The hub of all that took place during Woodstock was its stage. It gave the festival a focal point and all 500,000 people in attendance came to see what was happening on it. The stage has slept for almost 49 years, locked into a paddleball court of a bungalow colony in Woodbourne, NY. It woke up in late 2017 and asked if Nixon was still president. We told it there have been eight presidents since then. There are so many similarities between 1969 and 2019, especially since the way the country will be remade in someone’s image! Remember Rip Van Winkle, who fell asleep in Tarrytown, NY and woke up 20 years later? Our Woodstock Stage had an even longer nap, waking up close to 49 years later to find very little looks like it did the night Woodstock began. Here are the thoughts and memories of “The Stage Whisperer: The Stage with All the Stories.”
I wasn’t sure where I was going to end up, but I was pretty surprised I wound up here! I was supposed to be perhaps in Saugerties, then when that didn’t work out, maybe in the Town of Wallkill. The original plan was to make sure there was enough music taking place on me to allow the owners to make some money and build a studio in Woodstock.
The first idea of a festival was planned for 50,000 people, tons of concessions, bathrooms, parking, ticket booths. Oh, and the guys building me would take the time and care to do it right. I’ve got brothers and sisters all over the world and if you build us right, we’ll last a long, long time. They only wanted me to last three days – August 15, 16, and 17, 1969. It turned out Woodstock didn’t end until the 18th and I’m still around!
But trouble came around in early summer for the guys - Messrs. Rosenman, Roberts, Kornfeld, and Lang, who organized the festival. On one side of the team was Roberts, who was disciplined and knew what was needed for the venture to succeed, while the laid-back Lang saw Woodstock as a new, "relaxed" way of bringing entrepreneurs together.
We did have a great poster, which had its own problems! The original one was designed by the guy who did all those awesome Fillmore East posters, but it was deemed a bit too racy for shop owners to want to display. So, they got this artist Arnold Skolnick to create the poster we all know. They had dates set, talent ready to go and so on. But the Town of Wallkill threw the largest monkey wrench it could find into the mix. After much debate, the town zoning board passed a law in July 1969, that effectively banned the concert from their vicinity because they were afraid there weren’t going to be enough toilets for 50k. What they didn’t know sure didn’t end up biting them! 50k! They didn’t want us, didn’t want the young people who’d come and didn’t want the inconvenience of it all. They gave us the boot.
So, the four guys, none of whom was 28 years old, a hell of lot younger than I am now, were in a jam. Where could they put on this thing? Plus, it was getting frighteningly close. They had radio and newspaper ads running all over the country promoting the concert. DJs were talking about it and people were on their way to see it. With me being the largest piece of infrastructure and the most necessary element of the festival, thank you, they were really facing the abyss.
But then, up steps this older guy, a dairy farmer named Max Yasgur and he offers his 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel for the location for what was still being called the “Woodstock Music and Art Fair, an Aquarian Exposition!” Good thing it got shortened to just “Woodstock.” While Mr. Yasgur had the largest dairy operation in Sullivan County at the time - which was boycotted by some in the community for hosting us - the festival actually took place on one of his hay fields about three miles from his home farm. He owned several tracts of land for his cattle and growing hay for feed, so I was going to be created in a hay field.
But as lucky as the organizers were to have found a new location, the very change put everyone in a near panic. Shifting the entire festival to near Monticello, just outside White Lake, was like changing your state capital or moving out of your house into a new one in a day! It set the schedule of everything way back - dangerously so.
New contracts to rent the farm, use of surrounding areas and permits for just about everything had to be acquired and quickly.
Just as the concert site was being finalized, a new, potentially dangerous problem was cropping up. As the date got closer, it appeared that their 50,000-attendee estimate was way too low, and the new number jumped to more than 200,000. Four times as many people!
The many dozens of people they brought in to build me had to work long and hard and fast.Everything was created for 50,000 and by the time the weekend got into full swing, there were 400,000 – closer to a half million people. The sound system was set for a smaller festival, the concessions, bathrooms, roads, parking, all prepared for an event a fraction of the size of what it ended up. Even I was going to be too small, when you think about it.
No way did I believe it was going to get done. Neither did the promoters. So just a few days before the start of the festival, they had to make a choice - finish building me so at least there’d be a concert, or complete the fencing and ticket booths, so they could make some money. People were already starting to come into the area, so they went full steam ahead making sure I was intact.
Chip Monck and his crew, hired for a 10-week build when it was going to be in Wallkill, now descended like an army. They were literally finishing me as Richie Havens, the first of 32 acts scheduled, was ready to walk out. Chip and I became best friends as he not only built me, but not long before the festival started they hired him to be the MC. He was one of the coolest people to ever walk my planks!
I had many moments of fear over the next several days as they finished me. But Havens’ heavy foot pounding during the impromptu “Freedom” hardly moved me a bit and I knew then we were set to go. There would be so many people walking on me over the next 65 hours. I had to stay strong, stay upright and not give anyone a second thought about the structural integrity of the focal point of the festival - through the wind and rain, through the dangerous combination of electricity and water, and through the generation-changing entertainment to come.
We were ready! There are so many stories of what happened on my almost 10,000 square feet. I’ll tell you as many as I can remember, since I’ve lost a bit of what I once was over the past half century! But I’ll do my best!