July 15, 2010
By PAULA ANN MITCHELL
Elliot Tiber doesn't mind telling the world how much he hated his
parents. The young Eliyahu Teichberg especially detested his mother,
Sonia, a bossy, domineering Russian immigrant.
His father, Jack, was, in Tiber's words, a "weakling" and terribly
hen-pecked. Actually, he used another expression too inappropriate
for a daily newspaper.
"My father was … brow-beaten," Tiber said, correcting himself. "He
never said a word about anything."
Tiber, who changed his name when he came of age and the course of
rock 'n' roll history in 1969 said he sometimes wonders how life
might have turned out had his mother been less of a shrew and his
father more of a man.
Had he been a strong father figure and instilled some sense of
self-esteem in me, I would have had a totally different life," said
the openly gay Tiber.
"I certainly would have had some joy in growing up. I don't have nice
childhood memories," he said Tuesday from his Manhattan home.
Such bitter yet comic recollections form the basis for his latest
book "Palm Trees on the Hudson: A True Story of The Mob, Judy Garland
& Interior Decorating," which will be released this fall by Square
The book is a prequel to Tiber's "Taking Woodstock," in which he
chronicles his role in making the festival of love happen in 1969.
A movie of the same name opened nationwide in theaters last year,
directed by Academy Award winner Ang Lee.
As the story goes, Tiber was the president of the Bethel Chamber of
Commerce in 1969. He had an idea and offered to hold the Woodstock
festival on the 15-acre swampland near his parents' El Monaco Motel
in Sullivan County.
When Michael Lang of Woodstock Ventures, Inc. rejected the offer,
Tiber asked his milkman, Max Yasgur, to consider renting his farm to
Of course, he agreed, and, not long after, Tiber found himself
speaking to millions of people on NBC radio, inviting them to come
out to the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, an event that would
redefine a generation.
"My entire life had led me here," he writes in Chapter 11 of "Taking
In fact, it began in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, Tiber's childhood home,
which is described in his newest book.
"My father was from Austria. He had a roofing business. My mother was
a Russian refugee from World War I," he said.
"There were four of us (kids). I had three sisters, and we grew up in
a very dysfunctional home," Tiber said.
His mother wanted him to be a rabbi and put him in Hebrew school,
which he says he was "forced to go to" until he was 13.
Upon his graduation, Tiber announced publicly from the stage that he
was not going to be a rabbi.
"I was delighted," he said. "Everyone else was furious."
Even before this moment of strength, Tiber had been dabbling in art.
"My older sister, Goldie, was an artist, so I started to sketch and
draw with her instead of playing ball in the street," he said.
This was also about the time he had developed his first "crush."
"The first movie I ever saw was 'The Wizard of Oz,'" Tiber recalled.
"It really amazed me that song, the technicolor, the munchkins. It
all sort of hit me. Everybody was a lot nicer in that magical land
than in my own home. "
But it was really Judy Garland who captured the lonely 8-year-old boy's fancy.
"I was in love," he declared.
Later in his life, he would come face-to-face with the movie star and
cling to her words of guidance. Meantime, he was growing up and
getting quite good at art.
But life at home continued to be miserable. Tiber's mother constantly
harassed him, telling him he would never amount to anything.
The 18-year-old Tiber reached deep within himself and found another
tremendous moment of strength.
"I announced I was leaving home," he said. "My dad gave me $10. My
mother said, 'I'm changing the locks. Don't come back. You're going
to fail because you're not going to be a rabbi.'"
Tiber found a new life in Greenwich Village, a home to "beatniks,"
folk singers and a fledgling gay community.
He eventually graduated from Brooklyn College, taught art at Hunter
College and then found work as an interior designer for a number of
Manhattan's upscale department stores.
In short order, Tiber became a highly sought-after, independent
"It was an upward spiral. I was able to take an upscale apartment.
Life got excellent for me," he said.
Tiber knew his clients were among New York's wealthiest. But he did
not know that a few were tied to New York's underworld.
That leads us to his encounter with Judy Garland and her life-changing words.
In April of 1968, Tiber was commissioned by a nightclub owner to
throw an elegant dinner party aboard a luxury boat on the Hudson River.
The bar owner gave him the names of some local rental companies that
would provide him with all the tables, chairs and other items,
including 100 palm trees he would need to transform the boat into a
On the guest list were New York's rich and famous--financiers,
politicians and celebrities.
For Tiber, it would not only be the biggest thing he had ever done,
but it would highlight his talent as a decorator.
The big night arrived, and the guests came aboard. The ship began its
circle around Manhattan Island. The passengers were wined and dined.
Tiber recalled how a fight broke out in the bar, spilling out into
the main dining room and then onto the upper and lower decks. Chairs,
bottles and Tiber's rented palm trees went flying into the water.
"Thus the name 'Palm Trees on the Hudson,'" Tiber chortled.
As the mayhem continued, he tried to restore order from the chaos.
While picking up an overturned dining table, he was surprised to see
the one and only Judy Garland.
"There was my goddess," Tiber recalled.
In a quiet corner, she told him that life is like a "runaway freight
train" and that, in order to find happiness, "you've got to make your
home where someone loves you."
Tiber would later draw inspiration from those words, particularly as
he describes it in Chapter 5 of "Taking Woodstock," when he fully
embraced his homosexuality.
Tiber was part of the 1969 Stonewall Riots that involved a community
of homosexuals who "found their voices and their power, and were
ready to organize," he writes. "June 28, 1969 had changed the
world--and me with it,"
After Tiber's brief exchange with Garland, he then details his
encounter with the sinister Neely Abruzzio, a mobster who had visited
him the next day.
Abruzzio demanded that Tiber sign a piece of paper, stating that he
had been paid in full by Abruzzio's boss for all the party supplies
Tiber had rented.
That left him in a lurch for payment of all the cash due to the creditors.
He felt pressured into selling off all of his earthly possessions to
pay off the debt the mob had left him holding from the party.
Scared, depressed and heartbroken, he fled the city and moved back in
with his parents, who had since been operating their upstate motel,
El Monaco, in the Catskills.
"My mother kept telling me it wasn't too late to be a rabbi," Tiber
said of those 10 months leading up to the Woodstock festival.
Tiber's life continued to be swept up in the whirlwind of
counterculture when he heard of the Woodstock festival being denied a
permit to perform in Wallkill.
To fill in all the gaps, Tiber advised Freeman readers to first pick
up a copy of "Taking Woodstock" and, later, "Palm Trees on the
Hudson" when it comes out this fall.
Even before they do, the 75-year-old Tiber wants to encourage readers
to "make lemonade out of the lemons" they're handed in life."
That really is the message in "Palm Trees."
"It would have been nice to have a strong daddy," Tiber said. "He
tried in his own way. I do remember him taking me to the ballgame.
That's what fathers did in Brooklyn. I put on a suit. I remember the
only thing we liked were the hotdogs, even though they weren't
Kosher," he added.
"The important thing is I don't make the book sad. I make a joke out
of the whole thing. It's a story about a dysfunctional family and how
to survive it," Tiber said.