The 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair
It was the biggest bash of the decade, maybe the century. Though it was originally anticipated to earn $500,000, it ultimately cost more than $2.4 million. Some would say that that was a small price to pay to have created a defining moment for a generation -- others paid the debt out of their pockets.
The Woodstock Music and Art festival was sponsored by four very different, and very young people who pretended to have business savvy just long enough to get in over their heads. The idea made its first public stirring in March 1968 when the pair of John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, looking for a plot line for a sitcom they had been writing, took out ads in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal with an innocuous tag line: "Young Men With Unlimited Capital looking for interesting, legitimate investment opportunities and business propositions."
Instead of ideas for a sitcom, Capitol Records VP Artie Kornfield and freelance bum Michael Lang pitched them a different kind of idea: to stage the wildest, craziest culture exposition and rock concert ever seen by mortal man.
Lang had done something of this nature once before when he had organized the Miami Music festival in 1968 with drew an alarmingly large crowd of 40,000 people; he felt like doing it again. This, of course, required money.. that Kornfield and Lang did not have.
John Roberts happened to be the heir to a personal hygiene fortune in the form of a multimillion-dollar trust fund. He was a 26 year old Army Lieutenant who had, in his entire life, been to only one "rock concert": the Beach Boys. Rosenman was a bit more worldly, being a law school graduate and an on-again-off-again guitar player in seedy lounge bands.
Through a bit of "Odd Couple"-esque serendipity, in the fall of 1968, corporation documents for "Woodstock Ventures" were inked and plans were set out to put together a gathering of 50,000 people (Lang hoped for 100,000) and a budget in the neighborhood of $300,000.
The first site for the festival was a leased a tract of land in the Town of Wallkill owned by Howard Mills, Jr. $10,000 got them 300 acres in an industrial park with proper zoning and a blessing from the city planning board. But Lang hated the venue saying it represented all the things that his festival was supposed to be against. This was not going to be a problem for long as rumors of the "clientele" of the show and the sheer numbers began to leak to the residents and by the time 1969 rolled around the festival was officially shut out of Wallkill. Despite the festivals' slogan of "three Days of Peace and Music", the residents of Wallkill doubted that the concertgoers would show them either. The Wallkill Zoning Board of Appeals officially banned Woodstock on July 15, 1969.
The random factor in this case was Elliot Tiber. He ran a small hotel at White Lake Resort which had a problem of having no customers, and he needed some way to get them filled to pay his mortgage. Of course, he had something to help with this in the form of a town of Bethel permit to run a "music festival". The permit was for the White Lake Music and Arts Festival, a very, very small event that Tiber had hacked together up to drum up business at the hotel, though attendance was small: "There were maybe 150 people up there," Tiber said.
He called Woodstock Ventures and somehow got a message to Lang who came out to the hotel the next day. The White Lake Festival used a muddy patch of 15 acres behind the hotel, and Lang knew that it wouldn't accommodate ten thousand, let alone his hopped hundred thousand and almost left then and there.
Ellliot did have another option for Lang, however, by the way of his friend, a Bethel dairy farmer by the name of Max Yasgur. He was telephoned and a while later Lang surveyed the farmland. Much has already been said about this so we'll keep it to how Lang said it best "It was magic."
The Woodstock partners have since admitted that they were engaged in creative deception. They told Bethel officials that they were expecting 50,000 people, tops. All along they knew that Woodstock would draw far, far more. "I was pretty manipulative," Lang said. "The figure at Wallkill was 50,000, and we just stuck with it." Lang was now planning on a quarter million people. But they got the rights to the 600 acre parcel for $75,000, plus another $25,00 for some use of surrounding areas.
But Bethel, with a population of 3,900 country people, wasn't set to handle the coming flood of humanity -- two weeks before the festival 180,000 tickets had already been sold. However, not everyone was against it: Ken Van Loan, the president of the Bethel Business Association, took it upon himself to convince the town that this festival could be a great boost for the depressed economy of the area. "We talked to the county about promoting this thing ... it would be the biggest thing that ever came to the county."
So "Woodstock" was poised to become the biggest thing ever, and yet the stage had only begun construction a week before opening, and nothing else existed on the site. Lang called his buddy, Stan Goldstein. Stan called The Hog Farm. The Hog Farmers built the needed kitchens, shelters and other structures as well as recruited security guards and generally handled all of the "human interfacing" that the four founders seemed inept to do on their own. The Hog Farmers had also built heir own alternative stage, just in case.
On Thursday, the train wreck had begun. "Route 17B was jammed for roughly 9 miles, all the way back to Monticello and beyond." said Fred W. Cannock, a State Police officer helping to supervise traffic. Of course , Woodstock organizers blamed state police for the traffic, citing that they had refused to enact the festival's traffic plan. A handful of civilian security guards and off duty police were on hand to help handle the crowds, but with an estimated 25,000 people and hour, it was like trying to catch a waterfall with a thimble.
And yet, though all this, something was missing. In all the commotion of the assemblage of the site they had left out a crucial but seemingly tiny detail: Tickets. There were no ticket booths.
Lang had thought Goldstein had taken care of it, and Goldstein had thought his Hog Farm friends had. The pre-sells had tickets and had paid for them, but apparently no one else, the walk-ins, had. Some ticket takers has been assembled with yellow vests and change boxes, but the task soon seen as essentially fruitless. "So Wavy (Wavy Gravy, head of The Hog Farm) and I said the only thing to do is take down the fence. So, we - Wavy and I - unrolled the fence about 100 feet, and the people all came pouring in." said Babbs, a friend of Goldstein and Lang.
In the end, officially almost 500,000 people managed to get in, most without paying any money. By Sunday morning, some attendance estimates were being carried out by quadratic analysis of aerial pictures, which by the account of the Bethal Town Historian actually showed nearly 700,000.
By the time the festival was winding down, the four Founders has some different music to face up to: all told they had sold over 1 million dollars in tickets, however it cost them over twice that much to run the show. $150 thousand for the acts and promotion and almost two million in actual production costs, and still another $100 thousand to clean and restore the field and to pay attributable property damage to Bethal and the State government. Over $600 thousand dollars in costs were defaulted on before the end of the week. 18,000 tickets were refunded to would-be attendees who were stuck on the clogged roads. Six weeks after the festival, Rosenman and Roberts bought out Lang and Kornfeld share in the corporation for $31,240 each. In the end the debts were paid by John Roberts and the sale of the movie right, a movie which Micheal Lang and Artie Kornfield saw no remuneration for.
The last standing monument, physically anyway, was handled by Wayne Saward, a welder. It's a 5 1/2 ton marker made of cast iron and concrete; landowner Louis Nicky paid $650 for concrete and casting the iron at a cost ratio of $3400:1 in relation to the debt incurred by Woodstock Ventures, Inc.
Of course, it wasn't all bad: some willful entrepreneur managed to sell birdseed for $6 dollars an ounce to some of the more confused concertgoers.
When is was realized that tickets were futile, John Morris, one of the conscripted stage announcers, made the second most famous sound bite from Woodstock (the first being "Don't eat the brown acid", of course.) Some of these lines were used in "Dirt", by "Death in Vegas", which is what gave me the impetus to write this in the first place.
This is one thing that.. I was gonna wait a while before we talked about. Maybe we can talk about it now so you can think about it.. it's a free concert from now on. That doesn't mean that anything goes, what that means is we're going to put the music up here for free. What it means is that the people who're put -- backing this thing, who put up the money for it, are going to take a bit of a bath. A big bath. That's no hype, that's true, they're going to get hurt. What it means is that these people have it in their heads that your welfare is a hell of a lot more important, and that the music is, than the dollar. ... Now, the one major thing that you have to remember tonight,. when you go back up to the woods to go to sleep or if you stay here, is that the man next to you it your brother. And you damn well better treat each other that way because if you don't then we blow the whole thing, but we've got it, right there.