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Before Woodstock 50, there was Mountaindale

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Last week’s ultimate collapse and cancellation of Woodstock 50 is reminiscent of a long forgotten festival that was to take place in Sullivan County: the doomed Bach to Rock Festival. Months leading up to the summer of 1970, Orwell Ventures, consisting of Budd Filippo and Martin Dell, bought 600 acres of land in the hamlet of Mountaindale, NY. They hired music impresario Manny Fox of NYC to handle the talent.

The men had a vision of a summer-long series of cultural events; they would bill it as the Mountaindale Music and Arts Community. There would be classical performances with opera stars of the day such as Jan Peerce and Roberta Peters. They had plans for seven Broadway musicals and two dance recitals. The opening concert would headline the world-famous American classical pianist Van Cliburn. In addition to these performances, they planned to hold four rock concerts. Yes, four rock concerts in Sullivan County, less than a year after 400,000 young people descended onto Yasgur’s Farm in Bethel.

When news traveled of plans for rock concerts, battle lines were drawn. Supporters included the Catskill Mountain Resort Association, the Town of Fallsburg supervisor and members of the Fallsburg Town Board. The opposition was spearheaded by a clergyman from White Lake and the Concerned Citizens of Sullivan County; their mission was to prevent the influx of drugs and immorality that occurred during the Woodstock festival.

Filippo continued to develop the festival site: built a stage, a reservoir, laid water pipes and electrical lines. Between the land deal and improvements, about $250,000 of investors’ money was already sunk into the project. Just like the Woodstock site, the fencing around the 11-acre performance area, which was to hold 100,000 attendees, was still unfinished as the first concert date rapidly approached.

Construction deadlines and un-issued permits were not the only obstacles Orwell Ventures faced. They wrote a $22,000 check to secure their first rock act scheduled for July 11. The impressive bill featured Joe Cocker, Ten Years After, Grand Funk Railroad, Jethro Tull and Mountain. Only in late June did they discover they had a booking problem. Brave New World Productions was planning a concert on Randall’s Island in mid-July and had the bands legally tied up within a 100-mile radius of New York City.

By the beginning of July, it looked like everything was set to precede. Van Cliburn would open up on Tuesday, July 7. For the Saturday, July 11 show, Manny Fox had managed to book The Band, Blodwyn Pig, Cathy Smith, The Grateful Dead, John Sebastian, The Kinks, Richie Havens, The Voices of East Harlem, Van Morrison and Biff Rose (acting as master of ceremonies).

On the morning of Tuesday, July 7, a temporary restraining order against the Mountaindale Music and Arts Festival was upheld by an Appellate Division Justice. The recital by Van Cliburn had to be cancelled. There was still hope for Saturday’s rock festival, if the temporary injunction were set aside on Friday when the festival’s attorneys planned to challenge it in Sullivan County Supreme Court.

That Friday, by the time the injunction decision was upheld by the State Supreme Court and the concert was cancelled, more than 15,000 people were already on their way to Mountaindale. By Saturday morning, the streets of Mountaindale were awash with a menagerie of youth. Many had braved the rain earlier in the week to walk and hitchhike, others drove rented vehicles or took the Shortline bus. The state police had closed all access roads to the concert site.

A small group of hippies was handing out pamphlets touting a hastily arranged free concert at the Summit Hotel 10 miles away in South Fallsburg. Word quickly spread of “The People’s Party,” and the sea of humanity began its slow exodus from Mountaindale to South Fallsburg by any means possible.

By July 1970, a year after Woodstock, the old Summit Hotel had its glory days behind it. It was currently being managed by a group of entrepreneurial hippies hoping to cash in on the success of the Bach to Rock festivals. “The People’s Party” site consisted of a hay field with a stage, P.A. system and flatbed truck full of amplifiers. There was a “free food” kitchen consisting of donated canned goods. It was accompanied by a “hospital tent,” manned by none other than Dr. William Abruzzi, the resident physician at Woodstock. There was a production crew that had a film camera mounted on a tripod on top of a truck parked near the stage. It was believed the crew had intended to film the doomed Bach to Rock festival.

Rumor had it that The Grateful Dead had agreed to play for free so a collection was taken up to hire a helicopter to transport them from New York City. An impromptu auction for a giant grocery bag of homegrown pot realized $105 dollars for the kitty. Unbelievably, over $2,000 was raised from this rag-tag army of free spirits. Unfortunately for the crowd, the “Bread for Dead” effort came to naught and the money eventually went to travelling food vendors to supply free food.

Some local musicians entertained the crowd but it wasn’t until very late evening that Richie Havens showed up, making him the only scheduled act of the cancelled Mountaindale festival to do so. Havens played and spoke to the crowd. At dawn, he finished his set with a rendition of the Beatles song “Here Comes The Sun.”

In late October, Orwell Ventures would have their day in court. County of Sullivan versus Budd Filippo established the future guidelines for all mass gatherings in Sullivan County. The court case exposed that Orwell Ventures proved to have little to no accounting records and great difficulty reconciling who their investors were. The county’s case was strong, and by the time the decision went against Orwell Ventures, they were broke and their dreams of Bach to Rock were finished.

It would be another 11 years before the hills of Sullivan County would come alive with the sound of music, but that is another story.

Eugene Wolff is a graduate of the Narrowsburg Central Rural High School and is an International Agronomist. Arriving in Tusten in July 1969 his parents built a home on the river in Narrowsburg. In the summer of 1981 he was a college intern at the newly opened outdoor amphitheater “Music Mountain” in Woodridge. This was the first legal outdoor venue for rock concerts allowed in Sullivan County since Woodstock. Eugene continues to business travel and lives part-time in Narrowsburg.

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