Helping hands now in need: Guthrie Center looking for lifeline to keep its mission going
GREAT BARRINGTON — As the 30th anniversary of troubadour and master storyteller Arlo Guthrie's purchase of the Old Trinity Church approaches, the future of his mission-driven, outreach-focused Guthrie Center is hanging in the balance.
Its survival as an interfaith gathering place, community services outreach center and performance venue in the Van Deusenville neighborhood depends on the success of a fund drive to be launched online Tuesday at guthriecenter.org.
"Is it really that long ago?" Guthrie asked playfully during an extended, socially distanced conversation at the church last week. In 1991, Guthrie paid around $200,000 to purchase the famous church featured in his 1967, 18-minute, 34-second "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" — the anti-establishment anthem and ode to the counterculture.
The talking blues classic re-created his teenage run-in with Stockbridge police for littering and illegal dumping on Thanksgiving Day 1965. The church also was the setting for director Arthur Penn's "Alice's Restaurant" 1969 film, a blend of fact and fiction that later was disparaged by local celebrity and restaurant owner Alice Brock.
Along with Guthrie's own resources, about 6,000 individual contributors made the down payment for the church possible, mostly in $5 to $25 donations, he recalled.
"The mortgage should all be paid off next year, so 30 years later, here we are, and who'd have thunk?" he reminisced before detailing the dire financial predicament brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the shutdown of the Guthrie Center last spring. Like other artists, Guthrie had to cancel or postpone his 2020-21 performance calendar of 55 shows, including a June "hometown gig" at Tanglewood with Judy Collins, now rebooked tentatively for next June 20.
The 1829 landmark church, originally St. James Chapel before it was expanded into Trinity in 1866, had been the home of culinary wizard Alice and her husband, Ray Brock, for a few years before they sold it in the early 1970s to private owners.
Before moving to Provincetown to pursue an art career, Alice owned three restaurants from 1965 to 1979 — The Back Room in downtown Stockbridge, Take-Out Alice in the Housatonic section of Great Barrington and Alice's at Avaloch across from Tanglewood in Lenox (now the Apple Tree Inn, currently on the market for $3.5 million).
Guthrie acknowledged that until the church purchase went through, he had planned out its mission. He was living with his family on a farm in the town of Washington, where he continues to reside.
"There was a holdover set of values from the 1960s, and they were still important to some people," he noted. "That meant access to health care, free clinics, the best of the `60s idealism, to take care of each other. So I thought, what of those values could we incorporate into this building, what could we make happen here that would continue that legacy, because we had begun to come into the `Me Generation.' "
Referencing the pop culture lodestar of the era, the legendary Woodstock concert festival of August 1969, Guthrie mused about how "the primary focus wasn't on the individual, either as a performer or a goer, but on the safety of everybody. That kind of value system is something I'm too old a dog to change. You can't teach me a new trick. I still hold those values very closely."
Seeing a chance to represent those values, he created a foundation to meet the needs of the community's less fortunate residents, "and we're still doing it," he stressed. Local and state regulations required a series of changes to the original setup, much to the chagrin of Guthrie, a libertarian of sorts and a deep skeptic of politicians and what he views as over-reaching government.
At the outset, the Guthrie Center tended to the needs of AIDS/HIV victims who needed food deliveries to their homes and has continuously raised funds for research into Huntington's Disease, which claimed the life of Arlo's two older sisters and his father, folk music icon Woody Guthrie.
For a time, the center also provided a refuge for for brief visits by youngsters needing a break from their residential facilities until state regulations put an end to the volunteer-driven program that included music, dance and art presentations.
"We were regulated out of helping and that's the world we're actually still in," said Guthrie. "We haven't figured out a way to let people do their best work without over-regulating them to the point where nothing gets done. That's not a political point, that's a fact, but we're still here, managing to doing the kind of programs we can get away with, frankly, that are still beneficial to a lot of people, and for that I'm thankful. But we couldn't do it without the support of the community."
But now at 73, Guthrie's center needs a financial lifeline, a giveback for the good works of the last three decades funded by a nonprofit he depicted as barely break-even over the years, "not losing too much."
"Like any nonprofit, the motivating factor is not money but the goodwill of a loose-knit community of people who are able and willing to help," Guthrie said, "and we have relied on a lot of those kinds of people."
After the 2019 season ended last fall, the Guthrie Center had planned to reopen this past May but the pandemic's impact canceled his 10-week season, primarily the Troubadour Series of folk and blues performances, including benefits by Arlo.
Even George Laye, the center's longtime director and general manager, is working as a volunteer now that unemployment benefits for him and two other paid staffers have expired.
"We can't pay him, there's no money," Guthrie said sadly. "And I'm in the same boat as an artist. All the venues that I would play are shuttered all across the country. All normal avenues open to us to continue to make a living have been shut down, just turned right off."
After 55 years on the road, he's sidelined, while overhead costs, mortgage payments and insurance expenses pile up.
To consolidate his ventures and help the center, Guthrie's production company and recording studio, Rising Son Records, is being moved from the Washington farm back to the church. Guthrie, with the help of his internet-savvy son, Abe, is also creating filmed concerts for worldwide online distribution and to raise funds for the church.
"We're hoping by next year, we'll be back," he predicted hopefully about a return to the road and the reopening of the church, acknowledging that performance venues, as well as sports stadiums, will be the last to welcome crowds back.
Meanwhile, his big fundraiser goes online Tuesday — an eight-minute archival retrospective on Arlo and the church created by Matthew Penn, a famed director of TV series such as "Law and Order," and the son of the late filmmaker Arthur Penn, who had lived in Stockbridge and directed the "Alice's Restaurant" movie 52 years ago. Donors will get an extra treat — a 30-minute virtual concert, a seven-song set newly created by Guthrie.
"The problem is that everybody watching this thing may likewise be out of work," Guthrie acknowledged. "They don't have any money either. We know the people we're asking to help are in trouble themselves, so it's a difficult time to be asking, but we have to do it, or the alternative is to shut the center and the church completely and that's what we're trying to avoid."
The goal of the fundraiser is perhaps several hundred thousand dollars, "but I'll believe it when I see it," he said skeptically. Ideally, the church could be "reconsecrated" for the first time since 1991 with necessary structural upgrades, and the final year of the mortgage could be paid off.
Guthrie described the new mission of his center: "To take it from this local environment and bring it around the world. The movie we made here and the other events we've held are symbolic of a time and a value system that's still important and still resonates today. We'd like to continue some of our programs, and that depends the goodwill of the people."
Emphasizing his hope for support, Guthrie said that "with a minimal effort by a large amount of people, we could be back in operation and making preparations for being open next season and continue the services that we've been doing."
Clarence Fanto can be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.
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