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A Museum On Woodstock, With a Haircut

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 27, 2007

BETHEL, N.Y. -- It rises from the hilltop, bigger than a barn, built of stone and roofed in copper. Officially it will be the Museum at Bethel Woods, and it will be focused on the Woodstock festival, the "three days of peace and music" that took place here in August 1969. But the museum has been tagged by critics with a different name: the Hippie Museum.

"This is the farthest thing from a hippie museum that anything could be," declared Harold Russell, a dairy farmer who is the town supervisor -- and a reelection-seeking Republican -- in Bethel. "I personally take a little offense to that."

In this rural area, the project is seen as crucial to the economic recovery of a region hammered by the closing of once-popular Borscht Belt tourist resorts.

But the museum has become a magnet for criticism. A $1 million congressional earmark -- pushed by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D), with fellow New Yorker, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D), signing on -- generated a squabble on Capitol Hill, and Republicans, led by Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), killed the measure with the help of a handful of Democrats.

A campaign ad for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) unveiled this week is a send-up of Clinton for supporting the museum earmark in a congressional spending bill. The spot opens with a spinning tie-dye image and shows footage of a dancing, presumably zonked-to-the-gills flower child at Woodstock. McCain is seen at a Republican presidential debate, saying, "A few days ago, Senator Clinton tried to spend $1 million on the Woodstock concert museum. Now, my friends, I wasn't there. I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time." Cut to footage of McCain as a prisoner of war in Hanoi.

McCain (who missed the vote on the earmark) got a big laugh and a standing ovation from the crowd and his fellow Republicans. But if his zinger played well on the trail, it hasn't here in Bethel.

"It's definitely not a celebration of hippiedom," said Darrell Supak, a former Army colonel who was wearing a blue pinstripe suit and polished burgundy shoes as he greeted a visitor at the entrance to the museum. Supak is the right-hand man of billionaire Alan Gerry, whose foundation runs the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. "It's definitely not a hippie museum," he said.

The museum is not finished, and officials with the arts center, which includes the museum, would not permit a tour of the exhibit space. But Mike Egan, the Gerry Foundation executive who has spent more than two years putting the museum together, provided a detailed briefing complete with computer graphics and a blueprint.

A visitor entering the permanent exhibit will learn about the broader historical context of Woodstock -- the baby boom, the Cold War, the roots of rock-and-roll, the civil rights movement, the assassinations and riots of the 1960s, and so on. Inevitably, the visitor will come upon a section labeled on the blueprint as "the Hippies."

"We talk about the hippies, we talk about the look of the hippies, we talk about the drug use of some of the hippies, and we talk about the burnout," Egan said.

It will be possible to go inside a school bus modeled on the one used on cross-country treks by author Ken Kesey and his band of "Merry Pranksters," whose antics were documented by Tom Wolfe in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."

Music and videos will be everywhere. The central area will be devoted to the festival proper, and visitors can sit partially surrounded by a video screen that will create the illusion that they are at the concert watching the performances.

The plans call for a final stop dubbed "Woodstock Becomes Mainstream." Beyond that is a large section on the blueprint that is blank but for a single word: "Retail."

You could call it a hippie museum with a haircut. It demonstrates more than anything else the American capacity to turn even the most unruly and chaotic moments in our history into something orderly, manageable and culminating in a gift shop.

The whole arts center, with its concert pavilion, amphitheater and cavernous new reception hall adjacent to the museum, feels a lot like Wolf Trap in the Washington suburbs. It's a place where you could attend a performance and sip some white wine, but couldn't light up a cigarette -- or anything else.

The museum is not designed to bring on the revolution. What it can do, supporters say, is bring people and revenue to rural Sullivan County, about 100 miles north of New York City.

Former town supervisor Allan Scott says Bethel has wrestled with its Woodstock legacy. In years past, pilgrims would come to the area and hold all-night concerts without approval from local authorities.

"It was so important for us to get control of this thing for the benefit of our economy," Scott said as he drove along Filippini Pond, famous for Woodstock skinny-dipping.

Sullivan County was more prosperous in the days when "the Catskills," as this area is called (the actual mountains are a bit to the north), offered an alluring vacation destination for city folks from around the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic. They would go to tony hotels such as Grossinger's, just up the road. But the Catskills went out of fashion as the moneyed East Coast set switched to jet travel and more glamorous vacations.

"It was like falling off the edge of the world. It was terrible," Scott said.

The name Woodstock has generated geographical confusion for 38 years. In 1969, the promoters of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair failed to get a site, as they'd hoped, in the vicinity of Woodstock, N.Y., about an hour's drive from Bethel. Eventually, they persuaded Max Yasgur, a dairy farmer in Bethel, to allow the concert to take place on his alfalfa field. What ensued became one of the signature chapters of the 1960s: a mass migration of young people, as many as 500,000.

They camped in the fields throughout the area and bathed in the lakes and streams. For three days and nights, they listened to Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Santana, the Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Band, Sly & the Family Stone, the Grateful Dead (cut from the famous movie and album because of technical problems) and many others.

But Bethel never became a brand name. As Woodstock hardened into legend, many of the economic reverberations were felt far away, in the town of the same name.

Enter Alan Gerry, local boy made good. A high school dropout and former TV repairman, Gerry (who via a spokeswoman declined to speak for this article) started a cable TV company and became a billionaire when he sold his business to Time Warner. This year, he was No. 297 on Forbes's list of the richest Americans. In 1996 he formed the Gerry Foundation, and it began buying up about 2,000 acres of land in Bethel, including the Woodstock site. Last year, the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts opened its gates.

This summer, the arts center held a concert called "Hippiefest," the promotional material for which ("gather your groovy beads and we'll see you on the lawn for a trip down memory lane") was read into the Congressional Record by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) as he spoke against the museum earmark.

Gerry and his family contributed $20,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, headed by Schumer, and $9,200 to Clinton's presidential campaign after the earmark was inserted into legislation.

Coburn, the Republican who led the effort to block the earmark, said in an interview that he doesn't object to the museum. In 1969, he said, he was a junior in college and, though not a hippie, was very much part of that generation: "If you saw pictures, you'd laugh. . . . I was a mophead." Coburn said his complaint is that earmarks, special spending for pet projects, are the "gateway drug" to congressional overspending.

Phil Singer, a spokesman for Clinton's presidential campaign, said the arts center is an "economic development" opportunity for Upstate New York, and he slammed McCain's criticism.

"Senator McCain should focus more on explaining to New Hampshire voters why he supported the fiscally irresponsible Bush policies that squandered a federal surplus and left us with the largest deficit in American history," Singer wrote in an e-mail. "As President, Senator Clinton will reverse those policies and restore the nation to fiscal responsibility."

Schumer told his Senate colleagues that the state of New York has put $15 million into the arts center and that the Gerry Foundation has paid for the bulk of the rest of the $100 million project. In a committee hearing on the earmark, Schumer said: "It was a tumultuous decade, and it is a good idea to study it. Museums and libraries are a very important part of our history and education, as well as a job magnet."

But a tourist magnet? That remains a marketing challenge. The Woodstock name is trademarked.

"There is debate about whether it should be called Woodstock," said Supak, the former colonel. "I don't think it's necessary. I think you can do just about anything with marketing and branding."

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