By Mike Schneider
“What is Woodstock 50?” This was the first of many questions Michael Lang would answer over the course of a public forum held in the village of Watkins Glen on the evening of March 27th. The tension in the room was palpable as he explained that “Woodstock 50 [is] a celebration of the values of Woodstock and ones that we think are really pertinent today, in terms of the world we’re living in; things like the environment and social issues at present.”
For what it’s worth, Michael Lang might be the only person who knows the answer to the aforementioned question. The “once in a lifetime event” is billed as the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair 2019, or ‘Woodstock 50’, which may (or may not) be held at Watkins Glen International Speedway on August 16th, 17th and 18th of this year. Woodstock 50 is one of several events being held this summer to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the original Woodstock Music and Art Fair held in 1969.
Other notable celebrations vying for your attention this August include four separate days of ‘Song and Celebration’ at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts on the site of the original festival (August 15th, 16th, 17th & 18th), and a somewhat smaller ‘Yasgur Road Reunion’ held on the plot of land directly adjacent to the original site (August 15th through 18th). As Jeryl Abramson, the organizer of Yasgur Road Productions told the Phoenix, “Each one of those [events] represents one of the three areas of Woodstock. One has the local, one has the real estate and the other one has the market.”
YASGUR ROAD REUNION 2019
Jeryl Abramson, owner/operator of Yasgur Road Productions, and her late husband Roy Howard, have been holding annual Woodstock ‘reunions’ at their farm for twenty-three years. They purchased the farm, originally owned by Max Yasgur, in the town of Bethel, New York, in 1993. Howard, a Bethel native, initially bought the property on speculation.
When the first large-scale anniversary festival was held in 1994 to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Woodstock in Saugerties, New York, Howard and Abramson realized the unique opportunity they had in front of them. Starting in 1996, their reunions have drawn thousands of attendees and a handful of big name performers, including Melanie Kafka and Country Joe McDonald.
In an on-air interview with the Phoenix’s Heat Radio, Abramson described her own Woodstock experience, at the original festival in 1969. Almost accidently, she was swept up in the magic of that weekend while vacationing in Sullivan County with her family for the summer, “I didn’t find out about [Woodstock] until it actually started happening, and then I was in the middle of it.” She also described what Sullivan County was like in the late sixties, prior to the change of the guard, “The end of the era of the Borsch Belt, which was what Sullivan County was known as, was really 1969.”
After Howard passed away in 2013, Abramson continued holding gathering on the farm. “I can have up to 5000 [campers] on my permit, but I don’t know that I can fit that many here. I think that our cap will be maybe around 3,000, at maybe that much.” Talking about Bethel in general, she explained that “We don’t have enough places for people to stay here right now. All the hotels and bungalow colonies are gone and we just don’t have the lodging.” With that said, Jeryl added that “What I find most interesting is that here we are fifty years later and I find that Sullivan County is going back to [what it was like before Woodstock].”
She also made note of how well the county government has prepared for the fiftieth anniversary, mentioning that “We have a shuttle that will take you, if you want to go into the village, or you want to go to Bethel Woods for a show.” This will prevent any of the traffic jams that the town experienced back in 1969.
Of course, with all of the controversy surrounding Woodstock 50, it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate fact from fiction. On April 18th, four days before the tickets for Woodstock 50 were supposed to be put up for sale, WSYR (LocalSyracuse.com) reported that, at long last, local venders were being invited to submit their applications to participate in the event, with the festival organizers promising that more than 1,100 locals were going to be hired to staff various positions in preparation for the festival.
This matched up with statements Lang had made during the question and answer forum in March, saying, “Everything that we do is really focused on involving the community. All the money that we spend for building the site or staffing the site, we always look to using local contractors so that everyone can benefit from the experience.” Later on he added, “This is not a free festival. Because of the amount of money these things cost … the amount of supplies and contractors and everything else that goes into them — millions of dollars go into the county, the community.” It is worthwhile to mention that Lang received jubilant applause for that second comment, relieving some of the hostility in the room that night.
Even with that bit of good news, on April 21st, the scheduled release of on-sale tickets for Woodstock 50 were delayed, indefinitely. Despite the fact that Lang had previously indicated that he was not selling any ‘big block’ tickets to resellers, ticket scammers wasted no time taking advantage of the confusion. On April 22nd, TicketNews.com reporting that Woodstock 50 had reached the number one spot on their ‘Top 20 Best-Selling Events’ list.
Michael Lang and his production team must obtain a ‘mass gathering’ permit from the New York State Department of Health in order to begin selling tickets for the festival. Tickets cannot be sold prior to the issuance of that permit, although a conditional permit can be issued if the applicant provides sufficient information about their mass gathering procedures.
In early April, the Schuyler County legislature requested lead agency status over the NYS Environmental Quality Review and its subsequent approval. If the environmental review is approved, the NYS DOH will supply the mass gathering permit for the festival, followed by a county permit.
During the same Schuyler County legislature meeting, County Administrator Tim O’ Hearn was asked about the anticipated attendance numbers for the Woodstock 50 festival. O’ Hearn was quoted as saying that “Actually, the number right now is a maximum of 75,000, and it may not even be that much based on what [Lang and his associates] have asked us.”
Back in March, before Woodstock 50 was receiving substantial media attention, Hits Daily Double reported that Michael Lang assured his former financial backer, Dentsu Aegis, that an increased capacity limit of 125,000 attendees would be approved for the festival. Perhaps unsurprisingly, and in yet another setback, Dentsu pulled out the festival on April 29th.
According to Michael Lang, “225,000 tickets were sold [for Woodstock 99] and 225,000 people came.” That would make Woodstock 50 dramatically smaller, when compared to the size of the previous, large-scale Woodstock. Furthermore, Lang announced that there will not be an on-site box office for Woodstock 50. When asked how he would control for the people who show up to the festival without tickets, like they did in 1969 and 1994, Lang replied, “By 1999, there were no people that came without tickets. It hasn’t happened anywhere in the country for the last twenty years.”
Although merely speculation, if Woodstock 50 were to become cancelled, the fallout might create a good deal of chaos for the small Town of Bethel during that weekend in August, much like it did fifty years ago. As the home of the original festival and the only other game in town, people might do whatever they have to do to enjoy themselves that weekend; ticket booths and vacancy signs be damned.