By Peter Rousmaniere
Special To The Standard
The Irene Good Bye Cabaret Benefit of Sunday, September 18, attracted an estimated 1,000 attendees. It raised, by the end of the show, at least $18,000 for the Woodstock Area Flood Relief Fund, twenty one days after Tropical Storm Irene.
Forty performers and some fifty volunteers were involved in the show’s production at the Town Hall Theatre and the collection of contributions. The show integrated thirteen acts, ranging from an international rock star to an elementary school chorus. The internet helped to promote it. Engineers simultaneously broadcasted it to two other venues in town. The show thus was innovative both artistically and technologically.
In the future it will likely be recalled as merely one of thousands of milestones in the recovery of the area’s households, businesses, and institutions. Each of the milestones is a mostly unrecorded, mostly private, moment of clear thinking, creativity and action.
This is the inside story of the event and how its success, beyond any reasonable expectation, shined a light on how the community is rapidly moving from rescue, through recovery and gradually into to a brighter, more sustainable future.
Four days after the flood, I had a visit with a part time Woodstock resident who is a former producer at Lincoln Center in New York City. Alina Bloomgarden is experienced in molding artistic performances that appeal to varied audiences.
My past study of how communities respond to disasters brought to our conversation a sharp focus on two shocks that disasters bring, one negative and one positive. One is the physical and emotional turmoil of the disaster itself. The other is a stunning rapidity in which a resilient community seeks to regain its senses and mentally prepares the ground for not just recovery but also innovation, even among the debris.
Bloomgarden and I agreed to explore the possibility of a concert, primarily to celebrate uncounted acts of aid and cooperation.
At the first of several Hand in Hand dinners on the town Green, Bloomgarden had a conversation which led to a three hour meeting a few days later in New York with Max Comins, the star of the Music Man production a few years ago. Comins went on to emcee the show.
Visiting Pentangle Arts Council, the area’s gem of cultural expression, I ran into Fred Haas and Sabrina Brown. Haas and Brown joined me and Michael Zsoldos a few days later in a conversation after a Sunday church service. This led to a primary focus of the concert as a fund-raiser, which had to happen on the nearest available Sunday afternoon. That date was September 18, two weeks ahead.
Haas was eventually to become a musical thread through the show, a reflection of his versatility and esteem by performers.
By this time — seven days after the flood — the Woodstock Area Flood Relief Fund had not only been created but had collected a large amount of contributions. The Fund was just beginning to learn how to use its money most effectively, in relatively small but urgently needed grants, mainly to people who were embarrassed to ask for one.
At a meeting at the Daily Grind, Sally Miller of Sustainable Woodstock, the fiscal agent for the Fund, Brown, Bloomgarden, Rick Fiske and I agreed on the name of the event. Brown, co-director of Pentangle, secured the Town Hall Theatre and found several Pentangle stalwarts to pay for necessary expenses.
Some ten days after the flood, and ten days before the scheduled event, a frank conversation was held among the planners and advisors about the danger of an artistic and logistical “train wreck.”
Just at this time, Tom Rush, the iconic folk and blues artist, phoned Pentangle offering to help in some way. Jeffrey Kahn of the Unicorn, a long time friend of Joe Perry, a co-founder of Aerosmith, asked if he could recruit Perry. Bloomgarden kept building the show using local as well as this additional talent.
Twelve days after the flood, and nine days before the show, the organizers had Rush on board as a surprise guest, and through Kahn secured Perry’s involvement. Lavallee Creative of Woodstock, created a poster overnight using an image of a four leaf clover.
Eight days before the show, posters were distributed, and email promotion began in earnest. Joe Perry’s promotional engine went into gear. Woodstock resident Townsend Belisle, in the business of internet consulting, focused on internet promotion using Facebook and other sites. By the day of the event, Belisle had amassed 29,000 internet hits about the show.
The possibility of large crowds emerged in the week before the show as an opportunity for more fund raising, but also as a threat to ensuring access by local residents and even to public safety. The official capacity of Town Hall Theater is 388, so organizers quickly realized they’d need to work with town officials to direct the anticipated overflow of guests to an alternate space.
Intense discussions of options narrowed down to building an audio-video internet link to the Woodstock Elementary School gym and an audio link to the Green.
On Saturday morning, 30 hours before the event, these links existed only in theory. An intricate plan was put into place by Dan Merlo, of the Pentangle staff, Macy Lawrence of Community TV, and Sound Vision Audio Visual, a Williston, VT, firm which rushed down to install the link to the gym. Candace Coburn, chair of the Village Board of Trustees, and Laurie Chester of the Flood Relief Fund advised on the best impact for downtown visitors and fund raising. Woodstock Early Bird, the blog, spread the word about the links.
Meanwhile, Bloomgarden kept refining the production. The crucial “pitch” part of the show, hosted by Al Alessi, was designed down to five second increments. Local citizens were interwoven by the Youth Chorus of The Bridgewater Elementary School, culminating in the Woodstock Community Gospel Choir singing an original composition by the show’s musical director, Bob Merrill.
As a line of hundreds formed along the sidewalk in Sunday afternoon, Hasse Halley of Pentangle and Chief of Police Robbie Blish conferred on how to manage the crowd. At the same time, a small army of Relief Fund volunteers canvassed every person in the vicinity of Town Hall, while a West African drum band led by Guinean Sayon Camara entertained the crowd. Inside the theater, Bloomgarden summoned her skills with top acts to induce Joe Perry and his lead accompanist Joey Leone to keep their set to four songs.
Then the show began, on time, and went without a hitch. For two and a half hours, these forty artists and speakers coaxed music out of our private and collective troubles, hopes, and mounting confidence.
This article first appeared in the September 22nd print edition of the Vermont Standard.