Guthrie Center carries on Thanksgiving tradition with free community meal

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GREAT BARRINGTON — A couple of hefty, black trash bags full of garbage twist in the wind as they hang from the sign of the Guthrie Center — the real-life place that inspired one of the USA's greatest anti-war songs, Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant Masacree."

The bags are hung in celebration of the center's Thanksgiving Day free community meal, says center director George Laye.

"I didn't have time to decorate," he says, sitting on a bar stool inside the main entrance to the renovated 1860s white church, which became the Guthrie Center in 1991. "I figured it was the least I could do."

Garbage won't replace the bountiful cornucopia as the traditional Thanksgiving table centerpiece, but at the Guthrie Center, it wouldn't be Thanksgiving without it — literally.

More than 50 years ago, troubadour Arlo Guthrie was home from college over the Thanksgiving break and crashing in his friend's pad: a slightly renovated Trinity Church, where the owners, Alice and Ray Brock, lived in the bell tower during the '60s and early '70s while friends in need of a place to stay could sleep in the nave — with the couple's piled-up trash.

That day in 1965, the church needed a little sprucing up, and a grateful Guthrie, 18, and a friend, Richard Robbins, 19, grabbed as much waste as they could Thanksgiving morning, piled it into a Volkswagen microbus and set out for the dump.

Finding the dump closed for the holiday, the two disappeared the trash over a ledge in nearby Stockbridge, resulting in their subsequent arrest.

The ordeal gave birth to the song — it's now a Thanksgiving tradition — about littering, a groovy dinner, an arrest, the draft and the war.

Written as the U.S. ramped up its involvement in Vietnam, the song inspired conscientious objectors to the war. It pushed listeners to question authority and it cemented Guthrie's reputation as a darling among folk singer-songwriters.

On Thanksgiving, the Guthrie Center expects to feed more than 100 people a feast of turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, pie and more.

"You don't have to be poor to come here. We want everyone here, especially if you don't have any place to go," Laye says. "Stop by, say hi, have some cider and listen to some wonderful music."

There will be 25 volunteers on staff to serve the meal, which is prepared by Samel's Deli and Catering in Pittsfield. Among the guests will be people with not much to spend and/or nowhere to go, musicians, friends of the center and members of the Guthrie family.

"It's a team process," Samel's sous chef Kristin Macutkiewicz says of preparing a meal for 100 people. Samel's has been catering the Guthrie Center Thanksgiving for about eight years, she estimates.

"I think we can all agree with everything going on in the world, that we all have a lot to be thankful for," Macutkiewicz says. "We can help, and we look forward to doing our part to make sure everyone has a full belly."

There are no reservations for the free meal, but Laye knows of at least one person who will be there: Ralph Pinto, the guy who drove the motorcycle through the church doorway and up the stairs in the 1969 movie, "Alice's Restaurant," about the events in "Alice's Restaurant Masacree."

"He lives in the Carolinas but he comes here every Thanksgiving to talk about the old days here," Laye says.

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Still groovy

The Guthrie Center has been serving Thanksgiving dinner since the early 2000s and regularly provides free meals on Wednesdays. When asked why the center decided to make feeding people part of its mission, Laye has a simple answer: "Because people are hungry."

While many places will serve holiday meals on Thursday, the Guthrie Center event stands out not just for its unique location and Arlo-connection, but because there will also be live music. A lot of the volunteers at the center are musicians, Laye says. "They'll bring their own instruments, or we always have lots of instruments here," he says, pointing to a stack of guitars and other instruments leaned against a wall in the foyer.

One song that won't be played by the band, however, is "Alice's Restaurant."

"Nope, no, no, no. No," Laye says.

In interviews, Guthrie has said playing the 18- to 35-minute song feels like a never-ending "Groundhog Day." The center crew will turn up the song when it's played on the radio, but in a nod to the center's founder, live musicians won't play it.

Still, guests will get to hear from Alice, who sold the church in the early 1970s. For the song's 50th anniversary last year, Alice Brock was asked to attend the meal. She was unable to make it, but wrote a letter from her home on Cape Cod instead. Laye says he plans to read it to guests again this year.

In part, the short letter says: "With all the terrible and scary things happening in our world, today we can take the time to be thankful. Start with the little things, the plate of food in front of you. We are all in this together, and that's a good thing to know and hold in your hearts."

It closes with, "Have a great Thanksgiving dinner and spread the love around like it's gravy."

"It's so timeless," Laye says, "unfortunately."

The Guthrie Center is located on a rural street with no public transportation service, in an area with few buses to begin with, so Laye knows getting there isn't easy for everyone — so he sends the red VW van, parked out front of the church like in the movie, to pick up people and bring them to dinner. Whether Laye's trashy decorations will still be up to greet visitors on Thanksgiving, though, is uncertain.

"The bears got us again last night," Laye says, making note of a plume of trash spread out on the church grounds.

Lucky for the bears, they won't get arrested, have to pick up the mess, and pay a $25 fine like Arlo Guthrie did when he tried to take out the trash on Thanksgiving day 52 years ago.

After all, bears can't write.

"We got a phone call from Officer Obie," the song goes. "He said, `Kid, we found your name on an envelope at the bottom of a half a ton of garbage, and just wanted to know if you had any information about it.' And I said, `Yes, sir, Officer Obie, I cannot tell a lie — I put that envelope under that garbage.'"

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@berkshireeagle.com and @kristinpalpini on Twitter.


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