“Grossman took great pleasure in planning the Bearsville complex, recruiting the best local craftsmen to bring his dreams to fruition. He bought his lumber from Nelson Shultis’s sawmill and hired copper roofing master Otto Shue. ‘He started searching around for things to buy’ says Dean Schambach. ‘We pulled those sheds together to form the Bear Café. Albert changed the town by building the Bear. The room with the fireplace had been a goat barn…’” — from the book Small Town Talk, by Barney Hoskyns (Da Capo Press, 2016).
The Bearsville Theater complex has narrowly escaped purchase by two different potential buyers with plans to build a hotel on the historic property located two miles from the center of Woodstock. British businesswoman and Willow resident Lizzie Vann, who closed on the theater and associated restaurants and music studio on Friday, August 31, expects to maintain the previous uses of the buildings, while seeking input on how to make the complex, renamed Bearsville Center, even more community-friendly.
Built in the 1970s by music promoter Albert Grossman, manager of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, The Band and other stars, the complex has gone through a series of owner/investors until it shut down over the past seven months, with only the Little Bear Chinese restaurant and the Radio Woodstock 100.1 FM (WDST) studio remaining in business. Those two tenants will remain, said Vann, while new ones will be sought for The Bear Restaurant and possibly the Peterson House, which most recently operated as the Commune Saloon. She also hopes to expand use of the theater.
Vann sat with her realtor, Laurie Ylvisaker, on the stone patio near the firepit, built by the previous owner, John Kirkpatrick, between the theater and the restaurants. “People loved to come and sit and roast marshmallows,” Vann said. “We all look at this and say it was an amazing idea. Everybody wants this, the concept of the theater with an area people can mill around, go to restaurants before and after shows.”
Apparently Kirkpatrick’s business partners had pulled out of the project, leaving him to manage the property alone. “He was an attorney,” said Vann. “The decline of The Bear had to do with lack of management experience.”
Vann, on the other hand, brings a keen business acumen to the venture, having created and sold a lucrative company in England and developed a green community in Florida. She has also brought Woodstock values to her work. “I’ve been passionate about organic farming, food, and the environment, since I was a biology student,” she explained. “Being interested in nutrition led me to start a baby food company at 32. I was representing moms, the British government, the European Union, making and selling good-quality food with ingredients from organic farmers.” The Organix company also supported groups that promoted breastfeeding and lobbied against additives and pesticides in foods. Most of Vann’s employees were women, whom she mentored in an effort to give them confidence and launch them on careers. “One of best things you can do in life is to run a business. You get a sense of control of your own destiny.”
When she sold the company in 2008, Vann put money into a property in Florida that became a landmark green village. She lifted two 100-year-old buildings and moved them to the site instead of constructing new homes. “We made a showcase of sustainability,” she said, “with native plant landscaping, recycling water, solar power, ground-source heat pumps for air conditioning. I wanted to show that these were good business practices, while making it a nice place for people to visit.”
Six years ago, Vann and her partner, David McGough, bought property in Willow. As a celebrity photographer with a portfolio of rock artists, McGough is happy to be in Woodstock, where he can go every night to see live music and even perform with his own band. “There’ll be a resurgence of energy for the theater now,” Ylvisaker predicted. “Lizzie and David love music.”
The property was scheduled to go to auction on September 4 if no buyer was able to close a deal. Vann and Ylvisaker had been keeping on eye on the proceedings. The two prospective hoteliers were ahead of Vann in line to buy, but neither was apparently able to get the financing together. Unsure whether to make an offer on the property, listed at $2,990,000, or hope to get a lower price at the auction, Vann was preparing for the auction when Ylvisaker, looking at the hoteliers and others expected to bid, had a hunch the price would be driven up. It was a challenge finding a lawyer not already involved with other people interested in the property. Less than two weeks before the auction date, Vann went in with an offer. Eight days later, she became the owner. She declined to report the final purchase price, though reports place the number near $2.5 million.
As of September 1, Vann was working to get the electricity turned on and dealing with a plumbing leak discovered at the closing. “Every building will get TLC,” she said, “including roof leaks, gutters, floors, air conditioning. In the next year I’m going to listen to everyone who has ideas about making this place what it was and better, and making it work really well.”
Vann paid a visit to Grossman’s widow, Sally, who still lives in Bearsville. Although Sally no longer owns the complex she helped create, “she still has a right to feel proprietary,” Vann said. The meeting went well, and Sally encouraged MarLee Wang, proprietor of the Little Bear, to stay. Wang was contemplating a move, with her lease due to expire this fall, but she has agreed to stick around. WDST will remain in the building that once housed Todd Rundgren’s video studio. Vann is seeking a tenant to establish a new restaurant at The Bear.
“I want to abide by the original sense that this is a home for community and a home for musicians,” Vann said. “The theater could be a community gathering place, where everyone can come for Christmas, New Year’s, Halloween, birthdays. The way the theater is used for the luthiers’ festival, we could do the same for percussion. Maybe can bring in workshops for making musical instruments in parts of the theater that aren’t used. We could have community picnics here on the patio, with music.” And of course, there will be concerts in the theater.
At some point, she would like to construct a small non-denominational chapel for prayer, meditation, equinoxes and solstices, celebration of births, weddings, funerals.
One reason Vann believes she can make the complex thrive is that she will be the sole owner. While others will run the individual ventures, meeting regularly and supporting each other, she will take care of the buildings and manage the property as a whole.
“It’s my vision,” she said, “and I want this to work.”