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The Bearsville Theater was being built when Albert Grossman died in 1986. Today, the artistically crafted space hosts 120 concerts a year, film screenings for the Woodstock Film Festival, trade shows such as the Woodstock Luthier’s Invitational and private events.

A beacon in Bearsville

Albert Grossman's complex continues to define the community

By Deborah Medenbach

Photos by Michael Bloom

PETER CANTINE REMEMBERS THE SCENE AT THE BEARSVILLE CAFE BACK IN THE 1970s. ALBERT GROSSMAN
enters, dressed in a peasant shirt and jeans. He sits down and motions for a cognac and a little borscht. And he looks over his small kingdom. The studios down the road. The buildings around him off Tinker Street. The musicians who gave him top-40 hits.

Grossman launched Odetta in the 1950s at his Chicago club and had the ear in 1961 to pull Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey and Mary Travers into a single act he could promote.

Most famously, he drew a bead on a skinny kid named Robert Zimmerman with erratic vocal pitch who wrote sublime poetry. This was the defining acquisition agent of the Aquarian age, sidling up to the bar in this kingdom he created. Cantine placed the simple meal before Grossman, whose air of authority repelled all but his comfortable cronies.

“He was always a gentleman,” recalls Town of Woodstock Supervisor Jeremy Wilber, who had bartended for Grossman during summer college breaks. “He was very firm about what he wanted, but he tipped well for good service. There were a number of bars in the area that would carry Martell cognac, just hoping to get his business.”

The Bear Café and surrounding buildings were part of Grossman’s never-ending creative projects in the heart of Bearsville. Already the recording studios on Stange Road and the Turtle Creek barn on Ricks Road were alive with recording projects from New York City.

“The place was incredibly hip. Paul Butterfield ... rock stars and actors would be at the bar. Albert’s recording studio and record label were in full swing. He had Ozzy Osbourne and the Rolling Stones here. It was a who’s-who of recording artists,” Cantine recalls. “We’d get a phone call saying, ‘We’ll take four shrimp cocktails and four bottles of Piper-Heidsieck (champagne) to go.’ It was a whole different world.”

The world Grossman created is partially responsible for the widespread growth of rock ’n’ roll. He helped bring folk music into the mainstream, electrifying it and turning it upside down into something wholly American. His kingdom, Bearsville, became a breeding ground and mecca for American rock ’n’ roll, and exists today through new partnerships and a continued emphasis on embracing new music. Bearsville is the Woodstock spirit in structure.

A panoramic view of the Bearsville complex, including the Bearsville Theater, left, The Little Bear and The Bear Café, partially hidden by trees, and a vacant restaurant. The entire complex includes the restaurants, Utopia Soundstage, the theater, a residence and a maintenance barn.

A musician’s dream

Albert Grossman first came to Bearsville in 1964, following the advice of an artist friend to check out a spectacular house only someone like the music promoter could afford. By then Grossman had managed Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul and Mary; and Phil Ochs. Grossman got a copy of the local zoning laws, so he knew just what was permitted on the property. His contractor loaded tools into the back of Dylan’s station wagon, and Grossman’s future wife, Sally, drove up with Dylan so the work could begin. Sally still lives in the house nearly 50 years later.

The construction work eventally included the Stange Road Studio A and B and the Turtle Creek barn, where musicians could focus on recording their albums and then head over to Joyous Lake and other small clubs to perform under assumed names.

“Albert bought this recording truck that could hook up into the back of the barn at Turtle Creek and that’s where ‘Muddy Waters Woodstock Album’ was made,” says Sally. “We started getting calls for more rooms, so I put in a cheap board and then ended up putting in an API board that everyone wanted, and that helped. We had a lot of projects.” Musicians liked rotating through all three studios for different effects. Todd Rundgren, Jesse Winchester, the Band, Paul Butterfield, Foghat and countless others hunkered down for serious recording sessions at Bearsville.

Rundgren signed on with Grossman in 1969 and, when not recording his own music, immersed himself in the technical aspects of audio engineering for other acts. He gained a substantial reputation as a top producer and sound engineer in Grossman’s studios over the next decade.

Todd Rundgren, pictured performing at Bearsville, built his reputation as a top sound engineer and producer at Bearsville Records, branching off into his own more experimental recordings. Grossman had acoustic architect John Storyk design the Utopia Video building for Rundgren’s use. Times Herald-Record file photoIn 1979, he used Studio A for an experimental sound-and-video project for RCA, based on Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” Though MTV had not yet been conceived, music videos were a way to promote bands to foreign markets. Rundgren planned to build a video studio at his home on Mink Hollow Road.

“Albert just loved to build buildings. He had rough plans of what he wanted to build and where it would be. He could take on the expense of building it and I could rent it from him,” says Rundgren. “When Albert agreed to build the studio, that automatically freed my money up right away to purchase equipment, so I was already making videos before Utopia was even finished.” Rundgren warmed to the topic of a new video recording invention by Sony that cut his initial outlay from $250,000 to $100,000.

“We were able to do broadcast quality video right from the start. We could also afford to be experimental because we already had the building and the equipment and didn’t have to go to anyone for money,” says Rundgren. “We didn’t need big budgets. If we had whims, we could take them on. For example, (the band Utopia’s) ‘Feet Don’t Fail Me Now’ we did with everyone as big insects.”

Folk musician and Homespun Tapes founder Happy Traum fondly recalls taping at Utopia Video.

“We did the very first one with (bluegrass musician) Tony Rice there. It was the first time he’d been up here. It was a really long session since we didn’t know what we were doing yet,” Traum says. “But we still sell that video. It’s a classic.”

Utopia Video lasted about three years. Technological advances were happening faster than Rundgren could outfit the studio. “We were hoping to attract clients from the city, but didn’t. New equipment was coming online and we couldn’t stay competitive,” Rundgren says. He closed Utopia in 1983. Today it’s Utopia Soundstage, sharing the building with Radio Woodstock.

 

Beginning of the Bearsville complex

Around the same time that Rundgren arrived in Bearsville, Grossman fixed his attention on a 15-acre streamside farm on Route 212.

“We kept coming by and passing this place,” Sally says of what is now the Bearsville complex. “Albert decided to buy it in 1969 or ’70.” The 19th-century Shultis family farmhouse housed an ambitious but failing high-end restaurant. The barns were still ramshackle outbuildings.

Albert and Sally Grossman in the early 1980s with the Bengali Baul singers at the Little Bear in Woodstock. Brothers Luxman and Purna Das Baul recorded on the John Wesley Harding album with Bob Dylan and are pictured on the album cover. Photo courtesy of Purna Das BaulGrossman hired top restaurant consultant Eddie Schoenfeld and brought in Sha Wu (now of Wok’n’Roll Cafe) as his first cook at the farmhouse. “After the big restaurant closed, Sha Wu left to work somewhere on the other side of the river,” Sally says. “Then with Eddie Schoenfeld’s simplified menu, Albert built the Little Bear and brought Sha Wu back as a tenant.” The menu today is close to what it was 40 years ago, keeping the hip edge on which Schoenfeld made his reputation.

Sally frames it this way: “Where else in the country can you get Peking Duck without 24 hours notice and we’re in the country?”

MarLee Wang (formerly Koo) now runs the Little Bear, as she has for two decades. Her late father was Sha Wu’s teacher.

The barns were converted into the Bear Café, run by Mary Lou and Bernard Paturel, serving gourmet French cuisine. Cantine and Eric Mann, now co-owners of the restaurant, started there as teenagers on summer breaks.

Today it’s still common to see celebrities around the polished wood bar or chatting at the creekside tables, just as they had in Albert’s day.

The Bearsville Theater was a work in progress in January 1986 when Albert Grossman boarded a Concorde plane bound for a European music conference. He died of a heart attack en route and was buried at a quiet woodland spot behind the theater.

“I had to figure out what to do,” Sally recalls.

The theater was still a carpentry workspace. Paul Cypert, whose craftsmanship is found in the theater’s woodwork, had completed the double-helix wooden staircase. Albert had asked Sally to design the fireplace, and she enlarged the concept of the open hearth she’d seen at Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh. David Boyle, the contractor who’d been with them since their earliest days in Woodstock, found a perfect tree and hand-adzed the timber for the lintel. The overall theater design by John Storyk kept to the high acoustic standards musicians loved about the recording studios.

Nearly 300 blonde, bentwood upholstered chairs, which Albert told Sally were for the theater, were stacked in Studio A.

A little worried that others would dismiss her as “just the widow,” she found instead that the musicians respected her, and she led the recording studios into their most profitable era.

“Robbie Robertson came to mix something with Jimmy (Iovine) just before he became head of Interscope,” Sally says.“He’d tell people ‘Sally has the best-sounding room in the country.’ I was really lucky, thanks to Robbie and the goodwill that was generated.”

Before his death, Albert purchased new recording equipment recommended by engineer Bob Clearmountain. Under Sally’s management, it was put to good use by the Isley Brothers, Mick Jagger and Peter Tosh. The albums recorded there? REM’s “Green,” “Out of Time” and “Automatic for the People”; Phish’s “Billy Breathes”; and the Dave Matthews Band’s “Under the Table and Dreaming” and “Crash.” A season of rappers brought Tone and Poke (Trackmasters), 50 Cent and Nas (“It Was Written”) to both studios for three solid months.

“I had a lot of fun. I was lucky,” Sally says.

The greater Woodstock community flooded Sally with letters of appreciation for being able to add their talents to the construction of Albert’s various projects over the years. A new zoning proposal in 1988 that would have pulled her commercial zoning out from under her and prevented the completion of the theater via a building moratorium was short-circuited through a good lawyer and a quick-thinking building inspector.

She oversaw the completion of the Bearsville Theater, which opened in 1989 with a performance by Happy Traum, followed by Riverarts from Byrdcliffe.

“The funny thing was that when it first opened and I saw 300 people there, after all the permits and all, I was holding my breath that the parking would work and the traffic plan would work and that the floor wouldn’t fall through, and you know what? It worked!” Sally says.

Peter Cantine and Eric Mann manage The Bear Café together and are co-owners of the entire Bearsville complex, with partner Andy Cooper. Cantine and Mann started working at The Bear Café as teenagers on summer breaks.Albert’s high standards

Cantine and Mann had worked in the Bear Café since they were teens and, after long breaks to hone their skills at French restaurants in New York and the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, they returned to Woodstock in 1987 to join forces and reopen the Bear Café. The high-level French cuisine of the first Bear Café was a faint memory. The boarded-up windows that greeted them covered a failed brief venture as a Mexican restaurant called the Border Cafe.

Mann’s training with fine French chefs and Cantine’s mastery of formal gueridon service at the Biltmore emboldened them to revive the high expectations of dining at the Bear.

“Sally went out on a limb to have faith in us that we could do it,” Cantine says.

The faith was well placed and, in 2004, without putting it on the open market, Sally quietly sold the complex to Cantine and Mann and partner Andy Cooper for $2 million. They put at least that much again into it, continuing to maintain the high standards Albert would have appreciated. The complex includes two operating restaurants and one closed restaurant, Utopia Soundstage, the Bearsville Theater, a private residence and a maintenance barn on 15 commercial acres.

“Sally didn’t want there to be a joke left here. She wanted it in the vein we’d been running it,” Cantine says.

They also fostered the welcoming spirit locals remember from Deanie’s in the heart of Woodstock, where Cantine ran Hobart machines as an 8-year-old just for fun after school. The heart of their mission was to create a welcoming hub with something for everyone that was embroidered by the cachet of elegant dining and the hovering presence of Albert’s legendary imprint on the place.

Both Studio A and B and the Turtle Creek barn also have passed into private ownership. The Bearsville Theater is run by Cantine and hosts 120 concerts a year, film screenings for the Woodstock Film Festival, trade shows such as the Luthier’s Invitational and private events.

Staying even with the present moment’s obligations keeps Cantine from looking too deeply into future potentials.

“There’s no other property like this in Woodstock. There’s 15 commercial acres here,” Cantine said, noting that Albert’s plan to add a lodging component to the site was never realized. “It would be synergistic with what else is on the property and is direly needed in Woodstock.”

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