Caffè Lena Turns 52 and Smiles For the Camera

It was a busy anniversary weekend May 19-21, 2012 at Caffè Lena, filled with the spirit of legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie, memorialized by an Emmy Award-nominated filmmaker, highlighted by one dog on stage, and supported by volunteers from the Best Buy corporation. Where else but at Caffè Lena would you find that combination?

The performance schedule included longtime Caffè Lena friend Michael Cooney, Butch Hancock and bands from the Capital Region, and Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion. On board for the weekend’s activities, Jessica Wolfson of Lost Footage Films (producer of the incredible documentary Radio Unnameable which features many Caffè Lena performers- check it out) along with her local film team Alex Becker and George Black documented the performances for the Caffè Lena History Project. Their footage will become part of the Caffè Lena collection at the Library of Congress, and selections will be considered for a video project in talks to be included with an upcoming Caffè Lena CD/DVD box set companion to the Caffè Lena book. Stay tuned to the Caffè Lena History Project newsletter for continued updates about this project.

Alex and George pose as Sarah Lee and Johnny to test the camera, while the real performers sound check.

Alex and George pose as Jessica tests the camera.

Each evening before their respective concerts, the performers kindly set aside time to sit down with our film team and share their thoughts on Caffè Lena’s importance. We spent time with players of all ages – from  longtime Caffè Lena regulars to newcomers. In each interview the message was clear: Caffè Lena offers a unique place to hone your craft, and develop as an artist. It is as true today as it was for Bob Dylan in 1960. High school volunteers joined in the conversation, advocating to the camera that more students become involved. We interviewed and filmed Lizzie preparing her famous deviled eggs in the Caffè Lena kitchen. We filmed the walk up those famous dark stairs, the creaky floorboards, and the sound board. Local man about town Al McKenney gave us his own personal tour of the Caffè, which he often cleaned at 4a.m. when he worked as the Caffè’s maintenance man. He explained the meaning behind the graffiti in the bathrooms. This may be a good time to thank Adorama for their kind discount on tapes for our film cameras. Collectively, we made over 50 hours of footage.

On Saturday night, two worlds that otherwise may not have intertwined joined forces at Caffè Lena. Local Best Buy volunteer team The Blue Angels extended their support in the form of volunteer help during the anniversary concert. Thanks to the enthusiasm of community coordinator Stanley Hudy, we were delighted to host (and film!) the Best Buy team, none of whom had previously set foot in this local venue, and who will all return soon to continue their support: they will paint the Caffè Lena floor.

Each night during intermission, manager Sarah Craig introduced the Caffè Lena History Project to the audience: “You might have noticed the film cameras here tonight. . .” and connected the History Project’s goal of music preservation with the electric musical energy buzzing in the room. Each night without fail after introducing the project, audience members came forward with leads to new, as yet uncovered memorabilia: A 1961 photograph of Mississippi John Hurt. A 1972 video of Don McLean. we hope the buzz will continue!

Sunday night, we were reminded how very precious each Caffè Lena concert is, and how privileged we were to film three of them: During Sarah Lee and Johnny’s performance, their small dog Cosmo – along for the one gig tour – snuck out of the green room and into the audience, followed by the Guthrie’s two young daughters. After a minor scolding through smiles by their parents for interrupting the gig, the three escape artists were invited on stage to sing a song. Woody Guthrie’s great granddaughters (and great grand-dog) charmed the audience. We wonder how many moments like that in fifty years have gone undocumented, but reside in the memories of the many people who have attended shows in that small space. We wonder what Lena’s cat Pasha might have thought of Cosmo’s debut.

Submit a Comment