CLHP Intern Blog: Sallie Kuritsky

Last Thursday afternoon I took my mother and grandmother to the famous Hattie’s Chicken Shack. As we walked outside, sufficiently stuffed with fried chicken and biscuits, I noticed a middle aged man standing next to the restaurant, in front of Caffè Lena. He looked like a weathered musician, with worn jeans and a guitar case in his hands. I asked him if he was playing at the open mic night that was starting in a little while. He looked at me smiling and said, “I hope so!” Immediately I felt the warmth and camaraderie that the Caffè was famous for. After having spent the last five weeks transcribing interviews of folk musicians that had played at the Caffè, the stories and memories from the cassette tapes seemed to come to life in that moment. I proceeded to explain to the man that I had been working for the Caffè Lena History Project this summer but that I had not yet actually never been upstairs. He immediately offered to show me around and I happily accepted.

As he opened the door an odd sense of nostalgia rushed over me as I saw the steep creaky stairs that I had heard so much about in the interviews. I had never been to the Caffè, but for some reason I felt a strong connection to it as we started to walk up to the second floor. As he showed me around, I began to contextualize the stories I had heard of wonderful experiences shared at the Caffè. I tried to imagine great musicians coming to perform at this small, humble venue, bringing in a modest crowd, and just enjoying it for the music and the community. They were clearly not making as much money as they would at Carnegie Hall or other big music venues they may have played along the way, but for some reason great musicians seemed to gravitate to this place.

Theater wall from Caffè Lena's 45th Anniversary exhibition - showing Homemade Theater's beginnings

As we continued to look around the man saw that I was looking for something. He gave me a smile and asked, “Would you like to see the black box theater?” I had just finished transcribing an interview with Stacie Mayette, the general manager at Homemade Theater in Saratoga; a successful theater organization that got its start at the Caffè, along with many other artists that came through. The black box theater was exactly what I was looking for. He led me over to a wall that I would have never guessed had a room behind it, and there was the theater, just as Stacie had described it. Again I found myself feeling an intense connection in that moment to the Caffè and to all the memories I had spent hours listening to in the last month. I remembered how Stacie described the moment when Jonathan, the founder of Homemade Theater, discovered the space. I remember how she recounted the many hours spent preparing for shows and the Payday chocolate bar she got for her hard work: just one example of a dedication to art driven by something much more important than money. There was something about this place, something that numerous musicians, managers, and theater producers had tried to explain in their interviews that kept people coming back there. There was a warmth about the place that seemed to resonate. This warmth came from its founder, Lena Spencer.

As I think back to this moment of finally reaching the Caffè after hours of transcription and archival work, I realize that the strong connection I felt as I walked up the stairs came from a legacy of Lena that so many people have dedicated their lives to preserving. The Caffè has such a rich history and is a place that so many people look back on with such fondness. This probably comes from the loving relationship Lena had with so many of the artists that played the Caffè.

Martha Snow, Sallie Kuritsky, and representative from Repeat Business Solutions - in-kind donors of the scanner used to digitize Lena Spencer's archives at the Saratoga History Museum

While digitizing the archival material from the Caffè [using a scanner generously donated by Repeat Business Solutions] I had the opportunity to see old letters passed between Lena and the artists. They may have been conversations about business: auditions, performance dates, etc. But almost every letter to Lena that I read seemed to end with “Love,” or even, “I love you Lena.” I thought this was such a special thing to see between club owner and client and realized that between what I had seen in the letters and what I had heard in the interviews, Lena was a special woman. In numerous interviews I heard artists describing her as a loving mother figure. As Loudon Wainwright explained, “you’d get under her wing, you know.” People felt at home when they came to see her, and in fact on numerous occasions stayed at her home along their way. She was an open-armed woman who knew what was important about life, and I think her character is what really made the Caffè such a special place.

I am so glad I had the opportunity this summer to look into this rich history and get just a small glimpse of what life was like in the golden age of musical development. My experience working for the Caffè Lena History Project has been extremely rewarding. After learning about this special place, I know that I will be making many more visits to Caffè Lena. It may be 23 years since Lena last stepped foot in the Caffè, but the magnetic energy of her legacy will definitely keep me coming back for more, along with so many other people that were touched by the Caffè’s history.

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