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The Little Motel That Helped Save Woodstock

On the 45th anniversary of the music festival, Elliot Tiber tells the story of how his family's broken-down motel helped bring Woodstock to life.

In the sixties, Elliot Tiber was a self-proclaimed "hotshot interior designer" living it up in Manhattan's West Village, openly gay without a care in the world. Well, except for his parents' run-down motel in White Lake, New York. The place was losing money and his parents were behind on the mortgage. What were they going to do? Fortunately, it just so happened Woodstock's producers were in need of a place to crash and were scouting for a place to host the festival. Tiber wrote about his experience in a memoir called Taking Woodstock, which was later turned into a film by the same name. Here, in celebration of the music festival's 45th anniversary, Tiber shares the short version of the hilarious story of how his family's small business helped bring Woodstock to life.  

It was 1959. I was an interior designer in New York and a college teacher. I was designing homes and showrooms and was head of a color marketing group. Then my folks sold their house furnishings store and moved up to White Lake. We built this El Monaco motel with 10 rooms, then added 10 more and 10 more and bought some bungalows nearby. Somehow I also became the president of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce.

For 10 years I went up there in the summers and dumped my money into the hotel. As president of the Chamber of Commerce, I decided to issue myself a music festival permit. Trouble was, I couldn't get anybody to perform. We used some local teens to play music on the lawn. But only one person came every summer, the nearby milk man, Max Yasgur, who paid a dollar. 

Meanwhile, the bank kept annoying me for the mortgage money. I was an artist; I studied with Mark Rothko. Abstract Expressionism. I kept giving the bank a painting every summer. Every time they bugged me I said, "Charlie, come on, you have my painting here." 

Elliot Tiber

One day in 1969, I saw in the local papers in Wallkill, New York--Wallkill, they kill anything--a picture of the mayor. In an article about about a music festival that some people were planning, he was quoted saying, "We don't want no dirty hippies or dirty lesbians on our streets, raping our cows." So I called up Woodstock Ventures and asked for the name of [festival co-producer], Mike Lang. I got him on the phone and said, "I have a festival permit. I have 15 acres of land, do your festival here." 

So It Began

He said he was going to need a helipad. We didn't have a helipad. "Do you have a lawn?" he asked. I said sure. "Do you have linens?" I said, "Well, they're not so clean, but we have them." So he said, "Go make a cross on your lawn and we'll land there." I go to make a cross on the lawn and my religious Jewish mother said, "No cross on our lawn, I don't want that!" 

Anyway, they arrived. I show him the grounds and it's all mud, like a swamp, and I say, "That's all I have." By now there's a mob looking at the helicopter--they were not sophisticated types in White Lake--and I said, "Wait a minute, my milk man loves music! He has 80 acres of open land--it's got cows on it." 

We go there, they look at the land, and realize it was a natural amphitheater. So we spoke to Max and Max said, "I've never had anybody play here before." He said, "$100, you guys can have it." [The producers] gave him $200. Later on, he thought better of it and asked for more. They didn't care, they gave him $50,000 in cash. Some people heard us talking and soon this was all over the local radio.

Back at my place, my mother didn't want to go near the dirty hippies and she said, "You're not renting our rooms to these dirty hippies." I ignored her. Lang asked how many rooms we had. We had 72--without keys and no matching sheets. He said, "I'll tell you what, Elliot, I'll pay you $175 a day for each room and I'll rent the place for three months in advance." He counts out $50,000 in cash for the rentals. Mother looked at it and right away she put all the money she could stuff into her brassiere. Then he added, "And I'll pay you as president of the Chamber of Commerce." And he paid me $50,000 more. So then he peels out that money and mother grabs it and runs down to the basement to the old mattress, because she didn't trust the bank, and then he paid another $50,000 for something else. 

Tiber around the time of the concert. (He cannot recall the blonde next to him.)

After that Lang said, "Where are the phones?" I said, "Well, the rooms don't have phones. We can't afford it. There's one pay phone on the lawn, but the phone company makes us pay for it." He goes to the phone, he makes a couple calls, and within a couple hours there are a dozen companies installing phones all over the place. Over 18,000 people showed up with tractor trailer trucks, with equipment, with everything necessary to build an infrastructure. We filled the rooms instantly. 

The Resistance

Three, four weeks they're building on the farm, and everyone is watching. Finally, the local right-wingers formed a committee one Tuesday to shut the whole thing down. They said, "we're not allowing any festival, we're making your permit invalid, and we're firing you as president of the Chamber of Commerce. 

I got all upset. "They're gonna stop the festival and all this money we have to refund!" And my mother said, "What refund? There's no refund! And I'm not telling you where the money is." By then we'd taken the money to the bank and paid off the mortgage. They couldn't believe we had the money. 

The El Monaco motel in all its dilapidated glory circa 1969.

One of the hotel rooms was where NBC radio was setting up shop, and Lang said, "Go in there, and tell the country what's going on." I said, "What will I say?" He said, "You're a talker, you have a big mouth." I said to nobody--we were in a bedroom; the curtains didn't match the bedspread--"Look, there are gonna be three days of peace, love, and music." No one was going to stop us. And I added, I don't know why--"If you don't have tickets, don't worry, it's all free now. No tickets needed, it should all be free!" 

Well, the producers were having a heart attack. They sold a lot of tickets. 

They Came in Droves

Around 3 in the morning, we began to hear noises. My dad and I got baseball bats because we were used to the locals harassing us. We went outside and saw the two lane road was now five lanes. We could see five miles down the road an endless stream of cars coming. And music! Kids were sitting on top of cars and singing. 

There were no signs for Woodstock, so I made a placard that said "Welcome to Woodstock" and I stood out with my father, waving them on. 

The main street in our town filled up. We never saw so many people at the hotel. People were checking in and paying cash. By 8 a.m., it was just a sea of humanity. And on the TV was Governor Rockefeller announcing, "the New York State Thruway is now closed from New York City to White Lake due to the festival. Do not go near there."

In all directions, there were people. We saw license plates from New Mexico, Canada ... Free was the word, nobody had to buy tickets. So that Tuesday was the beginning. The festival's going on and the music's playing and everyone's stoned and having sex.

For three days we completely sold out of everything. Eventually some of the local townspeople started making sandwiches and giving them out. At first they were selling water for $5 a bottle. There was no bottled water, you filled Pepsi bottles with water. I've often thought of this, if we had Internet then and cell phones, we could have had 25 million people there. 

My father was crying in the midst of it all and said, "Look what you did with your big mouth. This is amazing!" And he never spoke to me, he was a quiet man.

Sunday night within three, four hours, there was nothing left but a sea of towels, mattresses, and bedspreads all over. Kids stayed over and volunteered and picked up every scrap of mud, blankets, and all this. They cleaned up all the garbage. 

My father died a year later and we buried him facing Woodstock. We were going broke and Woodstock saved us. I met Janis Joplin, who was my idol, and the Grateful Dead. Crosby, Stills, Nash came to my place to shower and change. 

A lot of people were totally unknown before. But the moment they appeared on the stage, they became world famous. The summer before was the Summer of Love and the flower children came up with the peace symbol. A lot of them came to the festival. They came for peace, love, and music. That had never happened before on such a scale. 

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IMAGES: Getty Images, Courtesy Elliot Tiber
Last updated: Aug 15, 2014

JILL KRASNY | Staff Writer

Jill Krasny is a staff writer for Inc. magazine, where she covers the intersection of entertainment and startups. Prior to Inc., she was a writer for MTV and Esquire and an editor at TheStreet. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California with a degree in communication. She lives in New York City.




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