Veteran radio reporter and part-time Englewood resident Mike Eisgrau, one of the first reporters on the scene, recalls what a ... scene ... Woodstock was, with 400,000 people spread across Max Yagur's farm 50 years ago this week
My first view of Woodstock was from 500 feet in the air.
No, I wasn’t with one of those rock groups ferried in to the site by chopper — but they faced the same problem: the roads leading to Max Yasgur’s farm — for 20 miles around — were clogged with folks trying to get to the festival. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cars and other vehicles were left by the side of the road as fans decided the only way to get to the site was on foot.
As a matter of fact — barely 90 minutes before I arrived — I didn’t even know what Woodstock was.
I was a reporter for the late, great WNEW Radio News in New York.
On that Friday, I was busy covering crime, politics and other local stories. But my veteran editor, Carolyn Tanton, was quite concerned about what was developing 114 miles northwest of Manhattan.
“I’ve got a bad situation up there — a bad situation. I have to get somebody up there. You, Eisgrau, you’re going!” I said “Where?” She said “Woodstock!” I asked “What’s that?” She answered “You’ll find out!”
I certainly did. A half century later I can tell only what I remember as a reporter dropped into Woodstock ... by helicopter.
Tanton had found an emergency medical flight with doctors, nurses and supplies, about to leave from LaGuardia Airport. I was raced out there, armed with a tape recorder and reels of tape, notepads, batteries and (luckily) a raincoat.
We flew in an old DC-3 airliner up to the Sullivan County International Airport. The “international” airport actually was a grass strip, but the manager proudly said, “We have one flight a week to Toronto.”
Those clogged roads were an insurmountable obstacle. So another reporter, a photographer and I made a cash deal with a chopper pilot to ferry us in the 8 miles directly to the site.
In 1969 radio news — local and network — was much more prominent than today. We didn’t have iPhones, but we did have eyes — and so we had to draw word pictures for our listeners. As we flew in, about 500 feet off the ground, I turned on my tape recorder and said:
“This sight is hard to believe. We’re over the top of the hill now, and over the main stage — and, for about half a mile, all you can see are people.”
But none of us might have made a safe landing. Once we touched down, the chopper pilot told us: “I didn’t want to bother you guys — but all the way over I was losing oil.”
The first kid I met when I landed was stark naked. He was laughing and appeared high. “Pardon me young man, but don’t you feel a bit peculiar in what you’re NOT wearing?” “Me?” he replied, “what about you?” I realized then that I’d been whisked to the concert so quickly that I was standing in the middle of Woodstock — in a tie and jacket. Talk about being out of place!
Remember, 50 years ago we didn’t have the hi-tech portable equipment of today — so how to get the story from that hillside to Manhattan?
The New York State Police had brought in a communications trailer with phones and (thank goodness!) bathroom facilities. As I looked at the trailer, a teenager came by carrying a big cardboard box. I asked him what he had inside.
He said “I’m from Kaplan’s deli in Monticello — are you the guy who ordered the corned beef and pastrami sandwiches?” “Yes”, I said, and whipped out a 10-dollar bill. He grabbed the money and gave me the box.
I then made a deal with the state troopers: if they would let me use one of their phone lines (and “facilities”) when I needed to, I’d keep them supplied with corned beef and pastrami through the weekend. They went for it — and that’s how I got the story — taped interviews and all — back to Manhattan.
The squarest 29-year-old to attend Woodstock ... was me. I was thinking Bing Crosby and Benny Goodman. They were talking Janis Joplin and The Who. “Who?” I asked one kid. He said “Yes.”
In terms of not-so-nice sound, I must mention the Hog Farm Commune. They had been brought in to, among other duties, help some attendees high on drugs go through withdrawal. Through the nights, in what was known as a “freakout tent,” I could hear the shouts and moans as people came down from their highs. That — and two deaths during the festival — were low points of the weekend.
As events drew to a close I, and a couple of other reporters, had to figure how to get out of there. Those sandwiches came in handy: we got a state trooper to drive us through the crowds — siren going and lights flashing — back to the airport where we chartered a small plane and flew back to New York.
By and large it was a weekend of peace and love. Mr. and Mrs. Max Yasgur, who owned the farm, told our WNEW producers they were impressed with how polite and well-behaved were the concert goers whom they met.
There’s a postscript to this story: More than 25 years ago the Yasgur farm — in fact about 2,000 acres — was bought by a cable TV billionaire named Alan Gerry. He’s poured more than $150 million into the site to create the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. A huge stage faces a 4,800-seat audience built into that hillside, with room behind those seats for 12,000 more. Over the years performers have ranged from rock groups to the New York Philharmonic.
Part of that complex is a digital museum, telling the story of that weekend in 1969. Part of that museum is an 11-minute multimedia film. And the first voice you hear on that film is mine, saying: “This sight is hard to believe. We’re over the top of the hill, now, and over the main stage — and, for almost half a mile, all you can see are people.”
A poster from that weekend hangs in my living room. It contains the words: “No one attending will ever be the same.”
Mike Eisgrau is a veteran professional journalist and public relations specialist who splits his time between homes and offices in Englewood and Manhattan. He is director of business development in the New York region for Consonant Custom Media, a health care custom publishing company based in Sarasota.