- Photo by Fionn Reilly
- Lizzie Vann.
On a cold but sunny afternoon in the Woodstock hamlet of Bearsville, your arts editor comes face to face with Keith Richards. He's very animated today. Panting with his tongue hanging out and running up and down the stairs.
No, not that Keith Richards. This eager little guy, a Norwich terrier named for the immortal Rolling Stones guitarist who has a brother named Johnny Rotten, belongs to Lizzie Vann, the new owner of the Bearsville entertainment complex. Right now, Vann and the cute mutt are leading a private tour of the intense renovations to the Bearsville Theater that began when she acquired the property last August. The sounds of hammers echo from the adjacent room, the scent of freshly sawn wood fills the nostrils, and stacks of building materials and extension cords connected to power tools must be carefully stepped around and over. In addition to the iconic theater, the site's companion buildings include the Bear Cafe, the Little Bear restaurant, the Peterson House, and the Utopia Soundstage performance space and recording studio, which also houses tenant Radio Woodstock 100.1 FM (WDST), in August 2019.
"We put in a whole new sound system," says the British-born businesswoman as she gestures toward the newly installed speakers in the theater's main space. "It's smaller than the old one, but because of the newer technology the sound is much better. It's going to be one of the best-sounding rooms north of the city. That was definitely one of the things we really wanted to do right away, get the sound to be the best possible. But there's been so much else to do."
There certainly has, and quite obviously there still is. Built by Albert Grossman, the game-changing, bigger-than-life manager of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, the Band, and other acts, the spot was for decades the proud heart of the Hudson Valley's music and arts scene. A model commercial-meets-cultural operation, it attracted international headliners to its stages and both far-flung and local audiences and diners to its events and eateries as it embodied the creative spirit of Woodstock itself. But under the auspices of its interim owner, attorney John Kilpatrick, whose two overextended business partners had both pulled out toward the end of his tenure, it largely fell into managerial and physical neglect. Live shows became infrequent and under promoted, the quality of the acts haphazard. The once world-class fine fare of the Bear Cafe slipped. Utility bills went unpaid, and the lights went dark in all the facilities save for the still-operating Little Bear and Radio Woodstock. And the pipes burst. On the day Vann got the keys to the property, there was water leaking from ceilings and flooded basements.
Vann, though, seems clearly cut out for the task of bringing Bearsville back to life and implementing the big plans she has as part of the gargantuan effort. The founder of leading organic baby food company Organix, Vann is the recipient of an MBE for Services to Children's Food and a European Woman of Achievement Award as well as the cofounder of the Historic Green Village on Florida's Anna Maria Island, a platinum-LEED-certified residential/vacation eco-community that features repurposed century-old buildings. Raised in a clan of factory workers in the Midlands manufacturing city of Leicester, she was the first of her family to attend college and inherited her parents' industrious lineage. She also brought a next-generation love of art and rock 'n' roll to the bloodline. "The local library had records, and I used to go there and sign out albums by Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin," says Vann. "A whole world would open up when I listened to those records. I remember dreaming: 'Wow, it would be so great to go to America, where Janis is from.'"
It would take a little time before the dream would be realized. First, after studying biology at the University of Lancaster, Vann worked for several years in London's financial district—an occupation that might, on the surface, seem to have been at odds with her also being a strong social activist. "I was always a lefty, as we say in the UK, what you'd call a liberal over here. I actually worked for Chase Manhattan for a while because I wanted to understand how businesses ran, to be able to see how the system worked from inside." Realizing that there was a growing concern among parents about the safety of the ingredients in children's food, she launched Organix in 1992. "I knew that the things that were in so much of the food that people were feeding their kids, ingredients like the 'Dirty Dozen' [the 12 most-pesticide-contaminated produce types] and all of these chemical dyes, were things that would affect the health of those kids for life," she explains. "So I had the idea to start making and marketing natural baby food that got those things out." The brand became extremely successful, and Vann sold it to the likewise health-conscious German company Hero in 2008.
She met her second husband, New York-based celebrity photographer David McGough, in Florida in 2010, not long after establishing the Historic Green Village. An animal rights activist and PETA volunteer, McGough was aware of and had donated to the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary. He and Vann were already interested in moving to the area when they learned that the sanctuary had relocated to High Falls and put its original location on the market. The couple fell in love with the Woodstock farmstead and purchased it, moving into its central log cabin and converting one of its outbuildings into a private performance space and art gallery. Right away, they found a welcoming community among the artists and musicians around their new home in Woodstock.
Four years later, the pair got wind that the Bearsville complex was about to go on the auction block and saw a chance to invest themselves more deeply in the region. They moved on it quickly, bypassing the inspection process—and learned about the eight gallons of water leaking per minute from the theater's damaged pipes after the purchase. But even that didn't dampen their excitement about the project. "I've always been really interested in the Arts and Crafts movement and [Victorian English art critic, patron, and social theorist] John Ruskin," Vann says. "So I knew about the Byrdcliffe Colony in Woodstock and how it had been founded by Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, who was a student of Ruskin's. And, of course, I also knew about the town because the Band and Dylan and all of this other music I'd loved was connected to it. So much of that was because of Albert Grossman and what he'd been doing here with his vision for Bearsville."
That vision, begun in 1971 when Grossman—coincidentally called "the Bear," for his aggressive management style as well as his heavy-set physique—purchased the former Peterson farm on Route 212, was in many ways a continuation of the utopian concepts that had taken root in the area at Byrdcliffe and its spinoff colony, the Maverick, long before he settled on nearby Striebel Road in 1964. His idea was to construct a self-contained mini-Nashville in the Catskills, where the artists he worked with could record at his nearby Bearsville Studio, ideally for his Bearsville Records label, and feel like they were part of a greater family during their residencies. "He had the idea of providing a healthy environment for the artists to live in, with good healthy food," local guitarist Peter Walker told author Barney Hoskyns for the 2016 book Small Town Talk. "You take them out of the city, where they're eating ratburgers, and you bring them up here, where there's lots of fresh air. You feed them well in your restaurant, then you record them in your studio and have them showcase in your theater, with the record company executives flying in and staying in your cabins. That was the vision."
After Grossman was gone, the Bear Cafe and the Bearsville Theater, which was acoustically designed by Electric Lady Studios architect John Storyk, both had great later runs, and the Chinese cuisine-oriented Little Bear, Radio Woodstock, and Utopia Soundstage originally built for Grossman client Todd Rundgren have remained in operation. But the overarching focus evaporated, and it seemed that Grossman's vision had died with him in 1986. Vann, however, is bent on bringing it back to the compound, which she's renamed Bearsville Center.
"We really want Bearsville to be a community, in the true sense of the word," enthuses the entrepreneur, who is currently on the hunt for a compatible and innovative restaurateur to take over the Bear Cafe and envisions another party running the adjacent, renovated Peterson House (most recently the site of the Commune Saloon) as a small bistro or coffeehouse. "We want to do all kinds of events here: yoga, poetry readings, kids' and family activities, films. And for the music, we really want it to be diverse: not just classic rock and Americana, but also classical music and much more jazz and indie rock." In addition to having partnered with former BSP booking agent Mike Amari to handle the latter genre, Vann mentions plans for a jazz club in the theater's basement and muses about installing a custom record-making booth like the 1947 Voice-o-Graph machine at Third Man Records in Memphis.
"I'm really happy to see that it's reopening and getting the refurbishing that it needs," says legendary local jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette, who will perform at the reconstituted Bearsville Theater next month. "It's in a great location and there's always been a really nice feeling there."
Tucked away in a woodsy spot just behind the theater is the final resting place of the Bear himself, Albert Grossman. No doubt he has a watchful, approving eye on Lizzie Vann she continues and embellishes the dream that put Bearsville on the map.
This month, the reopened Bearsville Theater will host two events as part of the Woodstock Writers Festival: "Bring Forth What is In You: Elizabeth Lesser and Elaine Pagels in Conversation" on March 27 at 8pm, and "Roz Chast and Adam Gopnik in Conversation" on March 28 at 8pm. Woodstockbookfest.com. "Masters of the Telecaster" featuring Jim Weider Larry Campbell, and G.E. Smith will take place on April 17 at 8pm. Jack DeJohnette, Ravi Coltrane, and Matthew Garrison perform with David Sancious and Will Calhoun opening on April 18 at 8pm. Bearsvilletheater.com.