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And the beat goes on: Sarah Craig poses with a likeness of Caffè Lena founder Lena Spencer. Photo by Martin Benjamin.

Going With the Flow
By Kathryn Mora

Legendary Saratoga coffehouse Caffè Lena redirects its efforts to stay afloat in a new era

When 27-year-old Sarah Craig moved from Boston to join her new husband in Salem, N.Y., she came across a want ad placed by a nonprofit arts organization seeking an executive director. “That’s my job,” she thought. She interviewed and was hired; not only did she have the qualifications, but no one else applied for the job.

That was eight years ago, and Craig is still at that Saratoga mainstay, Caffè Lena. The legendary café and folk-music performance space—which welcomed Bob Dylan on his first tour, provided a home away from home to a young Arlo Guthrie, and was the first venue to be treated to Don McClean’s song “American Pie”—was founded in 1960 by Lena and Bill Spencer, and named for its omnipresent proprietress. Though Lena died in 1989 and a nonprofit corporation now maintains the Caffè, her legacy still influences management style, says Craig: “After I understood the café better, I switched to doing kind of what Lena did: Whatever was needed in order to put on concerts every week—from making coffee, hiring the talent, to collecting tickets.”

Though Lena’s work ethic is still applicable, the café itself is in need of some modernizing. “The slightly decrepit, commercial-free café has survived for 42 years with the help of the community, but now it’s time to freshen up our program,” Craig says. Working closely with the board of directors, her part-time assistant manager, Anne Hodge, and a number of volunteers, Craig is confident that the collaborators will effect positive changes, but the job is not without its pressures. “It’s very exciting planning the new changes for Caffè Lena, although there’s a huge amount at stake since the café hasn’t changed a hair on its head since its start, except for a modest change on the stage.”

In 2003, Caffè Lena is scheduled to have a major facelift. The renovation—which will be overseen by the State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation as a term of a Heritage Grant obtained for the site in 1998—includes an expansion of the floor space (the seating capacity will be expanded by 35), addition of a second entrance, reworking the kitchen space, replacing the roof, replacing an outdated and failing electrical system, repairing heating and plumbing systems, restoring brickwork and installing energy-efficient windows and soundproof flooring.

“All this must be done while retaining the essential ambience people have come to expect at the café,” says board member Sally Harder, who is also on the committee involved with seeking gifts for the upcoming renovations.

According to Harder, $60,000 of the cost will come from the Heritage Grant, and a $20,000 lead donation will come from the Adirondack Trust Company toward the $300,000 total anticipated for the renovation. Volunteers are out in the community seeking campaign gifts at this time.

Friends of the café hope that the physical renovation will amplify the program changes that have been made in an attempt to revive its appeal to a diverse audience, and prove that the venerable establishment has legs. “It hasn’t always been easy, but our dedicated board, small paid staff and volunteers, members and performers have managed to keep the doors open,” Harder says. “I see people of all ages continuing to come to the café, and our street-level presence and our new box office attracting new people who are discovering the café [and] being surprised at the diversity of the music, and coming to call the café their home away from home as much as we do.”

There are reasons to believe the campaign will be successful: Today at Caffè Lena, young people have more of a presence than a few years ago as a result of the Wednesday Night Concert Series, begun two and a half years ago by Stanley McCaughey, administrator at Skidmore’s School Without Walls.

Sixteen-year-old Emily Farrell has volunteered at the concerts since they began. “I like seeing the work that goes into booking shows and then getting to see how the show turns out,” she says. “When I’m there I feel like part of something big and that I’m in some way making a difference. I feel like I fit in well with the scene at Caffè Lena.”

“Although young people have many activities available to them in our culture,” McCaughey says, “there are few opportunities for them to perform their music in a formal situation like Caffè Lena with mikes, lights, tables and chairs . . . and in a safe environment.” At the café, he says, young artists can work on building an audience in Saratoga and, more importantly, learn the ropes of live performance: “The thing that most young people quickly realize is that it’s hard work, you can’t fake it. When the lights go down, you really need to be ready,” says McCaughey.

Another new program, the Family Concert Series, started in 2001 and focuses on toddlers to preteens. Craig says children respond to the friendly, smoke- and alcohol-free environment. With limited publicity, 350 people attended the concert series during its first year. “Children especially love folk music because it has a lot of heart and soul,” Craig claims. “Kids feel and recognize heart and soul and are captivated by simple melodies.”

Craig maintains that it’s crucial to keep an open mind and to look for these new opportunities when it comes to booking the club. “I have a strong nostalgia for the fun of the old days, but my ears are wide open to new sounds. I listen to traditional music a lot, but also I listen to plenty of classical, rock, R&B, new jazz, even some rap,” she says. “Not that everything I listen to would be right for Lena’s. But, that’s the music the public is listening to. I need to know it and understand what we can offer that would be appropriate and might appeal to those folks. It’s no good to get culturally isolated.”

Accordingly, Craig has decided to experiment with programs by prestigious full-electric bands, a sound rarely heard at the café: Grammy-winning blues guitarist Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson appeared with his five-piece Magic Rockers on Nov. 30, and the gospel quintet the Holmes Brothers make their debut Dec. 20.

“Although folk and country blues were the mainstay at Caffè Lena, non-folk music sounds good in the room too,” Craig says. She anticipates chamber music moving back to the small intimate settings such as Caffè Lena rather than the large concert halls. Their New Chamber Music Series showcased world-renowned cellist Matt Haimovitz, who has traveled the world with his Bach Cello Suites. Local composers McCaughey and Elizabeth Woodbury presented their original work for classical guitar and harpsichord earlier this year, and the Chamber Ensembles of Saratoga Springs Youth Orchestra and members of the Monday Musical Club of Albany will appear early next year—as will Haimovitz.

And Craig isn’t confining herself to music in her attempt to attract new patrons: Three years ago, Channel Z Productions became the resident theater group at Caffè Lena. A troupe composed of high-school-age kids, they put on three to four productions a year under the mother-daughter team of artistic director Irma Zehr and managing director Jeannette Zehr. (Irma has a degree in theater arts and, along with regional theater, has appeared off-Broadway and in soap operas for more than 20 years. Jeannette performed stage manager and lighting duties at dinner theaters in New Jersey for 12 years.)

Seventeen-year-old Marly Halpern-Graser joined the company two years ago and is one of 12 cast members appearing in The History of the American Film, opening Saturday in Caffè Lena’s Black Box Theatre. (Already an award-winning filmmaker, Halpern-Graser hopes to attend film school at New York University in the fall.)

Last year, the Skidmore experimental-theater group Fovea Floods performed four shows at Caffè Lena under student director Josh Chambers. “It was the most experimental thing I’ve ever seen. They were brilliant,” says Craig, who is interested in attracting more groups from Skidmore.

It is Craig’s belief that by updating the physical space and by presenting such a diverse roster of performances, Caffè Lena will preserve and bolster its reputation as a premier arts venue—albeit a slightly reimagined venue.

“The goal: To define what part of our tradition we will hang on to and what new things we will add—change it just enough so it can mean the same for upcoming generations that it has for past generations,” she says. “We don’t need to be rich. We just need to be able to pay the mortgage and utilities, some modest salaries and to bring in the top players on the coffeehouse circuit. Our status in the music world demands that we offer the best. It’s expected of us.”


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