, tends to make for what Jane Orans describes as “a ten-pound week,” based on her own experience as guest at the place for years before she became the owner. Most guests have given up fighting the temptation to over-eat, she says - “They know enough to diet before they come up here.”
Quisisana guests have ample opportunity to work off some of the extra calories during days that can be filled with physical activity - swimming, paddling, rowing, sailing, or water skiing on the lake, playing tennis on one of three tennis courts or golf at a nearby public course. Other activities include joining some of the young staffers in a game of volleyball down by the beach, or hiking in the surrounding hills. Sabattus Mountain, an easy climb to some breathtaking views, is only three miles away.
Some guests, like Bob Lemley, seem never to sit still from one meal to the next - “Bob has an activity schedule that would blow your mind,” says Jane. Others, however, like Al Kessler, a newcomer to Quisisana from Millburn, New Jersey, who is Lemley’s junior by many years, relish the tranquility of the place and the lack of any organized-activities program. “I like to play tennis,” says Al. “But I’m enjoying doing nothing. You can always find a comfortable place by the water to sit and read.”
Regardless of the day’s activities, sunset brings all the guests drifting down lamp lit paths through the pines to the Music Hall for the musical performances that are this resort’s unique and very special attraction. To staff the resort, Jane Orans and her revered predecessor, Ralph Burg, have always taken pains to recruit top young talent from some of the country’s leading music schools, such as Juilliard, Oberlin, and the New England Conservatory of Music. Nightly, to the occasional accompaniment of loons calling out from the lake, these aspiring performers do their turns before the footlights in the Music Hall. Your busboy is suddenly transformed into a most credible successor to Robert Preston in The Music Man, your waitress becomes the soprano lead in Gianni Schicchi, your cabin boy is the drummer in a swinging dance band. Some of these bright hopefuls over the years have wound up in leading roles on Broadway or with the Metropolitan and other opera companies. Success stories include tenor Henry Price, who sang with the New York City Opera for a number of years, and soprano Barbara Shettleworth, who has been heard at the Met.
Some of last year’s guests were so impressed with the piano virtuosity of young David Nish, a self-styled “plate garnisher” in the kitchen when not at the keyboard, that they decided to hold a reunion in New York last April to attend David’s debut at Carnegie Hall. There has been a special reverence for concert piano at Quisisana at least since 1962, when Vladimir Horowitz came there with his own Steinway to prepare for a return to the concert stage after several years of retirement. Just as guests used to cluster in awe around Horowitz’ cottage to hear him practice, a little crowd often collected around the Music Hall afternoons last summer when David Nish worked on his own keyboard technique.
Music, in fact, surrounds you at Quisisana from morning until night. At any place or time, you are likely to hear someone rehearsing somewhere; or just singing and playing for the joy of it. “When the dining room staff dries the silver,” says Jane, “it’s an incredible sound.” Equally incredible is the sound in the dining room when the entire staff assembles at dessert time to sing “Happy Birthday” to one of the guests - a performance which seems to take place at least once nightly. Anniversaries also enjoy musical acclaim, as in the recent case of a guest who had quit smoking while at Quisisana exactly nine years before.
Peter Tannen, whose son Steve is a singing busboy, had been to Quisisana before, but never on his birthday until last August 5, when he turned forty-nine. “We’ve heard these kids come up and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ before, and it’s always been beautiful,” Peter recalls. “But I have never been in the middle of it. Right at the end, they go to harmony, and to my left, all of a sudden, the soprano let loose. I couldn’t believe the voice of that little redheaded girl. What an incredible voice! It’s like being on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House.” The little redheaded girl was his waitress, Luz Bermejo, from Mexico City, who placed second in the Met auditions in Boston last year and who sings the lead in Puccini’s one-act opera farce Gianni Schicchi.
Musical tradition at Quisisana goes back to the origins of the resort in 1917 when Spenser and Madaline Strauss established the Quisisana Hotel on the shores of Kezar Lake at Pleasant Point as a haven for musicians and music lovers who played together for their own entertainment. A few years later, a Quisisana guest, Gustav Hein, who served as first trumpeter with symphony orchestras in both Boston and New York, and his wife, Edna, created the Sunset Inn, another musical retreat on an adjacent piece of lakefront land. The present Quisisana represents an harmonious blending of the two resorts by Ralph Burg, a Boston music-store owner, who bought Quisisana in 1946, added Sunset in 1967, and created the current format of musical staff and nightly shows.
A saxophone player with society orchestras who also “was into heavy classical music,” according to an admiring long-time Quisisana patron, Burg was responsible for the variety of musical experiences one can expect during a typical week at Quisisana today, ranging from grand opera and classical piano to a Broadway show, to variety, to the swinging rhythms of the house band, which plays for dancing a couple of nights a week.
Together with his wife, Fay, a gourmet cook, Burg ran an upscale establishment at Quisisana, which became renowned for good food as well as good music and painstaking attention to creature comforts. “During our last ten years,” Burg boasts, “we never had an empty bed.” The Burgs, however, decided to retire after three decades of innkeeping. They sold Quisisana in 1976, and under a succession of new owners the high standards the Burgs had set - both of service and music - gradually began to slip.
By 1983, the place appeared to be almost on the rocks and was again up for sale. When by late August there had been no takers, a group of old-timers who were there for the closing weeks of the season became concerned. “In fact,” recalls Jane Orans, who was a guest, “we were terrified, afraid that Quisisana wouldn’t be here anymore. There were seven or eight couples who had been coming here for years, and we decided we ought to buy it. We formed a group that we called the Peace of the Lake Partnership. But of course, as with many partnerships, it wound up being only two of us - Susan Kaplan and I. Susan, who still keeps a cottage down on the shore, retired last year, and so now it’s all mine. It has been absolutely wonderful, an incredible experience.
Old-time Quisisana boosters think Jane’s stewardship has been pretty wonderful, too. “This is the old Quisi. Better, if that is possible. It brings back everything that’s in our memory,” says Leon Kaplan, a Boston furniture dealer who has been coming to the resort on Kezar Lake with his wife, Harriet, since Ralph Burg first bought the original Quisisana in 1946. “Have you noticed the white tablecloths and flowers in the dining room?” asks Harriet. “That’s Jane.” The generous supply of wooden coat hangers in each cabin? “That’s Jane.” The well-maintained waterfront fleet available for guests to use at any time at no extra charge? “That’s Jane.” And, Harriet adds: “This year’s staff is the best ever. That’s Jane, too. She has a way about her with young people that has given them this extraordinary enthusiasm. She’s a mother and a nursery school teacher, and I think that shows in the way she runs the staff and relates to the children of the guests. Children used to be barely tolerated here. Jane welcomes them.” The result has been a marked increase in young families among the clientele.
“It’s incredibly rewarding to wrk with this many young people,” Jane responds. “They all have such promising futures ahead of them, and they are all so incredibly loyal, supportive, talented, friendly, and humorous. I never saw people who could see so much humor in everything. We are constantly dealing with problems - my pillow is too hard, or soft, there’s a chipmunk in my cabin, the plumbing doesn’t work. But my office staff laughs all day long.”
They no doubt follow the example of their leader, who seems able to take any emergency in good-humored stride. When guests complain about the chipmunks, she advises them conspiratorially, “Shhh. If word gets out, everyone will want one.” Then she reassures them that the moment they walk in the door, the chipmunk will go elsewhere.”
One of Jane Orans’ most helpful and loyal staffers is her son, Sam, a sophomore last year at Sarah Lawrence College. Sam started out as a maintenance worker at Quisisana four years ago when his mother and Susan took over. Last year he was promoted to maintenance chief, a job that guests say he handles with aplomb. “He’s a wonderful help to his mother,” says Harriet Kaplan approvingly. “It’s most unusual. Why, he even got the telephone system to work.”
Sam is proud of the practical knowledge he has gained in his summer incarnation as resort maintenance man under the tutelage of such Down East jacks-of-all-trades as Ronald Hutchings and Charles Fox, two older, local members of the staff. “During my freshman year at Sarah Lawrence,” he recalls, “somebody blew up one of the toilet bowls in our dormitory one weekend. College officials said we’d have to pay seven hundred dollars to have a new one installed. ‘Oh, no,’ I told them. ‘You can buy a new toilet for $85.50 and I can install it myself.’ We had put in some new toilets at Quisisana the previous summer.”
Having spent vacations at Quisisana since early boyhood, Sam shares with his mother that special feeling for the tranquil beauty of the place that binds all the Quisisana family together, staff and guests, even beyond their shared appreciation of good music, good food, and good service. “When I was a guest here and would walk up the pine path to breakfast in the morning,” Jane recalls, “I used to stop and say to myself, ‘I never ever feel as good as I do at this moment.’ It is a most unbelievably peaceful, wonderful spot. Just to get up in the morning and look at that lake - it has been called the fifth most beautiful lake in the world - and to swim in that incredibly soft water makes all the hubbub of running the place more than worthwhile for me.”
Quisi fans hope Jane Orans will go on feeling that way forever. “Because of Jane’s spirit, and the money she has put in here,” says Bob Lemley, drying himself after his morning swim across the lake, “Quisisana has reached a pinnacle.” And then the practical businessman adds: “I just hope she has something on the bottom line.” Jane says so far that’s not been a major concern, thanks to the support she receives from her guests. “They look on it as their place, and they worry with me about what’s going to happen,” she says. “If there is a slow week at the beginning of July, they’ll call up their friends and tell them to come up. They want to make sure their Maine retreat stays on key financially.”