Finally, I made it to Woodstock. It only took me 39 years.
I still have two tickets to Woodstock, because when the older guy who had wheels heard the traffic reports, he bailed. Last time I looked on eBay.com, the tickets were worth only $110. Back then, of course, it turned out that nobody needed tickets anyhow. The crowds were so great, clogging roads for miles in all directions, that the promoters made the 1969 three-day festival free.
In June, an interactive museum opened that takes you back to Woodstock if you were there, and it is the next best thing to being there if you never were. The colorful displays and documentary footage explore not just Woodstock, but the '60s.
Somewhat confusingly, this place, on the rise above the field where the historic concerts happened, is called The Museum at Bethel Woods, and it's in Bethel, N.Y. This is the site of Woodstock, which was the name of the legendary event that wasn't held in Woodstock. The event, officially known as the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, was held at Max B. Yasgur's farm in Bethel after the backers ran into problems with other sites. Often, visitors travel about 70 miles north to the town of Woodstock, only to find they are in the wrong place.
This museum should go a long way toward putting Bethel Woods on the map and immersing visitors in the '60s and Woodstock.
Small town, big museum
If Woodstock itself was a simple idea that grew big, the museum about it is big from the beginning. The main exhibit gallery is 6,728 square feet (roughly the size of an average Long Island property lot), with 20 films, five interactive productions, 300 photographic murals and dozens of text panels, in large, easy-to-read type. In addition, there is a special 4,626-square-foot exhibit gallery, with borrowed items from collectors and other museums.
The soaring structure is a time capsule back to the '60s, with pulsing surround-sound music, history timelines from the era and recordings of musicians, Woodstock participants and locals giving their stories of the festival. Footage from Woodstock, some of it never seen, is projected on a 21-foot-high screen in full high-definition. You can even lie on the floor (or sit on a bench, if you prefer) to take in a nine-minute immersion media experience. Oh, those tie-dyed shirts and long skirts bring back memories. It's like living inside a documentary film and, in fact, film production is by The History Channel.
The decade was a time of turmoil and protest, as the Baby Boomers came of age. The exhibit does not give those themes short shrift. The Vietnam War, the John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy assassinations and even a glancing reference to drugs are all part of the show.
From Havens to Hendrix
The continuously running 21-minute film was so evocative of the time and place that I wanted to see it all over again. Who can ever get enough of Richie Havens' impromptu "Freedom," invented on the spot when the crowd clamored for more, or of Jimi Hendrix playing his wailing, sorrowful, hopeful version of "The Star Spangled Banner"? When you've taken it in - allow hours, or even a whole day - leave your own thoughts in a recording booth.
Just down the hill from the museum is the grassy pasture where thousands gathered. It slopes into a natural amphitheater, where the stage was set up.
At the edge of the field is a commemorative plaque listing all the performers who played there: Havens and Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and The Who.
The day I visited for a press tour, Havens and John Sebastian, who also played at the concert, posed in front of a psychedelically painted school bus for a photo op. (And I took home a similarly painted toy VW Beetle, a cool souvenir available at the gift shop.)
The images at the museum "are not only familiar, they're friends," Sebastian said. "The woman who taught me to tie-dye was represented."
Duke Devlin, now a site interpreter at the museum, traveled to Woodstock from Amarillo, Texas, and likes to say that he never left. "Is it over yet?" he quipped, standing beside the plaque. Where the plaque now is, Devlin used to see tourists looking around and consulting maps. "All these suit guys call it a museum," Devlin said. "I call it a time machine. It's the closest I can get to the flavors of Woodstock. It sings, it talks, it's Woodstock."
Finally, I'm there, too. It was worth the wait.
IF YOU GO
Bethel is about 125 miles from Long Island, a 2 1/2-hour drive. The museum is open daily 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tickets are $13 for adults, $9 ages 8-17. Advance purchase is recommended via Ticketmaster, 631-888-9000 or at ticketmaster.com. For more information, visit bethelwoodscenter.org.
WHERE TO EAT
These are recommendations from the museum staff for dining before or after a visit:
Bubba's BBQ, 1568 Rte. 17B, Exit 104 off the New York State Thruway; 845-583-4333. Overlooking scenic White Lake, near Bethel Woods, this family-friendly spot serves down-home Southern-style breakfast, lunch and dinner and has indoor and outdoor decks.
Benji & Jakes, Route 55, Kauneonga Lake; 845-583-4031. Lakefront dining, often with live music. Noted for its brick- oven pizza.
The Bake House, Route 55, Kauneonga Lake; 845-583-5800.
Artisan bakery with breads, pastries, pies and cookies.