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When Music Mountain rocked the Catskills

By EUGENE WOLFF
Posted 8/4/21

This past year’s Covid-induced hiatus of live concerts in Sullivan County is only one of a long series of time spans when rock music struggled to be heard.

After the last chords of …

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When Music Mountain rocked the Catskills

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This past year’s Covid-induced hiatus of live concerts in Sullivan County is only one of a long series of time spans when rock music struggled to be heard.

After the last chords of “Hey Joe” rang out that Monday morning from Jimi Hendrix’s guitar at Woodstock, few would have guessed it would be another twelve years before another rock concert took place in Sullivan County.

The early ‘80s saw the Borscht Belt tighten around the last surviving hotels. In South Fallsburg, the Avon Lodge Hotel, where comic genius Sid Caesar got his start, was struggling to be relevant in a changing economy. The Lodge sat on almost four acres with a gently sloped hillside and an Olympic-size pool. The hotel’s private-function room was operating as Bananas, the local night club.

Robert Berman, 19, who happened to be dating the Lodge owner’s daughter (his future wife too!), dreamed of a new future for the Lodge.  With just the right amount of chutzpah and entrepreneurship, Berman set out to develop an amphitheater, a “Music Mountain” where rock bands could perform and relax at the Lodge.    

Many obstacles were in the way of this ambitious teenager, none so as daunting as obtaining a mass gathering permit. After the ‘69 Woodstock festival, in an effort to prevent “the deterioration in public morality,” the Sullivan County Board of Supervisors passed a law that any gatherings of over 5,000 people would need a permit. With the help of a local attorney, Berman applied for and miraculously received the first permit ever approved.

Diving into the world of show business, Berman would meet and befriend the impresario Sid Bernstein. Bernstein was famous for having brought the Beatles and Rolling Stones to the USA. Eventually, Berman would team up with Jack Adato of Supreme Artists and Frank J. Russo of Gemini Productions. Adato would manage the concessions as the company Munch Box. Russo, a major talent promoter from New England, would book and promote the bands. Russo’s deep relationships in the rock world brought legendary bands to the venue.

On June 28, 1981, the Music Mountain concert site, with its 20-foot-wide, water-filled moat separating the covered stage from the hillside, was ready to rock.  A modest crowd of 4,768 watched 38 Special led by Donnie Van Zandt hit the stage and go rockin’ into the night.  The Outlaws closed the show. Despite no arrests, local officials revoked the beer permit and Munch Box lost an important revenue stream.

Mid-July had Carl Wilson, co-founder, lead guitarist and vocals for the Beach Boys, open for the Michael McDonald-led Doobie Brothers. Charlie Daniels and Foghat closed out July.

It was a hot August night when the “Blizzard of Ozz” tour arrived. Opening for Ozzy Osbourne was Def Leppard supporting their second album “High ‘n Dry”. Joining Osbourne’s “crazy train” was metal pioneer Randy Rhoads of Quiet Riot, who would die in a bizarre plane crash seven months later. The concert was recorded and later released as a live CD on the Zodiac label.

In late August, Gary U.S. Bonds, with his comeback hit (written by Bruce Springsteen), “This Little Girl,” opened up for The Allman Brothers Band. The road may go on forever, but Greg Allman nearly missed the show. Frank J. Russo recalls having to escort a very upset Allman to the stage, as earlier that afternoon, Allman was served with divorce papers from his fourth wife.

The 1982 Music Mountain season kicked off on a Wednesday night with the Jerry Garcia Band. This turned out to be the largest attendance of any show, officially 7,863 but possibly closer to 10,000 Deadheads. Fans of Garcia to this day claim the two sets were the finest JGB show ever recorded. By the time Bobbie and the Midnites (Bob Weir’s side project) took the stage, the rain started in earnest and the hillside became a muddy slip-and-slide. The Fallsburg police chief attempted to get Berman to shut down the show at 12 midnight, but the rain-soaked fans and the Midnites partied on.

A sign of things to come, a July 4 concert was canceled as South Fallsburg officials reviewed the terms of the mass gathering permit.

In early August, Santana performed. Their newly released hit single “Hold On” summed up the viewpoint of the Fallsburg Police when a larger-than-expected crowd turned out.

As a result, two September dates were switched to 3 p.m. daytime concerts: Krokus/Ted Nugent and Aldo Novo/Blue Oyster Cult.

That fall, the curtain closed. High gas prices, the remoteness of the location, and a lack of cooperation of local officials spelled the end of Music Mountain. Another sixteen years would pass until the Gerry Foundation produced a music festival in Bethel.

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