Bethel Woods explores cashing in on the counterculture

“Beatles” Hair Spray, 1964, Bronson Products Company, Inc., Chicago, Illinois, Metal, plastic, paper label, Michael Stern Collection, L2017.1.x.

For some, it was a beginning, a declaration of independence for a new “nation” that the straight world could neither ignore nor deny.

For many, many others, life-long members of that straight world, the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival was less a threat than an irresistible opportunity to cash in the burgeoning “youth culture,” an opportunity which they gladly took.


The points at which these antagonistic cultural streams met and mingled is the subject of a warm and richly detailed exhibit called “Love for Sale: The Commercialization of the Counterculture” at the Special Exhibit Gallery of the Museum at Bethel Woods.

Could there be a more fitting site for such a show? Bethel Woods — nobody’s idea of a Woodstockian “free” institution — wouldn’t exist but for the mud-caked, dope-driven festival that seized the world’s attention in 1969.

Understandably, the exhibit doesn’t explore such then-and-now ironies. But what it does do quite successfully is show how the twin streams of American capitalism and American bohemianism (harkening back to the Beats) have flowed in and out of each other’s respective domains well before Max Yasgur said “yes” to a couple of land-desperate hippie-styled entrepreneurs. It does so with extensive texts by curator Jill Silos-Rooney that accompany large and small examples of the cheesy and the sophisticated means of appropriation that goes back to the mid-1950s.

Silos-Rooney identifies the confluence of post-war American affluence with the startling “discovery” by corporate America of Elvis Presley and later, the Beatles. Music was just the starting point for corporations large and small, efforts sophisticated and cheesy. Baby boomers, the offspring of “square” America, were a new and lucrative demographic; kids looking for places to spend their “disposable income” found a friend in Mad Ave., which was only too happy to accommodate their needs.

Silos-Rooney’s historical research is posted on the exhibit’s walls alongside more than 200 artifacts, most of which are displayed like long-lost relics from another age.

There you’ll find (courtesy of pop culture collector Michael Stern) pristine examples of the pop culture’s Age of Cheese — a Beatle wig (and Beatle hair spray), a cardboard rack of Monkeeshades (cheapo pince nez sunglasses) and plastic figurines of the Fab Four in both pre- and post-Sgt. Pepper regalia.

Larger, cringe-inducing examples of Mad Ave’s efforts to cash in on the counterculture dominate the wall space: a ten-foot high billboard detail of a grinning, badly be-wigged Jonathan Winters flashing the peace sign and promising how “the new Savin really freaks out fatcat copiers.” Also in evidence are Peter Max-style illustrations on behalf of such super-cool products as Campbell’s Soup and Seven-Up.

But where the exhibit really shines is in its re-creation of a typical habitat for the American nuclear family of 1970 — living room, dining room, and boy’s and girl’s bedrooms. Sister’s got 45s splashed on the floor and a Princess phone next to her bed; brother’s got some anti-war posters and a wall-mounted stereo speaker. His bed is made, his underwear nowhere to be seen, which may be the exhibit’s only false notes.

There’s another room that speaks volumes — the Black Light Room, covered floor to ceiling with psychedelic posters. Is it apogee or nadir, the symbolic height of countercultural creativity or its commercial death knell? The exhibit isn’t built to answer such questions, only to add to our appreciation of what was going on back when helicopters could still be mistaken for butterflies.

When I entered the Black Light Room, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were singing “Deja Vu,” giving new resonance to the chorus that says “we have all been here before.” That much, at least, is something aging hippies and the men who co-opted them can all agree on.

“Love for Sale: The Commercialism of the Counterculture,” will be display at the Special Exhibit Gallery at Bethel Woods through December 31. The special exhibit is included in the price of admission to the Main Exhibit, or five dollars to view it separately.