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Letting loose in the café: George Ward, Jocelyn Arem, and Torey Adler.

Photo: John Whipple

Special Section: Inside Saratoga
By Miriam Axel-Lute

All Roads Lead to Lena’s

A student thesis gone wild gives the Caffe Lena community a gift—its own history

Jocelyn Arem first came up the precipitous, well-worn stairs of Saratoga Springs’ Caffe Lena in her early years at Skidmore, about five years ago. She probably wasn’t thinking about how the café’s collection of small round tables and well-loved chairs that don’t seem like they would seat 80 but do had been there since 1960, or why the café had managed to survive the death of its founder, Lena Spencer, or what it meant that there were still people in town who thought of it as “that beatnik place.” The couple of historical tidbits that many people know—that the venue offered Bob Dylan his first show on his first tour (he wasn’t well received), or that “American Pie” was first performed there—may have run through her head. But probably not.

A songwriter, she was more likely thinking of the songs she was about to play at the open-mic night. But those questions, and dozens more about the history of the café, have rarely been far from her mind for the past three years. Arem, as so many other young musicians and music lovers have, quickly fell in love with the café as a place to experience and learn about music that struck a deeper chord than what she’d been hearing on the radio.

She eventually blended this love with her love for history into a self-directed major in ethnomusicology, with a thesis on the history of Caffe Lena. “I basically structured my entire program around Caffe Lena,” she jokes.

Torey Adler, who has been a professional musician for many years now, also found the café during his time at Skidmore, starting around 1991. He says it opened his eyes to “a whole music industry the music industry ignores,” and honors a set of values that are not common in the world at large, especially open-mindedness and acceptance. “The open mic here is weird,” he adds. “No one gets heckled. No one gets talked through. People may be up there who don’t really know how to tune a guitar. . . . They may be 13 and can’t really sing on pitch, but they don’t get talked through.”

George Ward, a regional folklorist and musician who first came to Caffe Lena in fall of 1960, a few months after he graduated from college, is a little quieter, but no less enthusiastic about the value of the café. His kids grew up around the café. (There’s a picture in the exhibit of one of his sons at a very young age, playing guitar with Dave Van Ronk. “It was totally unscripted,” recalls Ward.) He was among the people “of whom there was a small horde” who converged on the café when city code officials shut the place down in 1968 (“officially for code violations, unofficially because somebody in city government had it in for Lena”), and removed the bricked-in wood stove and installed a real furnace. He has bussed tables, washed dishes, performed, and served on the board.

When Ward talks with Adler and Arem, he smiles the smile of someone who has been deeply involved in a community for a long time and sees future generations stepping forward firmly to take the reins.

Together these three board members represent only a few slices of the diverse set of people who patronize the café. There are those who come for the black-box theater, those who show up once a year for a particular artist or type of show, those who play the open mics, those who come to hear new kinds of music in an intimate atmosphere, those who socialize by volunteering at shows.

Knowing that there were all these threads, and that many of them knew little about the others, Ward, Adler and Arem, along with many others at the Caffe, thought perhaps the research Arem was doing could go beyond a college thesis. Ward and Adler stepped in to help Arem find sources, do interviews, and turn her results into a detailed exhibit that is currently on display throughout the café. An extensive oral history collection is underway (check out to see some of the stories that have been submitted online, or add your own recollections). People have come out of the woodwork to contribute. “People remember their visits here,” observes Ward.

One wall of the exhibit is devoted to a selection of photos of the many well-known artists who performed, and often got an early boost, at the café, including: Ani DiFranco, whose first show at Lena’s had six people in attendance (at least according to Adler’s memory); Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock; Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James, some of the original Delta bluesmen; Odetta; Emmylou Harris; Nanci Griffith.

“What I love about this exhibit is that it goes farther toward portraying all the many kinds of cross-currents that pass through this place than anything else ever has,” says Ward. “There is no one Caffe Lena.”

A room in the back is devoted specifically to Lena Spencer herself, whose memory still looms large over the café she founded, tended through near constant financial crisis, and for a long time lived in when she couldn’t afford an apartment. Her pickiness when it came to performers and yet constant encouragement of young artists, her love of theater and visual art, and her complete devotion to the café and its many projects are still legend, 16 years after she died and a nonprofit formed to keep the café going.

Arem, who never met the café’s namesake, says she frequently guided her research with the mantra “WWLD—What Would Lena Do?” “She’s always sitting on my shoulder.”

It’s written on the bathroom walls: Torey Adler one of the Caffe Lena restrooms, where people are now being encouraged to write memories on the walls, in homage to earlier traditions of grafitti.

Getting all those pieces of history, facts, and stories out of individual heads and Café archives and woven into one cohesive history is not just an interesting exercise. It will be essential for keeping the spirit of the café on the right track for the future, says Adler. “Sometime, somebody’s going to be a director [here] who never knew anyone who knew Lena,” he says. “There’s going to be this resource for them to understand what this place really is.”

Which isn’t to say that what Caffe Lena is doesn’t change with the times. The legions of folk music lovers who attend the café may think of the Lena’s slogan that appears on bumper stickers all over the region—“Good Folk since 1960”—as referring to the music at least as much as to the people. But while the double entendre was surely intended, Adler and Arem are quick to reprimand any reference to Lena’s being solely, or even centrally, a folk club.

“We were having a conversation recently about this at a board meeting,” recalls Adler. “We were talking about ‘What is our kind of music?’ It’s not acoustic—we’ve had some great electric bands here, some great rock stuff. . . . It’s not folk—we’ve had jazz, classical, punk. . . . At the same time we all agreed we weren’t going to see the next Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears here. Artists here . . . it’s not just entertainment; they have something to say. And they’re part of a tradition in one way or another.”

A minute later he comes back to this thought. “Maybe folk music is a different thing now that the Rolling Stones are farther back than Woody Guthrie was when this place opened.”

It’s trying to escape the lingering hippie/beatnik pigeonhole rather than any dislike of folk music that makes the café board members quick to emphasize its diversity. When Arem went with Al McKenney, whom she describes as the embodied Caffe Lena archives, to look for Lena memorabilia he thought he’d left in his old apartment, which was in a now vacant building, the security guards who accompanied them were incredulous that anyone would be this interested in the history of Caffe Lena. “They were like, ‘What do want to go through this stuff for? What is this café, isn’t that that beatnik place?’ They actually said ‘beatnik,’ ” recalls Arem.

Adler sees an irony in that exchange. “I’ll bet that there’s a 50-50 chance that they’re Bruce Springsteen fans,” he says. Adler recently went down the list of “walk-in” music Springsteen has selected to play in the stadiums before he goes on stage, and counted about 20 artists who have played Caffe Lena, many regularly. “Obviously he’s listening to this stuff. If these people weren’t here because they didn’t have a place like this to make a living in, we might not have artists like Bruce Springsteen,” says Adler. “He may not have been in the café, but he’s obviously benefited from it.” He pauses. “I like to say all roads lead back to Lena’s.”

The Caffe Lena board is using the history project to set a stage for an ambitious fund-raising drive to renovate the old building and make it handicap-accessible. The goal over the next few years is to find enough people who know they’ve benefited from it to raise half a million dollars to put into “what is really a very old building,” adding an elevator, moving and expanding the kitchen, and doing various other needed upgrades to the space.

The board full of musicians shows a little nervousness about the magnitude of the effort, but certainly not enough to reconsider the board’s unconventional lack of wealthy membership. “No, we don’t have any major socialites on our board,” says Adler. “But we have very little overhead and accomplish a whole lot. . . . The café is going to be here in 100 years.”




CONGRESS PARK (Saratoga Springs, 587-3241). Tue: Soul Session.

SARATOGA PERFORMING ARTS CENTER (Saratoga State Park, Saratoga Springs, tickets: 476-1000). Fri: Crosby, Stills and Nash. Sat: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Black Crowes.

SUMMER ROOFTOP CONCERTS (Rooftop patio, Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs). Fri: Reggie’s Red Hot Feetwarmers.



9 MAPLE AVENUE (9 Maple Ave., Saratoga Springs, 583-CLUB). Fri: Adrian Cohen Quartet. Sat: Nitro Jive.

THE ALLEY BAR (Long Alley Road, Saratoga, 587-9766). Tue: karaoke with Mark the Shark.

BAILEY’S (Phila and Putnam streets, Saratoga Springs, 583-6060). Thu: Juan & Corbin. Fri: Bluz House Rockers. Sat: Rich Ortiz. Sun: Chuck Kelsey.

BRINDISI’S RESTAURANT (390 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 587-6262). Wed: Bobby Dick & the Sundowners. Thu: Franklin Micare. Fri: Sanding Room Only. Sat: the Heaters. Sun: Al Bruno.

CAFFE LENA (47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs, 583-0022). Thu: open mic (7 PM). Fri: Chris Shaw. Sat: Stacey Earle & Mark Stuart. Sun: Martha Gallagher with Brian Mellick.

CIRCUS CAFÉ (392 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 583-1106). Thu: Robanic Reggae and Carribean Band. Fri: DJ Dance Party. Sat: karaoke with A-Man Productions.

CLUB CAROLINE (13 Caroline St., Saratoga Springs, 580-0155). Thu: karaoke. Fri: DJ. Sat: DJ. Tue: karaoke.

THE CLUB HOUSE (30 Caroline St., Saratoga Springs, 580-0686). Fri-Sat: DJ Daniel Van D, hiphop, club mixes.

DOC’S STEAKHOUSE (63 Putman St., Saratoga Springs, 581-7011). Mon: Blues open mic. Tue: George Fletcher’s Bourbon Renewal.

E. O’DWYER’S (15 Spring St., Saratoga Springs, 583-6476). Fri: Zen Tricksters, Rich Ortiz.

GAFFNEY’S (16 Caroline St., Saratoga Springs, 587-7359). Thu: Mikki Bakken & Friends. Fri: Johnny & The Triumphs. Sat: Don Hommel & Friends. Sun: MudFunk.

HORSESHOE INN (1 Gridley St., Saratoga Springs, 587-4909). Thu: Good for the Soul. Fri: Burners U.K. Sat: Bluz House Rockers. Sun: Sonic Mayhem. Mon: Jeff Walton.

THE INN AT SARATOGA (231 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 583-1890). Sat: Ria Curley Jazz Quartet. Wed: Georgie Wonders Big Band.

KING’S TAVERN (241 Union St., Saratoga Springs, 584-9643). Fri: the Raven Society, Valley, Lucia Lie. Sat: Vee Chambers.

O’CALLAGHAN’S (14 Phila St., Saratoga Springs, 583-3209). Fri: T & A Band. Sat: Ginger Brothers.

ONE CAROLINE STREET (1 Caroline St., Saratoga Springs, 587-2026). Fri: Chuck D’Aloia. Sat: Dave Payette, Peg Delaney Duo. Sun: Joe Gitto. Mon: Dave Gleason. Tue: Masters of Nostalgia. Wed: Peg Delaney.

THE PARTING GLASS (40-42 Lake Ave., Saratoga Springs, 583-1916). Mon: The OTB Band. Tues: Celtic Session. Wed: The Burners UK.

SARATOGA CITY TAVERN (Caroline Street and Maple Avenue, Saratoga Springs, 581-3230). Fri and Sat: DJ Chris. Sun: Acoustic open-mic night with Rick Bolton. Tues: Dark Day Blues with George Fletcher’s Bourbon Renewal. Wed: Happy Hour with Jeff Halsted.

SIRO’S (168 Lincoln Ave., Saratoga Springs, 584-4030). Thu: Bobby Dick and the Sundowners. Fri: The Refrigerators. Sat: Milo Z. Sun: Soul Session. Mon: Rock Velvet. Wed: Blue Hand Luke.



The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), Congress Park, Saratoga Springs. A humorous run through the works of the Bard. 7/30, 6 PM; 7/31, 2 PM. Free. 884-4947.

Pinocchio!, Saratoga Arts Center, 320 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. The children’s play about the wooden puppet. 8/2, 11:30 AM and 2 PM. $7, kids 12 and under $5. Call for reservations. 584-4132.



Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs. 8/3, 8:15 PM: Charles Dutoit conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra in their opening night at SPAC. With special guest Itzhak Perlman. Works by Beethoven and Bartók (Concerto for Orchestra). $60-$15. 587-3330.

Spa Little Theater, Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs. 8/2, 8:15 PM: Lisa Batiashvili (violin), François Leleux (oboe) and Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano) will perform works by Poulenc, Franck and Beethoven. $34.50-$29.50. 587-3330.



Arts Center Gallery, 320 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 584-4132. Saratoga Inside Out. Through 9/3. Receptions 8/4, 6-9 PM, and 9/1, 6-8:30 PM.

Congress Park, Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 584-4132. Art in the Park I. 7/31, 10 AM-4 PM. Also, Public Art Works, featuring works by Lee Nicholls, Bill McTygue, and Michael L. Noonan. Through 12/31.

Gallery 100, 445 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 580-0818. Recent photographs of the NYC Ballet by Paul Kolnik; also, photographs from the SPAC Jazz Festival by Lee Whitman. Through 7/31.

Gotchya’s Trading Co., 68 Beekman St., Saratoga Springs. 584-5772. Truth Be Told, paintings by Chris Murray. Through 9/2.

National Museum of Dance, 99 S. Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 584-2225. Dancing Rebels, an exhibit highlighting the work of the New Dance Group. Through May 2006.

National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, 191 Union Ave., Saratoga Springs. 584-0400. Peb: The Art of Humor, featuring cartoons and caricatures by Pierre Bellocq, celebrating horses and racing personalities. Through 12/31. Also, 11th Annual Horsing Around with the Arts student art show. Through 9/30. Also, Golden Memories: Fifty Years of the Racing Hall of Fame; also, paintings from the Charles H. Thierot Collection. Through 12/31.

New York State Military Museum, 61 Lake Ave., Saratoga Springs. 581-5100. New York’s Fighting Zouaves. Through Oct. 2005.

Prestwick Chase at Saratoga, 100 Saratoga Blvd., Saratoga Springs. 584-7766. Photographs by Andrew Howland. Through 7/31.

Saratoga Automobile Museum, 110 Avenue of the Pines, Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs. 587-1935 ext. 20. East of Detroit, and New York Racing exhibit. Ongoing.

Saratoga County Arts Council, Member Exhibition Hall, 320 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 584-4132. Works by Paul Arnold. 8/1-31. Also, works by Penny Koburger. Through 7/31.

Saratoga Springs Public Library, 49 Henry St., Saratoga Springs. 584-7860. Works by Monique Lemaire. 8/1-31. Also, watercolors by Robert Risman Jr. Through 7/31.

Saratoga Visitors Center, 297 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 587-3241. Works by Robert Ewell. 8/2-29. Also, watercolors and acrylics by Elizabeth Cannon; also, highlights of the life of Solomon Northup; also Flower Power: Saratoga In Blossom. Through 7/31.

Skidmore College, Schick Art Gallery, 815 N. Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 580-5049. Anything But Realism, group exhibition. Through 9/22.

Spring Street Gallery, 110 Spring St., Saratoga Springs. 587-6433. Pathways, paintings by Joanne K. Murphy. Through 8/31.

Tang Teaching Museum and Gallery, Skidmore College, 815 N. Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 580-8080. Weapons of Mass Dissemination: The Propaganda of War. Through 10/30. Also, Opener 9: Michael Oatman. Through 9/5.



Malta/Saratoga Farmers Market, Dave Meager Community Center, Route 9, Malta. Tuesdays, 11 AM-2 PM.

Saratoga Farmers Market, High Rock Park, High Rock Avenue, Saratoga Springs. Saturdays, 9 AM-1 PM; Wednesdays, 3-6 PM.



Saratoga Mountain Bike Association. Informal rides Tuesdays 6 PM, Sundays 10 AM. 788-0847,

Saratoga Phillies Baseball, East Side Recreation Field, 266 Lake Ave., Saratoga Springs. 7/29, 6 PM: Mohawk Valley. 7/30, 6 PM: Watertown. 7/26, 6 PM: Plattsburgh. 7/27, 6 PM: Amsterdam. 598-9131,

Saratoga Polo Association, Bloomfield and Denton roads, Saratoga Springs. Matches every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday through 9/4, weather permitting. Gates open 4 PM, start time 5:30 PM. Post-game dinners 7:10 PM. $8 per person or $20 per carload. Under 16 free. Season passes available. 584-8108,

Saratoga Race Course, Saratoga Springs. 7/30, 8 AM: 5K run to benefit Special Olympics New York. Begins at corner of George Street and East Avenue. 388-0790.

Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs. 7/31, 8-10 AM. Trail Clean-Up Day. For directions and registration: 584-2000 ext 119.


Saratoga Race Course

Open daily through Sept. 5, except Tuesdays.

Location 267 Union Ave., Saratoga Springs,

Admission $3 grandstand, $5 clubhouse; children under 12 free; seats are $6 and $7, respectively.

Parking $10 per car at the track side and $5 across the street at the Oklahoma Training Track. General parking is free.

Racing Nine or 10 races a day; pari-mutuel
wagering on every race.

First Race Post Time is at 1 PM (except Travers Day, Aug. 27, when it’s at 12:30 PM).

Major Stakes Races The Diana Handicap (July 30); the Whitney Handicap (Aug. 6); the Sword Dancer Invitational (Aug. 13 ); the Alabama Stakes (Aug. 20); the Saratoga Breeders Cup (Aug. 21 ); the Hopeful Stakes (Aug. 27 ); the Travers Stakes (Aug. 27).

Horse trainer Nick Zito is presented with a painting bearing his likeness at the annual Center for the Disabled fundraiser, which took place at Siro’s on July 26.

Saratoga SHOTS






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