Woodstock 1969: Will The Success Ever Be Matched?

The story of how Woodstock 1969 came to be is an interesting factual tale. Just as my title suggests it was one of the most iconic events in music history. Yet and still it was an incredible success which has yet to be duplicated. At the time, planning the concert that was billed as an “Aquarian Expostion” was expected to cost approximately $500,000. Advance ticket sales raked in $1.3 million dollars, more than enough to get back that investment and you would think make quite a nice profit as well.  However by the time Woodstock 1969 was said and done, festival expenses had spiraled to $2.6 million caused by unplanned/unforeseen costs like helicopter rentals, additional food, emergency medical supplies and more. Of course when you plan for 50,000 attendees and about 500,000 show up, it changes all your best laid plans, dynamics and of course finances. Fortunately the organizers had a share of both the record sales and receipts from the Academy Award-winning documentary film, Woodstock: Three Days Of Peace & Music which by 1979, ten years after the actual event had grossed more than $50 million dollars worldwide. Eventually it “saved their bacon” as the saying goes.

As a 19 year-old working in the non-theatrical department of Warner Brothers in New York City, I was privy to many things about the new films of the time.  I also knew well in advance about a planned “festival” in August which was going to be held in upstate NY, in what we who summered there called, “the borscht belt”.  It was being called the Woodstock Music and Art Festival.  The reason for my advanced knowledge was because Warner Brothers was making the movie and a production office was set up in our offices about six months prior to the event.  Thus Alan the guy I was dating at the time (he worked in the Warners mailroom) and I bought tickets to attend Woodstock.  Actually we went to Bethel, NY which is where the festival actually took place.  Encompassed in this story is a series of my own photos from the e-book I wrote about the experience of going to Woodstock, called The Bethel Bash.  The photos turned out very well, considering they were taken with a little Kodak Instamatic camera. The fact that we managed to get about 50 feet from center stage is what made my vantage point for shooting them so good.

The organizers of Woodstock were four young men: John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lang, the oldest of whom was just 27. Roberts, heir to a pharmaceutical fortune and his friend Rosenman were searching for ways that Roberts could invest and build on his money.  They placed an ad in The New York Times which read, “Young men with unlimited capital looking for interesting, legitimate investment opportunities and business propositions”.  Kornfeld and Lang answered that ad with a proposal of their own. It was to build a recording studio up in Woodstock, NY where Bob Dylan and other musicians lived.  The idea eventually was changed into a plan for a two-day rock concert for 50,000 people in Woodstock in hopes it would raise the money to pay for the studio. John Roberts and Joel Rosenman liked what they heard and joined forces with Kornfeld and Lang.

As it turned out their main problem became location, location location. The original site chosen was an industrial park in Walkill, NY, but the citizens of Walkill did not want “a bunch of drugged-out hippies” descending on them, and the town passed a law in July of 1969 that effectively banned the concert from their vicinity. Tickets had been printed and the four organizers had already begun lining up food, facilities, signing musicians, hiring security and were panicked when the town shut them out.  Thus only a month prior to the concert, a new location had to be found.

When news spread of the problem people began demanding refunds on pre-purchased tickets and things seemed bleak.  Luckily in mid-July a dairy-farmer named Max Yasgur offered up his 600-acre farm in nearby Bethel, NY as the new location for the Woodstock Festival.  Fortunate as that was the last-minute venue change caused new serious setbacks in the Festival timeline.  Preparations which included acquiring contracts and permits with the town of Bethel, construction of things like the stage,  a performers’ pavilion, parking lots, concession stands, even a children’s playground were seriously delayed.  Everything got a late start and was barely finished in time for the event. Some things such as ticket booths and gates did not get completed at all.

It soon appeared that the original estimate of 50,000 attendees was way too low, and it jumped to 200,000 people.  The young entrepreneurs tried to bring in more toilets, water and food but to no avail.  It turns out that the food concessionaires they hired were totally inexperienced and kept threatening to cancel at the last minute.  I can attest to that issue since by the time I was able to get near the one stand with food, the “Hog Farm” it had no food whatsoever to sell.  Also problematic for the organizers was the ban on off-duty policeman working the event and thus security was practically non-existent. Yet and still, not one act of violence marred the 3-day concert.

By August 13th, just two days before the planned festival’s start, 50,000 people had already descended on Bethel, NY and were camping out near the stage. They had walked right through the huge gaps in the fences, where no gates or ticket booths had been placed.  I know because when I got there on Saturday August 16th, I did the same thing.  By then, the fences were down and we just walked right into the field. Thus the young organizers were stuck with having to declare Woodstock a rather expensive free concert. When news spread that it was free, an estimated one million people headed to Bethel, NY. On Friday, August 15th, for the first time in history the New York State Thruway was shut down. Police turned away thousands of cars, yet it is estimated that 500,000 made it to the cow pasture that was Woodstock and I was one of them.

No one had anticipated or planned for half a million people and highways in the area literally became parking lots as people abandoned their cars and walked the final distance to Bethel and the music.  Ditto here, it was 10 miles on Route 17B for me and my date Alan. It was along that journey we happened upon and helped ourselves to some beautiful original Woodstock brochures which were just bundled, stacked and sitting next to one of the downed fences.  In fact, traffic was so bad that the organizers were forced to hire helicopters to shuttle the performers from their hotels to the stage.

On Friday evening, August 15th despite all the woes the four young organizers faced, the Woodstock Festival got started almost nearly on time, with Richie Havens taking the stage as the opening act. Also performing that evening were Sweetwater and Joan Baez. Alan and I had to work that Friday.  Between that and the traffic problems we were forced to go to a motel that night and did not arrive to the festival until the next afternoon, Saturday August 16th. The music started up again as we were arriving with the Swedish band Quill.  The music continued non-stop until Sunday at around 9am, jamming solidly with artists like Santana, Janis Joplin (who was paid $7,500 for the event), The Who, The Grateful Dead just to drop a few names. I remember getting very little sleep that Saturday night, falling asleep for a little while as Jefferson Airplane was doing their set, and awaking to them Sunday morning as well.

By the afternoon of Sunday, August 17th it was obvious to everyone that Woodstock was winding down,  Throughout the day most of the crowd had headed home, leaving about 150,000 still there enjoying the music. Alan and I had to work the next day, and we left that Sunday night as well. 

By the time Jimi Hendrix, the last musician to play at Woodstock finished his set early that Monday morning, the crowd had dwindled down to only about 25,000. Despite the half hour lines for water and almost one-hour waits to use a toilet, Woodstock was a huge success. Sure there were lots of drugs, sex & nudity and tons of mud (it rained almost constantly that weekend) but all who attended would tell you we had the time of our lives. Whenever I tell people I went to Woodstock, they look at me like I’m some kind of iconic figure.

The four young men who organized Woodstock were simply dazed at its end. They didn’t have time to focus on the fact that they had created the most popular musical event ever in history.  First they had to deal with the enormous debt they were in (over a million dollars) as well as about 70 lawsuits that had been filed against them.  To their relief, the movie that Warner Brothers made of it helped, as it covered what they owed. That same summer we walked on the moon; Charles Manson and his followers committed two of the most heinous crimes in this country’s history and Ted Kennedy was involved in the death of Mary Jo Kopekne in Chappaquiddick. However, the story that capped off that summer of how four young men made music history in a little town called Bethel in upstate New York is the one I will always think of first.

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