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directed by Ang Lee.
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Before there was a Woodstock Concert, there
was Elliot Tiber working to make a go of his parents’ upstate New
York hotel, the El Monaco. It wasn’t easy. The Jewish clientele
who had returned to the Catskills year after year had discovered
Florida, and the upstate hotel business was dying.
To save his family’s livelihood, Elliot put
on plays, musicals, and local festivals. In the process, Elliot
became the area’s official issuer of event permits--not that anybody
else wanted that position. Elliot even worked weekends as an interior
design artist in New York City, all in the hopes of helping his
In the summer of 1969, Elliot Tiber’s life changed
in a way he never could have foreseen. Greenwich Village had become
the mecca for gays in America. There, Elliot had socialized with
the likes of Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Andy Warhol, and
a talented young photographer named Robert Maplethorpe, and yet
had managed to keep his gay life a secret from his family. Then
on Friday, June 27, Elliot walked into the Stonewall Inn--and witnessed
the riot that would galvanize the gay movement in the United States.
And on July 17, when Elliot read that the Woodstock Concert promoters
had lost their license to stage the show in Wallkill, he called
to offer his help in finding a new venue. In the days that followed,
Elliot found himself swept up in a vortex that would change his
The events that unfolded during that hot New
York summer have come to be recognized as major turning points in
our cultural history. Few, however, have enjoyed Elliot Tiber’s
unique view of those events. Taking Woodstock is the funny,
touching, and true story of the man who enabled Woodstock to take
place. It is also the personal story of one man who took stock of
his life, his lifestyle, and his future. In short, Taking Woodstock
is like no history of Woodstock you have ever read.
Tiber has been a professional creative writer for over thirty-five
years. He has written and produced numerous award-winning plays
and musical comedies for the theater, television, and films around
the world. He was also dramaturge for the National Theater of Belgium.
He was a semi-finalist in the Academy Awards for best film. As a
professor of comedy writing and performance, he has taught at the
New School University and Hunter College (CUNY) in New York City.
Mr. Tiber is also a best-selling
author. His first novel, Rue Haute, was an instant bestseller
in Europe, and was published in the US as an Avon Paperback under
its English title, High Street. As a humorist, Elliot Tiber
has appeared on CNN, NBC, CBS, CNBC, and 20/20, as well as on television
shows in France, England, Tokyo, Moscow, and Berlin. Tiber has also
performed his standup one-man show, Woodstock Daddy, for clubs,
theaters, and TV. He currently resides in both New York City and
Monte has written more than 30 books and many hundreds of
articles for such magazines and newspapers as Life, Saturday
Evening Post, Natural Health, and the Chicago Tribune.
Among his many works are The Way of Hope, about the AIDS
crisis in New York City. Tom is also the co-author with Dr. Anthony
Sattilaro of the best-selling books Recalled By Life (Houghton
Mifflin, 1982) and Living Well Naturally (Houghton Mifflin,
For the past twenty years, Tom
has lectured and provided workshops on healing and personal transformation
throughout the United States and Europe, including the University
of Massachusetts and Yale University. In May 2005, he was the keynote
speaker for the American Cancer Society’s Living With Cancer Conference
in Augusta, Maine. He and his wife, Toby, live in Massachusetts
and are the parents of three adult children.
1. Lost in White Lake
2. The Teichberg Curse
3. My “Other” Life
4. Digging a Deeper Grave
While Laughing Hysterically
5. Stonewall and the Seeds of Liberation
6. The Golden Goose Lands at the El Monaco
7. The World Is Made Anew
8. The First Wave
9. White Lake Rebels
10. Everyone Wants a Piece of the Pie
11. The Day Is Saved
12. Taking Woodstock
Lost in White Lake
There it was again. My momma, like a woman caught in a burning building, was screaming my name at the top of her lungs. She screamed so loud that I could hear her voice over the roar of the mower that I reluctantly pushed around the lawn. Her voice was coming from the office of the motel that we owned in White Lake, New York, a tiny lakeside village in the Catskill Mountains. I turned and looked at the office to see if there were any flames or billowing smoke. Nothing, of course. The crisis was probably no more life-threatening than a leaky faucet.
“Eliyahu!!!” Now she used my full name to tell me how serious things were. “Get over here. Your suffering momma needs you.” Her voice was as penetrating as a knife.
I turned off the rusty old mower and walked to the office. My mother was standing behind our counter facing a short man in red shirt, mustard yellow Bermuda shorts, knee socks, and a little hat pushed down on his bald head. He was so angry that the rage radiated from his back.
“What’s the problem, Ma?”
“This gentleman with his fancy Cadillac, he wants a refund,” she said, her right hand hatcheting the air and then coming to rest on her chest, as if in expectation of an impending heart attack. “I told him, I said, ‘No refunds.’ I didn’t walk here from Minsk in Russia in twenty-foot snow drifts with the cold potatoes in mine pocket and the Czar’s soldiers running after me just so I should give a refund on your room, Mr. Fancy Gentleman who complains about mine sheets.”
“The sheets are stained,” he said, trying to control his rage. “And I found . . . pubic hairs on the bed, for Chrissake. The telephone doesn’t work and there’s no air conditioner—just a plastic box in the window.”
It was all true, of course. For years, we didn’t have a washing machine so my father, who was the motel’s handyman and jack-of-all-trades, took the sheets down into the basement, piled them high, poured on some detergent, and hosed them down. Sometimes he didn’t bother with the detergent. Then we hung them out to dry in the swampy lot behind the motel, where hundreds of pine trees were located, to give them that “pine fresh” scent.
When we finally did get a washing machine, Momma often refused to add detergent to the water as a way of saving money. Even now, she usually skipped the job of washing sheets altogether, and instead brushed off the hairs and ironed the sheets while they were still on the bed.
As for the phone and air conditioner, both were cosmetic. One day, a disgruntled employee from the telephone company showed up with a hundred phones and an old switchboard—probably from the 1940s—which he promised to install for us, illegally, for $500. My mother, ever the sharpie when it came to a bargain, made him a counteroffer.
“Darling phone man, you think I walked here from Minsk in 1914 at midnight with the raw potatoes in mine pockets so you could cheat me on phones? All we can pay is twelve dollars cash, plus a dozen beers and a big mother’s portion of hot cholent,” which was my mother’s beef and potato stew. Then she sealed the deal by saying, “For all of that, we take it all!”
The guy shrugged his shoulders, dumped the mess of phones, lines, and switchboard in the office, took the money, and went for a drink. We were helpless without his expertise, of course, which meant that all we got for our twelve bucks was the illusion of having telephones. I had Pop put the phones in the rooms, which he did by installing them with staples and adhesive tape. Then we got some air conditioner covers and fitted them into the windows. Once that was done, I placed signs in the rooms and around the motel that said, “Pardon our appearance as we install telephones and air conditioning for your comfort.”
These were some of the reasons we had our customers pay cash up front before they actually saw their rooms, and why I put a rather conspicuous sign on the office counter that said, “Cash only. No refunds.” Whenever someone showed up and wanted to pay with a credit card, my mother sprang into action.
“Gentleman, listen on me. I am an old Jewish momma trying to buy some warm milk for her babies,” she began. “I’ll hold onto this plastic card until you get me cash from your wife. “
I couldn’t be everywhere at once, which meant that my mother was often left one-on-one with potential paying customers—a nightmare from a business perspective, as well as a personal one, since I had to deal with the mess after she was done. Which brings me back to the man standing before me, who looked like he wanted to strangle both of us.
“There’s no towel in the room, either,” the man said.
“Oy, now with the towels. You want a towel,” my mother said, “you pay extra. You want soap, you pay a dollar more. You think we’re giving such things away? What, do I look like a Misses Rockafeller to you?”
“What kind of sham operation is this?” he asked, shaking his head. “I want my money back!”
I wanted to tell him that his money was already gone—that the minute he handed over his cash to my mother it slipped into some kind of cosmic gap in the space-time continuum, a black hole, the opening to which could be found in my mother’s brassiere. Where it went from there was anyone’s guess, but I tried not to think about such things. Still, no matter how many customers we had during any given month—even during the good months, which were painfully few—we never had the money to pay the mortgage and electric bill. The mysterious loss of money was all part of what I liked to call the Teichberg Curse, a malevolent scourge placed upon our family that ensured our ongoing financial ruin. This was one of the reasons I changed my name from Eliyahu Teichberg to Elliot Tiber, a pathetic and altogether ineffective attempt to distance myself from the family karma. Welcome to motel hell, I wanted to tell this man and anyone else who might be listening. But I spared him all the gory details and told him how things worked at our
“The sign says, ‘No refunds,’” I said flatly. “You pay your money and you get the room as is. That’s the agreement here.”
He slammed his hand down on the counter and stormed out of the office.
“Well, Mom, another satisfied customer,” I said without looking at her. “You ever wonder why we don’t get repeat business? There goes today’s answer.”
“You need a girlfriend!” my mother screamed. “When are you going to give me grandchildren?!” She followed me out the front door, her hand chopping the air for emphasis. “Elliot! Where are you going?”
“I’m going to the store. We need milk,” I said.
I got into my black Buick convertible and drove onto Route 17B. Only when I saw our motel get smaller in my rearview mirror did I start to breathe normally again.
It was early June 1969, and the weather was about the only good thing you could find in White Lake, a tiny section of a small village called Bethel just ninety miles north of New York City. When we first arrived in White Lake in 1955, the village of Bethel had a volunteer fire department, one hostile plumber, twenty bars, and a population of some 2,500 souls—many of them, we later discovered, outright bigots. Not much had changed in the ensuing fourteen years.
The Catskills were widely referred to as the Borscht Belt, named for the beet soup favored by many Eastern European Jews. Jewish people began coming to the region at the outset of the twentieth century. They opened hotels, motels, and bungalow colonies where middle- and lower-income people—mostly Jewish New Yorkers—could escape the city heat. Eventually, big resorts were built, such as Grossinger’s and The Concord, where many great comedians—including Sid Caesar, Danny Kaye, Mel Brooks, and Jerry Lewis—regularly performed.
The owners of the motels, bungalow colonies, and resorts created jobs and the region thrived for many years—that is, until the mid-1950s, when people found that they could travel to Florida or Santa Fe for the same price as a vacation in the Catskills. At that point, all the local businesses began to suffer. It was right around that time that my parents bought our motel, which we now called the El Monaco.
By the late 1960s, White Lake, like the entire Catskill resort region, was in the throes of an ever-accelerating downturn. All across Bethel, houses, motels, and old Victorian hotels were uniformly in decline. Porches rotted and window shutters hung off their hinges. Many residents let the ivy grow on the walls of their houses to conceal the peeling paint and bare, weathered wood below. The boat docks at White Lake were slowly sinking into the water. The so-called resorts were no better off. The Catskills were becoming famous for the mysterious fires that occurred after the first Tuesday in September, when the vacationers left for home. Tourist traffic declined and the place became deadly quiet. As business dried up, so did the jobs. People got laid off and the region fell on hard times. And guess who got the blame?
Every so often, I’d have a run-in with one of the locals who did not hesitate to share his rather low opinion of my ethnic and religious origins. One day, a young tough with red hair and a red, pimply face drove his tractor over to our motel to see if we needed our lawn mowed. The truth was, I couldn’t afford to pay the few bucks he wanted for the job. I thanked him and said that the FBI would not permit mowing down the government’s secret experimental nuclear vegetation growing on our grounds.
I was just trying to be friendly and share a laugh with him, but apparently he didn’t get the joke.
“You fuckin’ kike faggot! You fuckin’ with me? I’ll get you, you cocksucking fag Jewboy. I’ll get you and your whoring mother, too!”
Did I say the wrong thing? Maybe he was a touch sensitive on the subject of secret government experiments. A few hours later, he drove his tractor into what I gleefully called the Presidential Wing of our motel. Pop replaced the broken wood paneling with some doors and we all agreed that the remodeling job was an improvement over the old design.
Most of the anti-Semites and displaced Nazis weren’t violent—at least not until later that summer, when a lot of weird and unexpected events started taking place. Many were just as happy to express their displeasure at the existence of our motel, and the Teichberg family, in slyer terms.
There was a sandwich shop and bar in Bethel that I used to frequent for its great parmigiana heroes. The place was run by a guy named Bud, also known as Joe, who lived above his bar with two grown sons who made bricks look smart. One day, I entered Bud’s place in the middle of the afternoon and found him surrounded by some of the local intelligentsia, all of them drunk and disheveled. Bud was holding court.
“I passed by your place at closing time last night,” Bud was saying through a thin, malevolent smile, “and saw you had some mighty strange, big fat women coming out of your motel. Do you charge extra for big gals doing that dirty stuff in your motel rooms? The boys and me were wondering if you can ever get the bed sheets really clean after those kind of women use them. Me? I’d never rent rooms to no dirty lesbos!”
As Bud let forth these sharp-witted observations, the boys hung over their drinks, giggling and panting like hyenas waiting for their prey to make a wrong move.
“Two lame nuns, Bud,” I told him. “Those women last night were both wounded in Korea taking care of our boys. Blinded by mortar shells, poor ladies. They drink to forget what they went through.” The hyenas shut their mouths and looked at me, suddenly confused. “But hey,” I continued, “if you think we shouldn’t welcome heroines like those to our fair town, let’s talk at the next Chamber of Commerce meeting.”
By some bizarre twist of fate, I was president of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce. I had become a member to help attract more business to Bethel in general, and the El Monaco in particular. And given that I was the best educated member present when the vote for president was cast, I became the Chamber’s leader. Go figure.
Driving along Route 17B, I had the impression that one of the local friendlies might toss a rock my way. But all such concerns disappeared as I drove onto my friend Max’s farm.
Max was our milkman. He and his wife, Miriam, owned the prettiest stretch of rolling hills and little valley bowls in all of Sullivan County. He had studied real estate law at New York University, but moved upstate in the 1940s to start a dairy farm. Over the years, Max and Miriam had created one of the largest and most successful dairy productions in eastern New York, complete with a massive refrigeration complex and trucking lines that went all over the state, as well as northern Pennsylvania. The two ran a little shop on the farm that sold their dairy products and a few simple grocery items. Pipe-smoking, wise, and avuncular, Max was a prince and the only real friend I had among the locals. Every year, I did my best to bring more people—and, therefore, more business—to White Lake by organizing a music and arts festival. I also put on plays at the theater that we built on our property out of a barn. Max provided free dairy products, such as yogurt and ice cream, for the audience. He also drove his little red truck around town and posted flyers in the local establishments, advertising the music and arts festival, or the play we might be putting on.
Yet, he always insisted on paying for his tickets to the concerts
Often, I drove to Max’s farm just to get away from the insanity of my motel and my parents—not to mention the fine people of White Lake. Now I moved around his store with a comforting familiarity, picking up containers of milk, yogurt, butter, jam, and other groceries. Meanwhile, Max and I shot the breeze.
“You holding your music festival this summer, Elliot?” Max asked.
“Yup,” I said.
“Anybody special playing?”
“Just the usual gathering of struggling bands. Most of them are local,” I said. “We’ll probably deafen a few people and outrage a few more, but it’ll be a music festival just the same.”
“I’ll be there,” Max said. “You bring a lot to our town, Elliot. God knows we need something. Anything I can do to help, you let me know. Bring over any leaflets you have and I’ll see that they get around town.”
“Thanks, Max. I just hope we get a few people to show up this year,” I said. The only people I could ever count on coming were Max, the Grossingers, and a few other owners of the bigger resorts.
“You keep doing what you’re doing, Elliot,” Max said. “Who knows? Word will spread and your festival may catch on. You may be surprised.”
“Don’t count on it, Max. Rumor has it that the mob used to bury the bodies in White Lake because they knew that Bethel is just another word for lost.”
Max laughed as he punched the prices of my few items into his cash register.
“But thanks for the support, Max. My fantasies are all that keep me going these days.” That, and the good-natured calm of my friend, Max Yasgur.
Truth was, I cherished a lot of fantasies, and those secrets closest to my heart could not be revealed to the ordinary folk of White Lake, or to much of the rest of the world, for that matter. But one fantasy did involve this joyless place, and that millstone I called a motel. I dreamed of creating a music festival that would bring people to Bethel, fill my motel, and show a profit so I could sell the thing to some rich fool. So far, we hadn’t turned a profit in the fourteen years we owned the place, and thanks to the Teichberg Curse, my music and arts festivals were a bust. But some fantasies die hard, and for reasons that were an utter mystery to me, I still had hope.
“This book is absolutely amazing! This reviewer couldn't put it down--in fact, read it twice before writing this review. If you've ever dreamed of being at Woodstock or even if you were there, the author Elliot Tiber will take you back.”
--Midwest Book Review
“Momentous...[a] thoroughly entertaining tale [and] very human story.”
“Comic and creative...[from] the man who serendipitously brought the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival to Bethel, NY, in the summer of 1969...recommended.”
“The true story of Elliot Tiber, hero of the original Woodstock Festival...[a] snapshot of America Yesterday.”
--The New York Post
“Gleefully candid and often hilarious...the story of a middle-aged gay man challenging bigotry, intolerance, and the rural peace of Upstate New York residents for the legal rights to sing, dance, and make love not war.”
“One of the Hudson Valley’s greatest stories...about one man’s role in helping to bring the famous festival to the Yasgur Farm in Bethel.”
--The Times Herald-Record
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