The Bearsville Center Revives Woodstock’s Music Tradition

Lizzie Vann and her team are giving Woodstock’s beloved music center its second act.

If you or someone you know has ever bought distressed property in the Hudson Valley, you are probably familiar with the horrors that can await. Leaky roofs that allow it to rain indoors and black mold to blossom. Burst pipes that send streams gushing across beautiful wood floors. Rodents laying claim to room after room.

outdoor Bearsville

Now, imagine you are the owner of exactly this kind of distressed property, but it also happens to embody the heart and soul of a town with a remarkable heritage. Specifically, you are a woman named Lizzie Vann, and you bought what is now known as the Bearsville Center on Tinker Street. The 16 acres aren’t short on local lore, as the complex was originally created by renowned music impresario Albert Grossman. Playing a critical role in putting Woodstock on the map, Grossman managed such legends as Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, The Band, Janis Joplin, and many more.

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Albert Grossman at the Little Bear Cafe
Albert Grossman at the Little Bear Cafe

Grossman and his team built cabins in Woodstock for the musicians to spend time in the region. Van Morrison wrote the entirety of his opus Moondance here. Dylan penned tunes like “My Back Pages” and “It Ain’t Me Babe” while staying in Ulster County. Dylan crashed a motorcycle right near the Grossmans’ house. Many thought he was hiding out there or perhaps had died, but actually spent most of his time with The Band at Big Pink in Saugerties. Dylan put Sally, Grossman’s wife, on the cover of his 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home.

bar and dining Woodstock

Grossman had been invited upstate by graphic design icon Milton Glaser and fell in love with Bearsville and its history of artistic communities (like Byrdcliffe and Maverick). Grossman bought property in the area in 1963 and began hosting all kinds of musical geniuses who were only too happy to escape the hot, sweaty confines of New York City in the summer. Eventually, he headquartered his Bearsville Studios and record label on the Tinker Street property and was readying his Bearsville Theater when he died in 1986. (He’s buried on the grounds of the Theater, which opened in 1989.)

The Woodstock Mountain Review
The Woodstock Mountain Review at Bearsville

Though the place was absolutely bubbling with superstars during the height of the hippie era, it never reached the full potential of Grossman’s vision. His plans to build a stage were for pitch performances; it was never intended for the public. Because they managed the artists directly, the Grossmans pursued the concept to sell music. They constructed a huge bar to wine and dine visiting members of the industry and hired the same architect who designed Electric Lady Studios in Manhattan (the same Electric Lady commissioned by Jimi Hendrix).

Sally Grossman finished the project and welcomed the Woodstock Mountain Revue to the stage in 1989. Meatloaf recorded one of the best-selling albums of all time, Bat Out of Hell, under Sally Grossman’s management of the studios. Other esteemed artists like Aerosmith, Peter Tosh, Patti Smith, and The Psychedelic Furs also recorded releases here. Musicians routinely made stops at the theater on their tour to pay homage to artists that inspired them, but there was never enough space to host large concerts for the public. Upkeep ceased on the complex, and Sally Grossman passed away early in 2021.

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outdoor lounging

The Grossmans’ foothold in the Hudson Valley changed hands over the following years. Fast forward to 2019, and the property, now in derelict condition, was set to be auctioned off.

Enter Lizzie Vann, a British entrepreneur who had played a key role in founding (and then selling) the Organix brand of baby food and earned an MBE recognition (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for Services to Children’s Food for her pioneering work bringing healthier nutrition to families and schools. Vann had moved to the Woodstock area in 2013, in part because the gorgeous landscape reminded her of the Lake District back home in England. She was searching for her second act. “I was thinking about producing radio programs or writing a book,” explains Vann.

Bearsville Theater

The town’s musical heritage resonated deeply with her. She had been mesmerized by the music of Janis Joplin and the whole ‘60s music scene as a teen. “I remember borrowing Joplin’s ‘Pearl’ album from the Leicester public library,” she says, “and listening to Dylan’s ’Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and learning about issues I should know about and be upset about. There was something about listening to that music, those songs of protest and change, and knowing that other people around the world were too and believed in the same things. It united us.”

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entree

It’s no wonder why the Bearsville property, rough as it was, captured her imagination. Living just a few minutes away in Willow, she had gone to concerts there before it was shuttered and dined at its restaurants. With rumors that a hotel chain might come in and erase the buildings’ storied history, she snapped the property up, put on her Wellies, and dove headlong into revitalizing the waterlogged complex.

dressing space

“I took possession the Friday of Labor Day weekend in 2019 and began calling plumbers, because the water bill showed that 8,000 gallons were leaking through the broken pipes,” she recalls. What’s more, every time the wind blew, boards and branches were banging against the roof. The floors were collapsing. “I said to myself, ‘Girl, you may have bitten off more than you can chew,’” she recalls. But by the following Monday, Vann was hiring people to start work and reimagining the Center’s future.

Theater

Originally a farm with an abundance of old barns, the property was made up of a variety of buildings that reflect Grossman’s life as a music producer. He wanted a utopian community built around song: There was a wonderful, acoustically engineered recording space; his record-label headquarters; room for bands to perform for industry folk; and a large bar area where deals could be hammered out. Eateries and cabins dotted the wooded land.

“Albert’s mission was to have a place where musicians and artists could come and rehearse. They could create new songs, they could form new bands, they could record them at his recording studios, they could issue a record through his record label, and they could perform at the beginning of a tour at the Bearsville Theater,” Vann says.

Sofa

Vann wanted to reinvent the compound to honor its roots—Dylan, among others, wrote and played so much of his music on Tinker Street that it’s truly a touchstone in social history. But she also knew she needed to ready it for a new era.

Bear Cafe

Work started on the 16 acres, and then, boom, so did the pandemic, all but ending live music and indoor dining as we knew it. The land that once saw the likes of David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, and Todd Rundgren (who pioneered a video recording studio called Utopia on the property back in the ‘80s) would have to wait a little longer to make its debut. Unable to bring in any income via shows or receive any grants, Vann gritted her teeth and pressed onward.

Bearsville

What Vann wants most is for Woodstock to regain its status as a place where great cultural things happen.

She and her team continued their renovations and began welcoming visitors as 2021 became 2022 and the Covid restrictions eased up. The phoenix-like compound sparkled with the always-popular Woodstock Film Festival. Jakob Dylan, Bob’s son and a music star in his own right, performed. The Bear Café, helmed by chef Josh Rajala, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America, shared delicious meals with locals and visiting musicians. (Vann, knowing what those touring musicians’ lives were like, added a laundry area off the green room for visiting artists, who often make a beeline there to put up a load of wash.)

Bearsville Theater Stage
Bearsville Theater Stage

The grounds were cleared of 75 big black bags of trash, and the landscape revived to include a music-meets-nature trail, celebrating classic albums (from Janis Joplin to Steely Dan) that are part of the history of Bearsville; a memorial garden by the Sawkill stream; and areas to relax and contemplate the towering pine trees.

Bearsville Woodstock

The restored Bearsville Theater is the jewel in the crown at the Center: “I like to think it’s the best it’s ever been,” says Vann with pride. “We did it in Albert’s memory.” The interior of the attached lounge is painted in what she describes as a mid-century modern peacock blue with gold stars and lush velvet drapes. Originally, the Theater only welcomed a couple of hundred people at best (more than enough since it was built to be Grossman’s personal talent showcase), but it has now been boosted to seat over 400 guests. Those who visit can brush up on the local lore, thanks to a mural downstairs called Music Made in Woodstock, which shares the story of the town’s musical heritage, with everybody from Peter Yarrow to the Rolling Stones represented.

restaurant

The whole campus has been upgraded utilizing a palette reminiscent of the era with rustic barn red, forest green, and woodsy brown harmonizing. The Center’s fresh new face is part of Vann’s mission. She passionately wants Woodstock to have the same sense of pride that it did 50 years ago, when it was revered as one of the most important musical spots in the world. “Woodstock had a kind of pep in its step and was very proud that musicians were part of the community. I’d like the Bearsville Center to be the heartbeat of Woodstock again.”

wall posters

Given that the compound is centered around what was originally Grossman’s listening studio and not a pack-‘em-in concert hall, Vann is finding other ways to make the property self-sufficient. With its restaurants and ice cream parlor, the Center is hosting weddings, corporate retreats, and memorial services. Mini festivals—bluegrass, folk, jazz, art, and more—are part of the programming along with the perennially popular film festival. The recording studio, Utopia Studios Bearsville, owned by multi-platinum music engineer Pete Caigan, offers music, film, and live-from-the-Theater recording possibilities. (Indie rockers The National recently filmed a promotional video for their latest album here.)

Bearsville cocktail

There are plenty of dining options, too. The Bear Café offers locally sourced farm-to-table fare and the Bear Cantina serves up tacos al pastor and other Mexican favorites. Nancy’s Creamery, an artisanal scoop shop with flavors like Key Lime Pie, has people queuing up for cones, and the Tinker Street Tavern is a popular spot for a pint and live music.

Bob Dylan Writing Booth
Bob Dylan Writing Booth

But beyond these feathers in Bearsville’s cap, what Vann wants most is for Woodstock to regain its status as a place where great cultural things happen, plus be a town that is financially secure, not just a town that lives or dies on tourism and tie-dye t-shirts. “One of my visions is to bring more than 100 good-paying jobs to the town of Woodstock,” she adds.

outdoor space

Adding to her holdings, Vann bought the Cafe Espresso on Tinker Street in 2022, which is obviously a gleeful acquisition. It played a formative role in the careers of Dylan, Joan Baez, and others. Dylan wrote “Mr. Tambourine Man” and other hits in that building, either downstairs in the coffee shop itself or upstairs in the apartment he’d often stay in (which is now home to the acoustic instrument store Folkadelic). Last May, she bought the former Lasher funeral home, which has a big, beautiful Victorian house and gorgeous old barns. Currently in consultation with the town about its use, Vann would love to see it become a sculpture garden and museum showcasing Woodstock’s musical and artistic history, or perhaps a health center or artists’ studios.

Bearsville dining space

Vann loves this life, as challenging as it sometimes is. She lives in an old farm-animal sanctuary, which she shares with her partner, photographer David McGough; her dogs, Keith Richards and Johnny Be Good; and a rotating crew of visiting children and grandchildren. She shrugs off being a figurehead—the Brit Who’s Saving Bearsville? No, thank you.

dressing room

“I work with a small team of the most amazing people. None of this would happen without them,” she says. Just as the town’s history was etched in a spirit of community, so too will its future be, if Vann has anything to say about it.

Related: Beacon Performing Arts Center Is a Theater Education Destination

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