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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.

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.

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.

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. 

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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Woodstock 1969: Will The Success Ever Be Matched?