Walking Woodstock: Celebration!

Walking Man sculpture by Alberto Giacometti.

Walking Man sculpture by Alberto Giacometti.

Ed Balmer

To paraphrase Auntie Mame, “life is a party most poor suckers don’t know how to celebrate.” The flaneur liked to think of parties as group expressions of gratitude for being alive — like prayer, but  with music. Although he doesn’t look the type to party hearty — he is old, cadaverous, bent, and of mournful  mien — the  flaneur is, withal, a party animal. The list of parties he has attended or thrown constitute an autobiography of

celebration from initiation, at eleven, to his biggest, the two week Woodstock Bicentennial Celebration. The flaneur had learned from these one of life’s great secrets: how to have a good time. Bop till you drop.

Beatrice was his guide through the social intricacies of his first party. He was new in the neighborhood, and one warm Saturday he noticed her on the street in tight white shorts that showed off the deep brown tan of her legs to wicked advantage. Despite his shyness, he spoke to her. The next day she invited him to her birthday party, at which Spin the Bottle was played. He went into the closet with Beatrice reluctantly, as boys will, and emerged a young man with a new spring in his step.


In his first years in New York, the flaneur saw every kind of party, and soon wearied of gatherings that were not truly social, but another category of work, eased somewhat

by white wine and nibbles. These occasions were seldom celebratory. Those he spoke to were anxious to find a date, status, or relief from boredom. The flaneur wanted more. So he decided to find a place where people still knew the value of “wasting time,” and play.

He took a bus to Woodstock on a crisp October day when the autumn leaves were still turning, and saw, when the bus stopped at the Village Green, that he had arrived at the Right Place. People had gathered around a man who was talking loudly while operating an old fashioned cider press, and giving out free cups of his pulpy product. The flaneur thought the man looked interesting, like he might have some mischief in his pockets. Like many country men, he wore a sheath knife on his belt, which he used to cut a slice of tart apple for the stranger off the noon bus. They fell to talking about apples, and when they finished pressing the last batch, the flaneur helped the man and his two kids load the apple press into the back of a pickup that had seen better days when Lassie was a pup. The man grinned.

“You like parties? We have venison, cold beer, and hot  music.” And that was how he met a true Woodstock character, Ed Balmer.

The Balmer homestead’s backyard was a great lawn decorated with sculptures made of rusting Detroit iron. Some still ran. The lawn was suffused with soft autumn light, filtered through outstretched arboreal arms that welcomed a greater variety of people than those he saw at New York parties. They strolled on the freshly cut grass laughing and sipping fresh cider. In years to come, the flaneur would measure other parties  by this celebration of the apple harvest.

There were so many parties…at first, missing his city friends, he would invite them to a house party to celebrate birthdays. Friends, good talk, wine , and dancing: Celebration.

The flaneur could not dance — except for the horizontal mambo — but he loved to do what his friend Melvin Van Peebles mocked as the “White Man’s Shuffle.” He also liked art openings in  the 70s in Woodstock, before conversation degenerated to mindless talk about computers, and art faded into technology.


The Beaux Arts Ball

Reasoning that if boredom at parties was to be his lot, why not magnify the torture? On his theory that as you turn up the volume, things become more interesting, he persuaded staff at

Ulster Arts magazine to revive an old Woodstock tradition — The Artists and Models Ball. And so on a mild evening in fall nearly 40 years ago, 500 people in costume showed up at the Art Students League to celebrate being artists. Two bands kept things lively, and by midnight the dance floor was wild.


The Woodstock Bicentennial Celebration

The flaneur was Program Director for the Woodstock Guild in 1986 when he was assigned to serve on a committee that was to come up with plans for a Bicentennial Celebration. The committee was made up of people who liked to hear themselves talk. The flaneur is a shy guy, but he is easily bored. After listening for an hour to some good ideas buried in dense verbiage, he protested. All eyes focused on him. Before he could protest again, he was named Chair of the Celebration.

A year later, in spring, 1987, Woodstock threw a two week long party for itself that everyone agreed was the best that Woodstock had seen since the Maverick Festivals. Parades, concerts, exhibitions, plays — every day offered a new reason to feel good about the town. Hundreds of people worked to make it a success. Cynics said it was enough to make you believe that

Santa and the tooth fairy had put happy pills in the water supply.


The Library Fair

The annual Library Fair is the biggest party Woodstock throws for  itself, a celebration of all that’s best about the town. There’s something for everyone, and the good feelings build to a euphoric state in the 2,000-3,000 fairgoers who attend. The flaneur has directed it for 17 years.


Ed Redux

The flaneur ran into Ed Balmer at a long-ago birthday party for the poet Janine Vega. They were standing in the kitchen of a house off Tinker Street. Liquor had loosened the flaneur’s tongue as he told Ed his theory about parties and Celebration. He was feigning modesty as he recounted the fun he’d given people, and Ed called him on it. “You should be proud. Don’t forget, it ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.”