Thursday, May 20, 2010

Caffe Lena celebrates 50th birthday

Fifty years of memories


SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Sarah Craig sat with her back to the stage on a quiet, weekday morning inside the cafe, the room bathed in a natural light that poured in through the Phila Street windows.

She looked out at the small room and its 85 seats, and pointed to the table with the low-hanging lip where Bob Dylan was famously photographed when he visited the cafe as a young, unknown performer, long before the age of the compact disc, the iPod and the World Wide Web.

A half-century later, the outside world marches on. Inside the intimate performance space, Caffe Lena continues to find a way to survive.

"The business model is absurd," said Craig, who joined the Caffe Lena staff in 1995 and is its executive director.

"We fall short about $35,000 a year, doing about 400 events a year with a volunteer staff," she said.

"We make up that $35,000. And we keep going," Craig said.

The staff includes as many as 40 rotating volunteers who help out with shows and another 20 who contribute with other tasks. The cafe is run by a small paid staff and a board of directors.

The cafe's annual operating budget is about $250,000. A spirited group of cafe members and friends formed a nonprofit corporation and purchased the building and an adjoining parking lot in the 1990s, for which it owes a mortgage balance of about $150,000.

"It was the will of the people to keep it going," Craig said.

"People were simply unwilling to let the cafe go and ultimately pulled together to keep it open," said George Ward, a patron of the cafe since the fall of 1960 and a board member since "before there even was a board," he said.

Ward became involved in 1989 on the night that its founder, Lena Spencer, was injured after falling down the stairs of the cafe. She died a few weeks later.

"Lena was headed to a night out in Albany that night. She was going to see a performance by Spalding Gray, who at one time lived in Saratoga and became a dear friend of Lena's," Ward said. "She blacked out and fell down the stairs. My late wife, Vaughn, and I walked in just as she was being taken away by ambulance. I've been involved from that moment on.

"Lena meant a tremendous amount to a lot of people. There was a lot of grieving that went on there was a lot of lack of clarity for a while," Ward said.

Eventually, a group came together and purchased the building.

Today, some revenue comes in the way of rent from the two restaurants and a retail store that are located on the first floor of the building.

Other revenue sources include cafe memberships, donations and benefit performances. Some cafe-sponsored shows have branched out to other communities and have been staged in larger venues in Schenectady, Troy and Glens Falls.

"We call that Caffe Lena on the road," Craig said.

"When I first came here, the cafe was still missing Lena. It was learning how to be independent of its mama," Craig said. "Now that we hit 50, it's time to look at that next step. What is it going to take for the cafe to go the next 50 years?"

Published in The Post-Star, Thursday, May 13, 2010


Caffe Lena: redux

Fifty years of memories II


John F. Kennedy was basking in the afterglow of a primary campaign victory in West Virginia that would help to eventually propel him to The White House.

Lois Hellman, who graduated from South Glens Falls High School a year earlier, was celebrating the completion of her freshman college year with some friends in downtown Saratoga Springs.

"One of my friends said, ‘Hey there's this new cafe that opened,' " said Hellman, who laughingly admits that the night of revelry has fuzzied the memory of who specifically performed on stage on that night in May 1960 when Bill and Lena Spencer first opened the doors of their new cafe.

"To my 19-year-old way of thinking, it was pretty cosmopolitan. It wasn't like going to a bar on Caroline Street," she said.

"The stage used to be on the other side of the hall from where it is now," said Al McKinney, who has worked in a full range of capacities at Caffe Lena for the past 29 years.

"There was a big table where Lena would sit and play Scrabble. They had all these things around that said: Be quiet! Meanwhile, Lena would be playing Scrabble and you'd occasionally hear this voice screaming out: ‘That's not a word!' "

Lena Spencer and her husband, Bill, opened the doors to their Phila Street cafe May 20, 1960. Bill, who taught sculpting at Skidmore College, would soon be out of the picture, however, leaving town with a student of his that he eventually would marry.

The early 1960s ushered in a new era with the construction of the Northway. Skidmore College relocated their campus from downtown to North Broadway, and plans were being drawn up for an amphitheater which eventually opened as the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.

"Lena arrived just before everything started happening," said local historian and former cafe board member Field Horne.

"Lena introduced espresso and Italian pastries to Saratoga. She ran it as a beatnik cafe," said executive director Sarah Craig. "The city fathers were certain this was a den of iniquity."

Fifty years later, Lena's cafe has become an institution for performing artists, its history on display on the entryway walls in a sepia-toned collection of concert posters, and in the stories told by patrons, who continue to come and listen to the music.

"The ghosts of their heroes talk to them through these brick walls," Craig said.

A lot can happen in a day. Imagine what occurs over the course of a half-century.

Three things this reporter recently learned when researching Caffe Lena for an article:

1. Bob Dylan. The songwriter who inspired a generation performed at the tiny Saratoga Springs café between one and three times between the years 1961 and/or 1962, depending on who you ask. History tells us that the legend-to-be was not well received.

2. Don McLean appeared at the café a decade after Bob Dylan’s performance. Stories that insist he scribbled the lyrics of his early-70s anthem “American Pie” on a napkin at a Caroline street bar, then ambled around the corner to Lena’s café on Phila Street to debut the as-yet-unrecorded song for the first time makes a fine story. As for whether there is any truth to the tale, well, consider it a part of Saratoga folk-lore in the same vein as the legendary tale that insists Edgar Allan Poe wrote his poem “The Raven” while visiting the future grounds of Yaddo in the 1840s.

3. Lena Spencer operated her Phila Street café for nearly three decades.
In 1989, Lena took a nasty spill down the stairs of the café, suffering injuries that would – about six weeks later – result in her untimely death.

George Ward, who has been a patron of the café since 1960 as well as a member of its board since “before there was a board,” remembers that night well due to the unfortunate series of circumstances that occurred while transporting Lena to Ellis Hospital in Schenectady. First, the ambulance transporting the café founder broke down while en route to the hospital. A second ambulance had to be summoned, causing a delay in the transport, recalls Ward who followed the ambulance to the hospital.

When the second ambulance arrived and Lena was brought in to the hospital, it became apparent that her medical records had inadvertently remained in the first ambulance, causing yet another delay in her being treated.

“She was lucid in the ambulance and in the emergency room. In the transfer of Lena from one ambulance to the other, her records were left behind, so when she got to the emergency room, there were no records of medication she may have been taking or her medical history,” Ward said.

“It created a delay of several very important hours for someone with a head injury and internal injuries. It cost time,” Ward said. “One can imagine that otherwise, she might have survived.”

Fifty years after attending the cafe's opening night, Lois Hellman lives in Gansevoort.

And while her opening-night memories may be a little fuzzy, the past 50 years are a lot clearer, during which Hellman served on the cafe's board, wrote the grant application for funding that led to the purchase of the building and regularly attended shows at the cafe from 1962 on, while dating the man who she would marry. The Hellmans are approaching their 47th wedding anniversary and Lois' reasons for going to the cafe can probably stand as testament for many of the cafe's patrons who have, and who continue to visit 47 Phila St.

"It was probably one of the things that made us realize we liked the same things," she said.

Portions of this story were published in The Post-Star, May, 2010.

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