Sex, Drugs, NO Rock ‘N’ Roll…
Long before the debacle known as the Fyre Festival and three decades before the horrors of Woodstock ’99, there was the monumental failure of all music festivals: the Powder Ridge Music Festival.
In the summer of 1970, riding on the heels of Woodstock’s success a year earlier, a small ski resort in the sleepy town of Middlefield, Connecticut was set to host the Powder Ridge Music Festival. The weekend’s artists included Janis Joplin, Sly & The Family Stone, Little Richard, Van Morrison, Jethro Tull, Fleetwood Mac, James Taylor, Grand Funk Railroad and more.
Three days of the full-blown Woodstock experience… For a $20 ticket, what could ever go wrong?
In one corner you have Ray Filiberti, a mob-connected promoter, a dreamer with the heart of a con man, who believed only in cash transactions and never keeping books. He had fifty thousand tickets printed for an event which had an official maximum capacity of eighteen thousand. Add to that the fact that those beautiful, embossed tickets were most likely re-printed and sold three or four times…
In the second corner you have Lou Zemel, owner of the Powder Ridge Ski Resort. Zemel was a known Communist who argued his right to travel to Cuba all the way to the Supreme Court in a trial known as Zemel v. Rusk. He was also a fervent supporter of the Black Panthers, allowing a Panther rally at Powder Ridge earlier in 1970, around the time of the infamous Bobby Seal murder trial just miles down the road in New Haven. It should be noted that the body of Alex Rackley, the man Seal was accused of ordering a hit on, was dumped in the town of Middlefield, not far from Powder Ridge.
In the third corner you have forty thousand plus music fans looking for the next Woodstock experience: a lot of sex, even more drugs, and wall-to-wall rock and roll. Call them “dirty stinking hippies,” as did the flyers warning them to stay away, or simply “freaks,” as many of them labeled themselves. They were an army of young, uninhibited, socially conscious, war-protesting people looking for the party to end all parties.
And finally, in the last corner, there is the sleepy town of Middlefield whose thirty-five hundred residents were predominantly white and ultra-conservative. To say that the powers that be in town disliked Zemel and all he stood for was not an exaggeration. They wanted nothing to do with communists or the Black Panthers, or the mob, for that matter. And they really did not want tens of thousands of hippies destroying their idyllic town and corrupting their children.
Problems quickly arose…
The festival sold out completely. Over 100,000 kids were coming to Powder Ridge, but the town had never actually given the New York-based promoters permission for the festival to take place. The residents of Middlefield rallied, together with their elected officials, and wasted no time in getting a court injunction to ban the entire event.
Zemel soon found himself between the proverbial rock and a hard place. The town was shutting down the festival. The promoters and all the cash from ticket sales were suddenly nowhere to be found. And thousands of kids were arriving from every direction, setting up camp on the slopes, still expecting some live rock and roll.
On threat of arrest, a vastly outnumbered contingent of state and local police successfully turned back all but one performer and as many concertgoers as they could. However, by Friday, July 31 — the planned first night of music — 40,000 kids were still in attendance for their promised Woodstock experience. Instead, they were met with a dead venue – the city, in their infinite wisdom, had cut power to the resort. The attendees were left stranded for three days with little food, little water, and no music.
So, the concertgoers turned to what they had left in abundance: sex and drugs.
There are many who feel the Powder Ridge Music Festival was the greatest party of all time. And just as many who feel it was the final nail in the coffin for the peace and love generation. That a dream died that weekend on the hills of a small ski resort in central Connecticut. The festival became known as “The Festival that Never Was” – but even devoid of seemingly everything needed to host a memorable event, the weekend saw price wars on drugs, orgy tents, LSD-laced brown rice, a social justice group from Yale Law School doing everything to keep the peace, a musical performance by Melanie (hooked up to the generator of a Mister Softee Ice Cream truck by Hanley, who was promptly arrested), and enough nudity to make comedian Lewis Black blush, because yes, he was there, and by his own admission, high as a kite.
And as for what happened to the promoters… this festival is barely the tip of that mob- entangled iceberg.
Written & Directed by Gorman Bechard
Produced by Gorman Bechard, Sophia Rokas, Abby Richards
Associate Produced by Kaity Bolding
Edited by Sydni Frisch
Music by Dean Falcone
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