Woodstock, my Teacher, and Me

The 50th anniversary of Woodstock–the legendary, three-day concert, happening, and community mud bath–is upon us. I personally have always had only a casual interest in the event and its music. Most films and photos depict a scene of scraggily-haired, unwashed, barefoot, drugged-out hippies (and those were just the musicians on the stage).

Just kidding. I like hippies! I was a hippie wanna-be when I was a kid. But I was never a big fan of most of the musicians and bands in the Woodstock

line-up. I do appreciate the historic significance of the event, though. And, my barely existent connection to it all is the fact that I once knew one of the Woodstock organizers. His name was Elliot Tiber, and, for a time in the

mid-1980s, I was a student of his in his comedy writing classes at the New School in New York.

Tiber’s parents were owners of the struggling, run-down El Monaco Motel in Bethel, N.Y., when he caught wind of plans for a rock concert to take place in the area. The promoters, Woodstock Ventures, Inc., were attempting to find a suitable venue, but were denied a permit in Wallkill. Tiber secured his own permit for a music festival on the land adjacent to the El Monaco, and offered it to Woodstock Ventures, but they declined the offer, citing that the land was too swampy. Tiber then asked his milk supplier, Max Yasgur, if he would be interested in offering his dairy farm as the site. Yasgur had already allowed Tiber the use of his barn for the local Earthlight Theatre group,

so the concept of hosting a larger event of some kind must have appealed to him (I am not a Woodstock historian, so I’m sure the story has a number of differing versions). To say that “the rest is history” is both an understatement and an annoying cliché. But it’ll do for now.

Elliot Tiber (left), and his collaborator, Andre Ernotte.

Tiber also became active in the gay rights movement, following the landmark 1969 Stonewall Inn riots in New York.  Up to that point, he had been in the closet, even afraid to come out to his parents. The incident sparked the activist streak in him, while his creative talents became far-reaching, as a writer, actor, director, and designer, both in the U.S. and Europe.

Jumping ahead to 1986…

I was 25 at the time, commuting on the bus each day into New York from the Jersey suburbs, to write for Advertising Trade Publications. At the same time, I was busy trying to improve my comedy writing skills. I wrote sketches, short stories, even (bad) screenplays in my spare time, mostly for my own enjoyment, but holding out a slight hope that someone might actually pay me for my creative efforts someday (I’m masochistic enough to have saved just about all of those writings).

The New School.

One day, I found myself looking through the course catalog for The New School on 12th Street, and found a weekly night class on comedy writing, taught by Elliot Tiber. Just what I needed! I had taken script writing classes in college, and had even written my first full-length screenplay for a class, but this time, comedy was to be the main focus of the course. So, my routine was soon to include an extra drive into the city, one evening a week–kind of gutsy in a way, looking back on it, but I was excited to learn all I could, while attempting to impress my instructor with each bit of material I handed in.

Tiber in 2009.

The bearded, pudgy Tiber was nearly always dressed in black, half-heartedly explaining that it was supposedly “slimming,” and encouraged the class to go for writing outlandish, even surreal comedy pieces, if we were so inclined. I came up with an idea of a series of TV sketches about comedians throughout history; a court jester nervously attempting to make King Henry the Eighth laugh, a group of traveling minstrels accompanying Marco Polo to China, a comedy team in the Dark Ages inventing the pie-in-the-face gag, etc.

 

Much to my relief, Tiber loved my writing. His notes were glowing reviews, always accompanied with words of encouragement to just keep going, and suggesting that I submit my work to agents and producers. As you can see, I’ve kept his very generous comments, and I did indeed assemble the individual sketches into a comedy anthology script called Heroic Fools, which I had professionally typed and printed (and which I think I submitted to a handful of literary agents, before my insecurities put an end to that).

When it came to reading our material out loud to the class, I was way too self-conscious and unsure of my work to do so. Tiber volunteered to read my sketches out loud for me. He did a better job than I could have, but it didn’t produce a roomful of guffaws from my classmates, as I had hoped. Again, he made sure to tell me not to use that as a yardstick  to measure my talents.

I enjoyed the class and Tiber’s easygoing, New York-tinged humor immensely, so much so that I took a second class of his the following semester, officially titled “Absurd, Twisted Comedy Writing.” I had even come to look forward to the early-evening drive into Manhattan after dinner at home each week to attend the class.

Directly across from the parking garage I used on 12th street, just a few blocks from The New School, was a beautiful, elegant restaurant called The Gotham. It’s still there, and still beautiful. I stood across the street looking at it many times, promising myself that if I ever sold a script, I’d treat my family to dinner there. I have yet to set foot inside The Gotham.

  

And, after class each week, I’d drive 45 blocks up Avenue of the Americas, dwarfed by the towering corporate skyscrapers, and surrounded on all sides by lights, noise, people, and city life, as I listened to my jazz tapes in the car. I’d never felt so cosmopolitan!

Elliot Tiber eventually wrote a book about his life experiences titled Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life, on which a 2009 film was based. I wasn’t aware of either the book or film until recently, although

I had seen him as a guest on TV talk shows marking various Woodstock anniversaries through the years. He passed away in 2016, and, while he probably forgot all about me as soon as that last semester ended, I’ll always be indebted to him for encouraging me, and telling me how clever, funny, and rich my writing was. And, perhaps to my own detriment, it became the only thing I ever really wanted to do.

Until next time…

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