Mar. 23, 2008
BY ELLEN KANNER
Elliot Tiber's life before Woodstock was not exactly groovy. He'd
given up his job as a Manhattan designer to move back home to Bethel,
N.Y., and try to bail out his parents' money pit of a motel. He was
closeted, nagged and guilted by his mother and reviled by the
struggling community he was trying to help.
Woodstock wasn't shaping up to be groovy, either. What would be the
1969 three-day rock 'n' roll event of the century had momentum, money
and music on deck. What it didn't have was a place to perform.
Enter Tiber, the 34 year-old president of Bethel's Chamber of
Commerce. As he writes in his new memoir, Taking Woodstock (Square
One Publishers, $24.95), ''I typed up a permit, giving myself legal
permission to hold a rock concert.'' The rest, as they say, is history.
Tiber revisits that history not just in his book but in his
docu-comedy Woodstock: Ticket to Freedom being screened at Fort
Lauderdale's Cinema Paradiso April 1.
''Every day you meet people who say they're something. This guy's for
real, down to earth, warm. He's a great asset to our community,''
says Hal Axler, executive director of the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival.
Tiber's story has been optioned by Focus Features to be made into a
major motion picture, commemorating the 40th anniversary of Woodstock
next year. Not bad for a nice Jewish gay boy.
When Tiber heard Woodstock needed a venue, he offered Bethel, not
because he loved Hendrix and the Who but because he hoped it would
bring in tourists and their money. What he really hoped was that the
concert would happen at his parents' hotel, the El Monaco. It was, he
writes, ``New York's ugliest and most dysfunctional motel and resort
. . . most of the doors didn't have doorknobs, and fewer still had keys.''
The Woodstock promoters, who'd already had the nearby town of
Wallkill back out of hosting the concert, were desperate, but not
that desperate. Then Tiber thought of his neighbor: ``He has a big
farm. He's my milk and cheese man. His name is Max Yasgur.''
Tiber brokered the deal, worked tirelessly with the promoters, and
that summer, while crew worked to set up logistics for the concert,
he housed them all at the El Monaco, thus saving his parents from
going broke and giving Woodstock a home.
''What impressed me most about Elliot was his enthusiasm, his desire
to help and be involved,'' recalls Stan Goldstein, one of Woodstock's
organizers. ``His enthusiasm was infectious.''
At 72, Tiber is still madly enthusiastic. His conversation jumps from
Woodstock to studying art with Mark Rothko in the late 1950s to his
long friendship with Yiddish theater star Molly Picon, for whom his
beloved Yorkie is named. Working on the book and movie has brought
his past alive, triggering memories he had forgotten about over the
years. ''It's very strange,'' says Tiber, who moved from Manhattan to
Fort Lauderdale in November. ``It's like I'm going through it, like
it's happening now.''
Woodstock was a mecca for free spirits, but Tiber at the time wasn't
one of them. ''I was closeted and frustrated and repressed and afraid
to be myself,'' he admits. Much of that stemmed from his difficult
relationship with his mother.
''It's not painful anymore,'' he says. ``It's just funny.''
Though Tiber's mother refused to accept her son's sexuality, Tiber is
happily, openly out. He's being honored at a prescreening cocktail
party sponsored by the Fort Lauderdale Gay and Lesbian Community
Center. He's proud of who he is, a pride ignited by participating in
the Stonewall riots but also, in no small part, by participating in Woodstock.
''Those six weeks? Wow. These people were so enriching to my life.
They opened up whole new worlds to me,'' Tiber recalls. ``I didn't
feel fat, I didn't feel ugly. It enabled me to meet all kinds of
people, to enjoy myself. I got used to that.''
The enthusiasm that made Tiber a vital force in the creation of
Woodstock actually got in the way of him writing about it. In
original manuscript of Taking Woodstock, he included not just the
concert but everything that's happened to him since -- his 1972 move
to Belgium; his partner of many years, director Andre Ernotte, who
died in 1999; his 1976 literary debut, Rue Haute, a European
bestseller published here as High Street; working on the film version
of Rue Haute, an Academy Award nominee for best foreign film.
The result was a sprawling 575-page manuscript Tiber tried for years
to condense. ''I just couldn't do it,'' he says. So he worked with
Tom Monte, an author best known for books on healing. In an odd way,
it was a perfect pairing. Monte kept the focus on Woodstock and on
Tiber. ''My work was about finding the heroic in Elliot and putting
that on the page,'' Monte says.
It wasn't hard. The Tiber of Woodstock days ''had an amazing amount
of energy. He worked so hard and he was an incredibly creative man
doing everything he could think of to keep his parents out of the
poorhouse and keep that hotel alive. He was also really smart,'' says Monte.
``Bethel was not the great metropolis -- it was pretty sleepy, pretty
backward. It wasn't doing anything for itself. Elliot brought the
great spaceship Woodstock to Bethel. If it were not for Elliot, it
would not have happened.''
After Woodstock, Tiber finally found a buyer for the El Monaco, but
Woodstock pilgrims shouldn't go looking for it. ''The owner burned it
down. There's no sign, no trace, nothing,'' says Tiber.
''Maybe bringing back the Woodstock nation would stir some people to
think -- but that's a dream,'' he says. ''The world is all turned
upside down. Unfortunately, the younger generation is on crack and
busy partying.'' Um, weren't there a few drugs at Woodstock?
''I was the only one out of 1 million who didn't smoke a joint,'' he
says. ''Well, maybe I did. Everybody was doing it.'' Even his
straight-laced parents accidentally ate hash brownies. ''It was the
only time I saw them laugh in my whole life,'' he says.
Tiber shakes his head. ''When I talk about Woodstock, or when I talk
to my friends, it's like time hasn't passed,'' he says. 'Then
yesterday I got out of the shower and thought `my God, I look like my
Looks aside, ''the Elliot of today is a much more realized human
being, more comfortable in his own skin,'' says Goldstein. ``Elliot
acknowledges his homosexuality. In the early times of our knowing
each other, that was not openly acknowledged. Anyone who has to keep
something so central to their life so hidden, so secret is contending
with terrible forces. Revealing his sexuality has freed Elliot up.''
Tiber agrees. His favorite part of his film is where he talks with
Richie Havens, Woodstock's opening act.
''You know his song, Freedom? Richie Havens improvised that song,''
says Tiber. ``Freedom for me was what Woodstock was all about.''