The 47th anniversary of the 1969 Woodstock Festival is Aug. 15. Many will reflect about a weekend in which live rock music defined a generation.
But for the first time in five decades, Elliot Tiber, the Brooklyn-born interior designer who enabled Woodstock, won’t be offering his perspective. He had planned to do so on Aug. 20 at Fort Lauderdale’s Cinema Paradiso at a screening of “Taking Woodstock,” director Ang Lee’s 2009 movie based on Tiber’s 2007 memoir, “Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert and a Life” (Square One Publishers).
Tiber, the former president of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce in New York and a resident of Fort Lauderdale since 2007, died Wednesday from a stroke at age 81.
“One day in San Francisco, a total stranger gave me a book, and a couple of years later, I ended up making a movie from it. I still find this astonishing. But the stranger happened to be Elliot Tiber, one of the most interesting — and talkative — people I’ve ever met; and the book was ‘Taking Woodstock,’ his wonderful memoir of that last moment of innocence in 1969. It was a privilege for me to share a part of Elliot Tiber’s life and history on screen,” Lee said on Thursday.
Tiber’s participation as a closeted gay man in the Stonewall riots and, six weeks later, Woodstock ignited a sense of pride that carried him forward into a writing and teaching and artistic career and activist for the LGBT community. In Fort Lauderdale, he resumed his interest in paintings and abstract line drawings and worked with art agent Elisa Ball.
“Those six weeks? Wow. These people were so enriching to my life. They opened up whole new worlds to me,” Tiber told the Miami Herald in a 2008 story about Stonewall and Woodstock. “I didn’t feel fat. I didn’t feel ugly. It enabled me to meet all kinds of people, to enjoy myself. I got used to that.”
Woodstock’s four founders — including Michael Lang, who promoted the Miami Pop Festival that drew 25,000 Jimi Hendrix fans to Hallandale’s Gulfstream Park in 1968 — had been rebuffed in their efforts to find a suitable space to host their event.
Enter Tiber, then 34, who figured a music festival in Bethel would be great for tourism. He wrote in his memoir, “I typed up a permit, giving myself legal permission to hold a rock concert.”
That crucial permit allowed Lang and his colleagues to stage Woodstock in Bethel. Initially Tiber didn’t care about Woodstock’s top acts like The Who, Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane; he cared more about propping up his parents’ struggling hotel, the El Monaco. “New York’s ugliest and most dysfunctional motel and resort,” he wrote in his memoir. “Most of the doors didn’t have doorknobs, and fewer still had keys.”
Tiber offered its grounds to Woodstock’s founders. They weren’t quite that desperate. But the Woodstock crew did use the El Monaco as headquarters while Tiber brokered the deal for Woodstock.
It was an honor to portray Elliot not just because of the role he played in making Woodstock happen, but even more so because of the courage and candor with which he lived his life and shared his story.
Actor Demetri Martin, who played Tiber in “Taking Woodstock.”
Tiber, who earned a bachelor’s of fine arts from Hunter College in New York, thought of his “milk and cheese man,” Bethel farmer Max Yasgur. Woodstock settled on Yasgur’s farm, giving the counterculture — 400,000 strong — fields of grass and mud to camp on as 32 musical acts such as the Grateful Dead, Melanie and Santana made history.
After Woodstock, Tiber moved to Los Angeles, where he became a movie set designer. He returned to New York and taught comedy writing and screenwriting at New School University, fine art at Hunter College and art design history at the New York Institute of Technology.
He also wrote books. “Rue Haute” in 1977 was made into an Oscar-nominated French-language film by Belgian director André Ernotte, Tiber’s life partner, who died in 1999.
Other books followed: “Knock on Woodstock: The Uproarious, Uncensored Story of the Woodstock Festival, the Gay Man Who Made It Happen, and How He Earned His Ticket to Freedom,” “Palm Trees on the Hudson: A True Story of the Mob, Judy Garland & Interior Decorating” and, with writer Tom Monte, “Taking Woodstock.”
Square One Publishers wasn’t initially sold on “Taking Woodstock,” the company’s president Rudy Shur said. “I must have turned him down five or six times when he wanted to give me that book,” he said. “But the guy wouldn’t give up. He had crazy European parents and so did I. He endeared them to me after a while.”
Elliot was a unique personage, a chronicler of his tumultuous times as well as a formidable participant. We met through the film ‘Rue Haute,’ which I presented at the 92nd Street Y and included in my book about Holocaust cinema. He wrote the screenplay for this fine drama, directed by his partner André Ernotte. His expansive personality will be missed.
Annette Insdorf, Columbia University film professor
Plenty of books had been written on Woodstock but Shur prevailed on Tiber to make his book personal to stand out.
“Six months later we get a contact from Ang Lee who said, ‘I want to do a movie.’ Wow. That was pretty amazing. Like winning the lottery,” Shur said.
Tiber’s next book, with a foreword by Ang Lee, “After Woodstock: The True Story of a Belgian Movie, an Israeli Wedding, & a Manhattan Breakdown,” followed in 2015.
Anthony Pomes, a vice president of marketing for Square One, spoke with Tiber in late June on the day that President Obama declared the Stonewall Inn a national monument.
“He cried tears of joy when talking with me on the phone. He told me how truly thankful he was that he had lived long enough to see the day when Stonewall — and, by association, the entire LGBTQ community both old and young — was recognized by the federal government as an important and worthy landmark in our American history. In nearly 10 years of working with him, I never heard him as proud and happy as he was on that day.”
Shur said the moment was pivotal as Tiber prepared to speak at Cinema Paradiso later this month at a screening of “Taking Woodstock.”
“What I learned in working with him on three books was what it was like to be gay in the ’50s, ’60s and straight through to this time. It was a remarkable journey in regard to how things were to where they are today. When they made Stonewall a national monument, he called crying because it meant so much to him.… He’s had an interesting and diverse life.”
Tiber is survived by his sisters Goldie and Renee.