No Woodstock Without John Roberts: A Proud Daughter Shares His Story
Updated: Jan 7
When Woodstock producer/financier John Roberts was near death in 2002, he sent this letter to his children, Jennifer and Douglas:
“Don't seek celebrity, but if it comes your way, however briefly, treat it with suspicion and return as quickly as you can to the anonymity of your regular lives. Be courageous in small things. Show up regularly, and try to walk in the other guy's shoes occasionally. Empathy is also undervalued as a virtue. Be slow to judge and condemn, but be consistent. And finally, make sure you build a lot of fun into your lives. If you hate your work do something else.
I love you and am so grateful for the gift of your lives.”
Jennifer Roberts, 48, clearly misses her father, John Roberts, who financed the Woodstock Music & Art Fair.
Roberts died in 2002 at the age of 56 after battling cancer.
With worldwide attention on Woodstock this weekend for the 50th anniversary, there’s little attention on the man who was most responsible for it.
“It’s kind of like out of sight, out of mind,” said Jennifer Roberts in a recent interview with The SullivanTimes.
After his death, his children became the Roberts family’s partners in Woodstock Ventures with Michael Lang and Joel Rosenman. ( Roberts said that her father and Rosenman bought out Lang and Artie Kornfeld in 1969 but that Lang later came back into the entity. “He didn’t want to have any more commitments that would injure his well being,” Roberts said of the decision with Rosenman to to buy out Lang and Kornfeld).
“In many ways, my Dad was responsible for the outcome of the festival,” Roberts said. “He was the one who financed it and guaranteed the financials of it and ultimately responsible. That’s not the glamourous part. But It was by his decision along the way to keep things going despite the fact he was 24 years old facing financial ruin as a result...and the only one who would suffer in that capacity. It’s indicative of a certain mentality that was very special in him. I like to think of it as the best in American values...that you pay your debts. That’s the kind of guy my Dad was..a decent considerate man and always erring on the side of doing good. “
Part of the debt was relieved by Woodstock Ventures selling the rights to the Oscar-winning documentary film, a deal hammered out just days before the festival by Kornfeld -- who said that he immediately secured $100,000 for filmmaker Michael Wadleigh after nearly two days of negotiations. Roberts said she believes that Woodstock Ventures received a total of $1 million for the sale of the movie rights.
But that didn’t cover all the debt, according to Roberts, and so her grandfather, Alfred Roberts, kicked in $1 million after Woodstock ‘69 to help cover the most of the balance of the debts incurred by Woodstock Ventures.
She said that Woodstock was a love-hate relationship for her father. On the one hand, he had the public embarrassment of losing so much money at such a young age, but on the other, Woodstock ultimately reflected her father’s deep sense of community.
She said he was likely most proud of the fact that he was able to convince then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller in a phone call during the festival (from the El Monaco Motel in White Lake) to keep the National Guard from descending on Bethel.
Some 50 years later, Jennifer and brother Douglas had to make business decisions regarding a planned 50th anniversary concert -- that in the end didn’t happen.
Roberts shares some of the thinking that led up to the plans for a 50th anniversary concert at Watkins Glen. She said that although Woodstock Ventures backed the idea, it only did so if Lang could find a production partner.
“We said we’re not doing it as Woodstock Ventures..we’re not producers," she said. "And also there’s a lot of liabilities and risk involved. We own the licenses and there’s a lot of projects that we like to do. But I don’t think any one of us was willing to do it (the festival) . We wanted a larger production company to do it. I have my own job, my brother has his own responsibilities and no one in the Rosenman camp was going to do it either. Michael was the only one who thought he could do it. When he came through with viable partners to assume the risk..and after we had a reasonable agreement from Michael and production partners (Dentus), we licensed it.”
Roberts said that Woodstock Ventures was always behind the idea of a large festival, which was the aim of Watkins Glen. “I think we (Woodstock Ventures) all agreed that to get the talent that we wanted, you would need the revenue to cover the costs. It’s a simple business equation. These festivals are extraordinarily expensive to put on. I think we wanted it to be something impactful and have great meaning to this generation..multi generations really..everyone at Woodstock Ventures was idealistic about what it should represent. “
Lang connected with California hotelier Gregory Peck and the pair became the faces of a new company called Woodstock 50 LLC.
Roberts said that under the agreement with Woodstock Ventures, Woodstock 50 LLC and Dentsu would have to meet certain criteria in terms of insurance, safety and a timeline to get things done.
(In the end, Dentsu pulled out of the deal with Woodstock 50 LLC, removed some $18 million from a festival bank account and that’s when the litigation began in State Supreme Court in Manhattan. During the case between Dentsu/Amplifi Live vs Woodstock 50 LLC, before the Commercial Division, emails were revealed that displayed allegations of wrongdoing and broken promises under their agreement. During the court battle, Watkins Glen International Speedway also pulled out, leaving Lang and Woodstock 50 LLC to find another home Next stop was Vernon, NY but the public came out against it, just like Wallkill in ‘69. A last ditch attempt to secure a much smaller concert in Columbia Maryland was also dashed, mainly because the clock had run out to put on what was to be a three-day Woodstock-like festival).
“I think he (her father) would have been excited about a 50th if it had started earlier and in a different way,” she said.
One little known story Roberts shared is that her father and Rosenman in the late 1990s offered Alan Gerry $1 for the rights to the Woodstock name to go with the new performing arts center now known as Bethel Woods, that opened in 2006. She said her father and Rosenman were surprised they rejected “such a generous offer” but that she understands it from Gerry’s position in that he probably did not want to celebrate something that was not his.
“But it was not necessarily the best decision,” she said, “we get bombarded with questions about how to get to museum (at Bethel Woods).” She says she has enjoyed her relationships with Wade Lawrence, director of the Museum, and Darlene Fedun, CEO of Bethel Woods.
“There’s a place that will hold the history..it’s beautiful,” Roberts said of Bethel Woods.
But Roberts said the best thing to happen to Woodstock in 2019 was the PBS film that just aired. She attended the screening in Tribeca and especially loved hearing about how the local farmers brought the kids eggs and Sullivan residents made sandwiches and donated food from their homes. And at the end of the film, she stood up and told the audience who she was. The audience cheered.
(Jennifer Roberts, 48, lives in Florida and is the CEO of Design/Miami, a global forum for design. The company operates fairs that united the most influential collectors, gallerists, designers, curators and critics from around the world in celebration of design culture and commerce. Roberts is an accomplished business leader with a record of success at start-ups, turnarounds, and established companies).