1950s Festival House welcomed all comers to Ventfort Hall with music and art

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LENOX -- Where did Lorraine Hansberry, the playwright of "Raisin in the Sun," settle in on the porch with Pete Seeger and his banjo -- or jazz legends pianist Randy Weston and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie -- or Russian-born New York artist brothers Moses and Raphael Soyer -- or Irving Louis "Lord" Burgess, the composer who wrote Calypso hits from Day-O to the Banana Boat Song?

Sixty years ago, they came here to relax on warm nights. They all came to Festival House, the inn and art center Bruno and Claire Aron ran for more than 10 years in what is now Ventfort Hall, the museum of the Gilded Age. At 3:30 Saturday, Oct. 11, at Ventfort Hall, their daughters, Judy and Madeline Aron, will recall the unique place where they grew up.

Festival House was unique in more ways than one, Madeline Aron said in a phone interview from her home in Albequrque, N.M. It was unique in the broad, warm community it built, the people who became part of it, the art and music and flair. And it was unique because the people who stayed there could not stay anywhere else in the Berkshires.

Her parents grew up and met in New York City, she said, and came to the Berkshires when her father came to work at the Jewish Community Center in Pittsfield. They fell in love with the area, with the music and the art.

But people would come to her father at the Jewish Center and tell him they could not find anywhere to stay in the Berkshires. They would come because of Tanglewood and find that the county's few inns were closed to them -- because they were Jewish, or black, or in general not white Anglo-Saxon -- "because of their name or appearance," Bruno Aron said in an interview recorded at Ventfort Hall before he died.

So the Arons decided to open an inn where anyone could stay.

Bruno had a master's degree in social work, Madeline said. Her parents had grown up during the Depression, and especially in these years just after the Holocaust social justice and equality were important to them.

"They grew up with less discrimination," she said. "They grew up in a city."

Their parents had not gone to college, and they went to the city college which had free tuition, she said. They tackled setting up an inn with intelligence, from the ground up.

They bought the house that is now Ventfort Hall out of foreclosure, with help from a benefactor at the Jewish Center, and they began to build it up. In their first season, Madeline said, they had only an American Youth Hostel in the carriage barn.

But they expanded the kitchen and within a few seasons had 36 guest rooms in the old Victorian mansion, with its marble and wood carving, arm chairs around the fireplace and two grand pianos. Bruno estimated that he could accomodate 75 to 100 guests at the height of the season.

Some of Lenox welcomed them warmly, Aron said, and some fought them bitterly over matters like the liquor license (a debate her parents eventally won).

When Madeline was born, her family lived at Festival House, but later they built a small house on the property. She and her sister had the run of the little house and the big house, she said. They had sleepovers at the big house when a room was free. They played Red Rover and capture the flag on the lawns. They picked berries and brought them to the chef, who would bake with them.

People could stay for a week and listen to music, take boxed dinners to Tanglewood and come back to a square dance or listen to concerts in the living room. The cook would make baked Alaska on Tanglewood nights, Madeline said, and after the concert he would carry the cake into the dining room, tip brandy over it and light it.

The guests -- and Madeline and Judy -- could also take art classes. New York artist Anthony Toney became the Festival House artist-in-residence, Madeline said. He and his family would stay all summer (he had two daughters near her and her sister's age) and offer art classes. He brought in ceramics, jewelry-making, photography with Clemens Kalisher, sketching landscapes outdoors and models indoors. Many of the artists stayed all summer, Madeline said, teaching in exchange for room and board. Madeline remembered puppets and jewelry made out of paper.

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They hung student art on the walls around their outdoor pool -- the first outdoor pool at any inn in the Berkshires, said Linda Rocke, marketing coordinator at Ventfort Hall.

Later they opened a gallery in the Lenox Library, the first art gallery in Lenox, Bruno said, and still later Claire Aron and a friend opened the Lerner Gallery in town.

Lenox drew a rich crowd of artists an musicians in the 1950s. Those were the years of the Lenox School of Jazz and Louis Artstrong playing the Music Inn.

And all summer musicians would come to stay or perform at Festival House.

"Dizzy Gillespie came," Madeline said. "Randy Weston would drop in."

Pete Seeger played folk concerts.

For one summer the inn had theater, Madeline said. She remembered plays from across the world -- Gabriel Garcia Lorca, Greek comedy, Dostoyevsky. The crew had to take the sets down after the plays, and the neighbors protested listening to them after midnight.

Years later, Madeline and her friends would dress up in the costumes -- and at night, after her bedtime, the inn would hold costume parties downstairs.

Looking back, she remembers Festival House full of color and warmth and freindly people. She felt comfortable there, she said. She felt safe.

If you go ...

What: Festival House tea, talk

When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 11

Where: Ventfort Hall, 104 Walker St., Lenox

Admission: $20 in advance, $25 at the door

Information: gildedage.org, (413) 637-3206


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