In making the big festival happen, Elliot Tiber of Fort Lauderdale also freed himself
Photo by Jared Lazarus/Miami Herald Staff / More photos
BY ELLEN KANNER, Ellen@ellen-ink.com
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 mother.' ''
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.''