How Woodstock Happened … Part 3

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By Elliot Tiber

Originally Published In The Times Herald-Record – Woodstock Commemorative Edition
Text copyright 1994 The Times Herald-Record

Ken Van Loan, the president of the Bethel Business Association, wasn’t worried. He’d decided this festival could be a great boost for the depressed economy of the Catskills. “We talked to the county about promoting this thing,” said Van Loan, who owned Ken’s Garage in Kauneonga lake. “We told ’em it would be the biggest thing that ever came to the county.”

As July became August, Vassmer’s General Store in Kauneonga Lake was doing a great business in kegs of nails and cold cuts. The buyers were longhaired construction guys who were carving Yasgur’s pasture into an amphitheater. ” They told me, ‘Mr. Vassmer, you ain’t seen nothing yet,’ and by golly, they were right,” said Art Vassmer, the owner.

Abe Wagner knew that little Bethel, with a population of 3,900 souls, wasn’t set to handle the coming flood of humanity. Two weeks before the festival, Wagner, 61, heard that Woodstock Ventures had already sold 180,000 tickets. Wagner, who owned a plumbing company and lived in Kauneonga Lake, was one of approximately 800 Bethel residents who signed a petition to stop the festival. “The people of Bethel were afraid of the influx of people on our small roads, afraid of the element of people who read the advertisements in the magazines that said, ‘Come to Woodstock and do whatever you want to do because nobody will bother you,'” Wagner said.

By August, Elliot Tiber was getting anonymous phone calls. “They’d say that it’ll never happen, that we will break your legs,” Tiber said. “There was terrible name-calling. It was anti-Semitic and anti-hippies. It was dirty and filthy.

A week before the festival, Yasgur’s farm didn’t look much like a concert site. “It was like they were building a house, except there was a helicopter pad,” Vassmer said. Vassmer had heard the nervous talk among his regular customers, especially when they heard the radio ads. “‘I don’t know about this,’ they’d say,” Vassmer recalled. “They’d say, ‘Boy, when this thing comes, we’re gonna be sorry.'” That same week, a group of outraged residents filed a lawsuit. It was settled within a few days; the promoters promised to add more portable toilets. “There was a lot of intrigue,” Lang said. “I don’t remember it all.”

Those 800 petitioners weren’t too happy with Bethel Supervisor Daniel J. Amatucci. “He didn’t inform us about all the people until a week before the festival,” Wagner remembered. “He turned around and threw it in the wastebasket without even looking at it.” Wagner protester. Amatucci read it. Then he told Wagner it was too late.

Michael Lang gunned a shiny BSA motorcycle across a field of grass. He wore a leather vest on his shirtless back, and a fringed purse hung at his hip. A lit cigarette hung out of his mouth as he popped down the kickstand. It was early August 1969, and Lang commanded an army of workers throwing together the rock concert. A filmmaker came by to ask Lang some questions, freezing Lang, his motorcycle and his attitude forever in a movie moment that captures the careless bravado of youth. “Where are you gonna go from here?” the interviewer asked. “Are you gonna do another?”  “If it works,” Lang answered.

Ventures decided to try to win over the residents in Bethel. It sent out the Earthlight Theater to entertain local groups. It booked a rock band called Quill to do free performances. But Earthlight, an 18-member troupe, didn’t do Shakespeare or Rodgers and Hammerstein. They did a musical comedy called “Sex. Y’all Come.” They also stripped naked. Frequently.

On August 7, Ventures staged a pre-festival festival on a stage that was still under construction. Quill opened the show, and Bethel residents sat on the grass, expecting theater. Instead, the Earthlight Theater stripped and screamed obscenities at the shocked crowd. “They went from being suspicious to being convinced,” Rosenman said.

Wavy Gravy rounded up 85 Hog Farmers and 15 Hopis. He donned a Smokey-the-Bear suit and armed himself with a bottle of seltzer and a rubber shovel. Then he and the barefooted, long haired Hog Farmers flew into John F. Kennedy International Airport. “We’re the hippie police,” Gravy announced as he and his entourage stepped off the plane on Monday, Aug. 11.

The opposition plotted a last-minute strategy to stop the show: a human barricade across Route 17B on the day before the concert. Tiber heard about the plan on Monday. “So, I go on national radio and said that they were trying to stop the show, ” he said. “I didn’t sleep well. About two o’clock in the morning, I wake up and I hear horns and guitars. This is on Tuesday morning. I look out, and there are five lanes of headlights all the way back. They’d started coming already.”

Kornfeld made Warner Brothers an offer it couldn’t refuse. It was Wednesday, two days before showtime. Ventures had to make a movie deal… now. All Kornfeld wanted was $100,000 to pay for film. The concert would take care of the acting, the lighting, the dialogue and the plot. “Michael Wadleigh was up there (at the site) waiting with (Martin) Scorsese,” Kornfeld said. “All they needed was money for film. The contract was handwritten and signed by myself and Ted Ashley (of Warner Brothers). I told them, ‘Hey, guys, there are going to be hundreds of thousands of people out there. It’s a crap shoot: spend $100,000 and you might make millions. If it turns out to be a riot, then you’ll have one of the best documentaries ever made.'”

Wadleigh rounded up a crew of about 100 from the New York Film scene, including Scorsese. Wadleigh couldn’t pay them until much later, but he could get them inside the event of the summer. The crew signed on a double-or-nothing basis. If the film made it, they’d get twice regular pay. If the film bombed, they’d lose. The crew got to Woodstock a few days before, driving up in Volkswagen Beetles and beat-up cars. Wadleigh’s plot ran like this: Woodstock would be a modern-day Canterbury Tale, a pilgrimage back to the land. He wanted the film to be as much about the hippies who trekked to Woodstock as about the music on stage. He wanted the stories of the young people, their feelings about the Viet Nam War, about the times. The stories of the townspeople. These would make the film, not just the music.

Eight miles away, Timer Herald-Record harness racing John Szefc was working on a feature story at the Monticello Raceway. Then he caught a glimpse of the traffic out on Route 17B. It was 11am, more than 24 hours before the concert, and traffic was already backed up all the way down Route 17B to Route 17 – a distance of 10 miles. “That’s when I knew this was going to be big. Really significant, ” he said. Szefc’s story that night was about the effect of the concert on the racetrack. Some bettors fought the traffic on Route 17B and managed to get to the windows. But the handle was down $60,000 from a typical weekend night in August.

By the afternoon of Thursday, August 14, Woodstock was an idyllic commune of 25,000 people. The Hog Farmers had built kitchens and shelters with two-by-fours and tarps. Their kids were swinging on a set of monkey bars built of lumber and tree limbs, jumping into a pile of hay at the bottom. Wavy Gravy recruited “responsible-looking” people and made them security guards. He handed out armbands and the secret password, which was “I forget.” Down the slope, stands were ready to sell counterculture souvenirs: hand-woven belts, drug paraphernalia and headbands. Christmas tree lights were strung in the trees. Sawdust was strewn along the paths. Over the hill, carpenters were still banging nails into the main stage. The Pranksters and the Hog Farmers had built heir own alternative stage.

Prankster leader Babbs acted as emcee, opening the stage to anyone who wanted to jam. The sound system was a space amplifier borrowed from the Grateful Dead. “Over the hill and into the woods we went,” Babbs said. “We had the free school for the kids, the Free Kitchen and so, the Free Stage.

How Woodstock Happened … Friday