Interview with Elliot Tiber, author of Taking Woodstock: It would be nice to get some more love in our lives

"I miss the sweetness of young people, so many of whom now seem so pessimistic and shut down"

Elliot Tiber: Be yourself, love your life

Elliot Tiber, Woodstock Daddy is the author of the book Taking Woodstock, which was made into a major motion film by Ang Lee. He has writer and producer award-winning plays and musical comedies for theater, television, and films. Elliot, born Eliyahu Teichberg in 1935, is a written and produced award-winning plays and musical comedies for theater, television, and films.

Tiber's 2007 memoir Taking Woodstock, written with Tom Monte, was adapted as a movie of the same name by Ang Lee. The film opened in the United States in August 2009. Tiber was born in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York. His family moved to White Lake in Bethel in 1955 where they acquired a rooming house that they expanded into a motel, called the El Monaco Motel. Tiber attended Brooklyn College and received a BFA from New York's Hunter College.                                                                             Photo by Payam Rahimian

He was in the MFA program at Pratt Institute. In his book Taking Woodstock, Tiber says he was present at the Stonewall Riots on June 28, 1969, and that he had a part in bringing the Woodstock Festival to Bethel, New York. According to Taking Woodstock, Tiber read that Wallkill, Orange County, New York had on July 15, 1969 pulled the plug on the planned Woodstock Festival at the Mills Industrial Park northeast of Middletown, New York.
“Palm Trees on the Hudson” (2010) is the hilarious prequel to Elliot Tiber's bestseller Taking Woodstock. Before Elliot found financial success by bringing Woodstock to his motel in upstate New York, before he took part in the historic Stonewall riots, he was one of Manhattan's leading interior designers. The story of how he got there is every bit as fascinating as his Woodstock concert adventure.  
He taught creative writing at New School University, fine art at Hunter College, and art design history at the New York Institute of Technology.

Interview by Michael Limnios                            

Do you believe that nowadays there are things to change in any level?
There are always things that change or that should change. Being open to change is what keeps the soul healthy.  It also ensures that no one person or group is being ignored or attacked or bullied. As much as I like to think that things have gotten better for a gay person in America such as me, there are still so many things that need to improve. The beautiful thing about the Woodstock miracle of 1969 was that everyone was in sync with each other – it didn’t matter who you loved, only that you did love. I know it sounds like a cliché, but it would be nice to get some more love in our lives.

What MOTTO of yours would you like to see in place forever?
Cash, no checks! [laughs].  Actually, my life’s motto stems back to some wonderful words of wisdom given to me by the late showbiz legend Judy Garland – she told me that if you are already at peace with yourself, then you’ll always be able to make a home wherever you are in this life. So I guess my motto remains the same: “Be yourself, love your life.”

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
Nearly everything that has happened to me since I played a part in saving the Woodstock Festival from near - cancellation in 1969 has been interesting — after that summer in 1969, I found everything that a good life has to offer: Stimulating work, a chance to create, and the opportunity to share love with another human being (my lover of 27 years, the late Belgian playwright/director Andre Ernotte, who was a big part of all those great things). In 2007, though, my life was changed entirely when I met director Ang Lee and he decided to make a movie of my life as told in the book Taking Woodstock.

Which memory from Woodstock makes you smile?
I think it was the time that I served my old-world Jewish parents the marijuana-laced cookies! [laughs] It was probably the first (and only) time I ever really saw them both just let down their guards and have joy. That remains a special memory, because there was hardly ever a joyful moment between my parents for nearly all my life – so being able to have given them that brief blast of happiness remains a treasure.

What do you miss most nowadays from the ‘60s?
I miss the sweetness of young people, so many of whom now seem so pessimistic and shut down. I don’t really blame them — with the economy in such a scary place and so much anger floating around, it all must seem fairly hopeless. Then again, growing up a scared gay man as I did, I think you owe the universe a responsibility when it comes to making deliberate decisions about how you’re going to act in this life. Now don’t get me wrong — I remain a big fan of chains and whips and all sorts of heavy S&M activity. But it would be nice if people were maybe a little more adventurous and positive about stuff — we’d all have a much better time of it, I think.

Which historical personalities would you like to meet?
No question — the Marquis de Sade, of course. I totally connected with his writing when I was just a young teenager — his extreme views of everything in life affected and influenced me on all levels. I would also like to have met Harvey Milk — I admired the courage with which he tried to make life better for gays in the ‘70s, and he certainly was (and remains) an inspiration to me as well.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about art and music?
Having studied with him at Brooklyn College, I think I learned the most about art from Mark Rothko. He suffered greatly, as so many artists often do, but he put all his experience into the work . . . and he insisted that I do the same in my own work.
I also was fortunate enough to have earned praise of my writing and some gentle encouragement of my work years ago from none other than the great Hollywood actresses Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis – together, of course, with some words of wisdom scattered my way by playwright Tennessee Williams.
As for music, I have a great love of opera and classical music – I never even really knew all those rock groups when they first showed up at Woodstock that summer, though I grew to like all their music and understand their role in the culture. And of course, the music of Judy Garland has been with me nearly my entire life. I saw her perform in 1961 at Carnegie Hall and again in 1967 at the Palace Theatre, and I write about the experience of seeing her sing live in my new book Palm Trees on the Hudson.

Of all the people you’ve met over the years, who do you admire the most?
I admire the nonprofit organization and especially its director, Scott Hall, for their ongoing fight against all manner of bullying.

What mistakes of your generation would you want to correct?
I don’t think we fought hard enough and consistently enough for more gay rights in my generation — maybe we can still help the new generation get things even better before we’re gone with the wind.

When did you last laugh and cry? And why?
I last laughed this morning when my Yorkshire Terrier (Woody Woodstock) peed on the grass outside my apartment complex (right next to a sign that read “KEEP OFF THE GRASS” – oops!). And I last cried just after watching the final cut of Ang Lee’s film Taking Woodstock based on my book and my life. I was overwhelmed by all the memories of my life that came flooding in while I watched the film’s final moments…it was a beautiful moment for me.

Who would you like to make sure is reading your book?
I want everyone in Greece to read my books – either in English or in Greek (which maybe we can arrange if your fans write to a Greek publisher and ask for my books). Maybe it will help if we tell your people that I am the long-lost Jewish brother of Melina Mercouri? Do you think people are ready to know? [laughs]

If you were to go back to the past, what things would you do better and what things would you avoid doing again?
I would do everything I already did, but I would do it better . . . and as for what I would avoid, I think I may have reconsidered taking on that big birthday cruise party for those mobsters – then again, I never would have met Judy Garland if I wasn’t on that boat. I think if I were to go back in the past, I would try to jump in and stop my parents from getting married – my mother was just always unhappy being with my dad, and they each lost a lot of years, with my mother getting fat and my dad just frowning. But then again, the problem with splitting my parents is that I would cease to exist - and who would then pay rent on my apartment?!

What has been the best moment of your career, and which was the worst?
Though I had a great run during much of the sixties as one of the top interior designers in New York City, I think the chance to have my life told in a movie by director Ang Lee represents the highest high of my career to date. And I think the worst moment of my career took place the week after a terrible birthday cruise party that I organized in May 1968, when the Mafia in New York basically rode me out of town over some incurred party expenses that they felt I should pay on their behalf (even though I worked at their hire). I tell that story in my newest book Palm Trees on the Hudson - and memories of it still get to me sometimes. I was not a happy camper at that point.

What is your “secret” DREAM?
Well, my secret dream is just that – a “secret”! However, I have been trying for the past few years to stage a big show just like Woodstock . . . but this one would be called “Lovestock” and it would be a big music festival that would also double as a huge gathering for public weddings of all kinds of couples – both gay and straight. I think it would be great if Lady Gaga were to headline the “Lovestock” festival – my dream is that I’m able to see Lovestock happen before it’s time for me to split the planet.

Finish this sentence:  Happiness is . . .
Being able to finish each day saying “I did everything I wanted, and I wanted to do everything that I did.”

Elliot Tiber's website  

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