Woodstock was no picnic in Cleveland

Woodstock nostalgia rippled through the country recently on its 40th anniversary. That three-day event — billed as the Woodstock Music and Art Fair — is used often to define the 1960s generation of young people. Those attending braved rain, mud and a crowd upwards of 400,000 to hear the music of that era and to peacefully protest a number of things, among them the Vietnam War.

Most of us didn't actually attend that so-called "love-in" but the Sixties were the forefront of our ability to "attend" events through the media. Lots of national newspaper, magazine and television coverage brought varying degrees of amazement, sympathy or disgust.

It was, some said, a gathering of the "great unwashed," an image conjured by someone in reference to the hippie generation because they thought the longhairs at least looked as if they never bathed.

At the time of Woodstock, I was a thirtyish sort (not to be trusted by the Sixties Generation). My partners and I owned a newspaper in Cleveland, Texas and embarked on a new (for us) venture as we rebuilt a burned out movie theater, another medium for the public to "attend" some major events. As the resident partner, I drew the duty of managing both.

A couple of years later, some smooth-talking film distribution type convinced me to play the movie Woodstock but being cagey I thought, I determined to play it on a Saturday night. The four-hour "documentary" was scheduled to run at 6:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., figuring I knew the market well enough that we wouldn't sell any tickets for the late show. Since the film rental was cheap, we'd make a few bucks, not draw too much attention from the community at large and move on.

Boy, was the presumption about ticket sales wrong. Who knew there were that many longhairs in those Pineywoods. Both showings sold out.

Normally, our staff for any evening consisted of someone in the ticket booth, one or two people in the concession stand, a projectionist and me. I collected everyone's tickets, assisted in concessions, patrolled the aisles and did anything no one else would do.

The absolutely most essential person in that staff, and the star of the show, was the projectionist. Fred McClain was a real pro of 50 years as an "operator," as his union card read. He was also one of the funniest, most big-hearted people. Not only did he keep a perfect picture on the screen with no out-of-focus images and a sound level that was perfect, anyone could eat off his projection booth floor. It was spotless. The projection machines were ultra-clean and always in the best repair.

Fred's face was malleable as if made from rubber or soft plastic. Mostly he was grinning all the time, but sometimes his face would contort in funny expressions that made people laugh uproariously. Eyeglasses with lenses that resembled the bottoms of a pair of Coca Cola bottles highlighted his face. He'd had cataract surgery in a time before lasers.

Seldom did any thing deter Fred from doing a great job or from enjoying himself to the fullest.

Once the concession stand closed early into the second showing of Woodstock, and with the ticket person watching the lobby, I went to the projection booth to help Fred, to watch part of this "documentary" and to observe the crowd.

The movie seemed disjointed and contained enough scenes to make it deserve the "R" rating. I didn't like the music either. I don't remember much else about the film.

Peering out the booth window, I noticed a red glow moving down one row. I turned to Fred and said, "Look at that! Those dang hippies are smoking and that's against the law!" With that I headed for the door.

"Where you goi ng? " F re d asked.

"I'm going down to put a stop to that!"

"You dummy, that's marijuana," Fred said. "You go downstairs and lock the front door to keep the cops OUT, then come back up here and let's mind our business. If we try to stop that or the cops come, we may not have a business left!"

Fred was right.

And that was my "attendance" at Woodstock.

Willis Webb is a retired community newspaper editor-publisher. Email him at

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2009-09-03 digital edition

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