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Woodstock concert site is cleaning up its act

Now mud-free, venue gets new look, seeks more diverse crowds

The Woodstock music festival was held on Max Yasgur's farm on Aug. 15-17, 1969.
The Woodstock music festival was held on Max Yasgur's farm on Aug. 15-17, 1969. (Boston Globe File Photo / 1969)

BETHEL, N.Y. -- No naked mud dancing. And ditch the patchouli. The Woodstock concert site is going upscale this summer.

The $70 million Bethel Woods Center for the Arts opens July 1 with a classical concert just over the hill from where Jimi Hendrix and The Who took the stage 37 years ago. The reincarnated performance venue will welcome back some '60s stalwarts -- though the summer schedule also features the New York Philharmonic and Ashlee Simpson. Developers want to attract crowds beyond the site's tie-dyed core constituency with an eclectic lineup and a pavilion featuring comfy seats and a roof to keep the rain off.

``A lot of people who enjoy the music of the '60s, they say, `Gee, if we had a place that wasn't out in the broiling sun and all the rest of that -- and clean bathrooms and good parking,' " said Alan Gerry, a wealthy businessman who spearheaded the development through his not-for-profit Gerry Foundation.

Promoters staged the Woodstock concert at Max Yasgur's farm Aug. 15-17, 1969, after being rejected by the Catskill arts colony that gave the show its name. Some 400,000 people came to this rural corner 80 miles northwest of New York City for a rainy weekend that is considered a high-water mark of the '60s.

The trampled hayfield left behind endured a more star-crossed history.

The farm was subdivided after Yasgur died in 1973 and subsequent owners of the main site did little with it as hippies dropped by every August for anniversaries. Local officials irritated with the unwashed masses put up barriers and dumped chicken manure on the site. Official anniversary concerts in '94 and '99 were held elsewhere. It was looking like a long, bad trip for the Woodstock site.

Gerry, who made a fortune in the cable business, began quietly buying land around the concert site in the late '90s with a mind toward making it into a big-league attraction.

A 76-year-old former Marine raised on country music, Gerry is an unlikely savior for the site. Not only did he pass on the original concert, he disciplined a daughter for sneaking off to the show. He developed the site not to make money -- he doesn't even expect to break even -- but to bring money into the area.

The soaring pavilion that will be christened by the New York Philharmonic has 4,800-seats under the roof, and the lush slope of lawn just beyond can accommodate another 12,000. Up a winding walkway are two connected buildings with copper roofs and cupolas. One will be an event gallery, the other a museum. Both will be open next summer.

All the construction is over the hill from the site of the 1969 stage. The gently sloping hill was left alone in a nod to its historical importance. Jonathan Drapkin, foundation executive director, said the old stage area could be used for concerts, but don't expect a repeat of '69: Local regulations cap the crowd size at 30,000.

Woodstock veterans Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young play at the venue Aug. 13 (sign of the times: the top ticket price for CSNY is $126; a one-day ticket to the Woodstock concert was $8).

Other concerts over the summer offer a smorgasbord of pop (Simpson), country (Brad Paisley), rock (Goo Goo Dolls) jam-band (Phil Lesh and Trey Anastasio & Mike Gordon) and jazz (a festival featuring Dianne Reeves and Wynton Marsalis).

Drapkin said Bethel Woods will try a bit of everything as they learn what works. It's a balancing act: They want to leverage the site's cultural cachet without limiting themselves to Aquarian nostalgia. Gerry said they need to appeal to more people than just the Woodstock Generation.

For any sort of long-term success, this venue in the middle of cow country also needs to lure people living in the New York City metropolitan area. Manhattan is about two hours away (traffic willing) and the dream is to draw people up from the city to see a show and then have them stick around for the weekend.

``We think that someday this will become a destination," Drapkin said. ``But it will take a while to brand it."

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