Roots of Woodstock Blog

Dan Mason: The Man Behind Woodstock’s Legendary “Big Girls”

March 26th, 2021

For the better part of six decades, Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason were one of the highest profile couples of the Woodstock art colony—in more ways than one. At six foot three and six foot respectively, the “Big Girls,” as their friends called them, tended to stand out in a crowd. From their arrival in Bearsville in 1924 to Wilna’s death in 1979, Wilna and Nan enjoyed a fond notoriety in the community for their prolific art work, their haphazard attempts at farming, their impromptu vocal entertainments, their tireless fund raising for local charities, and in particular, their huge annual August full moon parties which attracted hundreds of enthusiastic revelers. But while the tale of Wilna and Nan’s fifty-five-year evolution into living legends has been told, the crucial role that Nan’s father, Dan Mason, played in supporting and nurturing their early years together is not well known.

            That Nan Mason was an enthusiastic entertainer, always willing to act out a skit or bring forth her ukulele and harmonize with Wilna Hervey after dinner parties, was not surprising considering her origins. In his early days in show biz, her father was a song and dance man and her mother, known professionally as Millie la Fonte, was a popular serio-comic singer in the infamous burlesque extravaganzas known as the Female Mastodons. Nan, whose birth name was Anna, was the last born of Dan and Millie’s four children, and the only girl. As testament to the gruelingly hard life of nineteenth century traveling show people, two of Nan’s brothers had died as children while Dan and Millie Mason were on tour. These tragedies, coupled with the fact that the surviving Mason son, Harry, had a difficult personality and became estranged from his father, meant that Dan Mason focused most of his parental affection on Nan. When Millie la Fonte died in 1919, Nan Mason became for all practical purposes her father’s entire family and the recipient of his singular devotion.

            Early on, Dan Mason made it his goal to provide for his daughter’s future and leave her set for life when he died. He was making very good money in the movies by the time Nan was a teenager and he carefully salted away as much as he could, earmarking it for posterity. But financial security was not to be Dan’s most enduring legacy. Her father determined Nan’s future in a way he neither planned nor could have anticipated. For it was Dan Mason who introduced his daughter to the woman who would be her life partner and collaborator in all her Woodstock adventures, the love of her life—Wilna Hervey.

            Wilna Hervey and Dan Mason met at the studios of the Betzwood Film Company in the Philadelphia suburbs in 1919 when they were hired to portray “The Skipper” and “The Powerful Katrinka” in a series of live action comedies based on the popular Toonerville Trolley comic strip. Diminutive Dan Mason, old enough to be Wilna’s father, quickly bonded with the childlike Amazonian actress who towered above him, becoming her mentor, protector, confidante, and surrogate father. When Dan purchased a cottage near the Betzwood movie studio and brought Nan down from New York to stay with him, he invited Wilna to come and live with them as well. Thrown together somewhat arbitrarily, Nan and Wilna regarded each other warily at first, but quickly warmed to each other’s charms and talents. Within a year, they had fallen in love. They would be inseparable for the rest of their lives.

            Dan Mason was unfazed by his daughter’s lesbian relationship with his co-star; he loved both of the girls, considered Wilna an extra daughter, and gave the young couple his blessing, assuring them of his conviction that “without love, life is a void.” When he moved to Hollywood to advance his movie career in 1923, Dan invited his girls to live with him and went so far as to buy a large bungalow for the three of them. The girls had other ideas, however. Wilna, who had studied painting in the years preceding her brief movie career, longed to live in Woodstock, New York, in the art colony where she had studied painting and where she already owned a small rustic cabin on several acres. In 1924, Wilna and Nan moved to Bearsville where they would live until their deaths in 1979 and 1982.

            Though disappointed to see them go, Dan Mason immediately assumed the role of long distance parent and support system. He agreed to send Nan a generous monthly allowance, and as Nan discovered her own artistic talents and took up painting alongside Wilna, agreed as well to pay for her art lessons from Woodstock artists, George Bellows and Charles Rosen. He also provided a steady stream of common sense advice in the form of three or four long letters a week.

            In 1925, Wilna and Nan decided on a whim to take up farming, and began investing considerable time and energy in their new adventure. Though horrified that they were doing “man’s work”—actually plowing fields with a horse!—Dan was impressed when he learned that they were able to make some extra cash by selling produce and eggs to their neighbors. He encouraged them to become self-sufficient. Flushed with their initial success and Dan’s expressions of support, the girls decided to expand their farming venture by purchasing an old abandoned farmstead known locally as Treasure Farm. Realizing that for this significant purchase, they would need Dan’s financial backing, they approached their indulgent parent and mentor with the idea of his retiring to Bearsville. Knowing well his penchant for “healthy living,” they painted for him a bucolic vision of the future in which they would all farm together and live healthy lives in the fresh air and sunshine. Unable to resist their blandishments and his own desire for a retirement fantasy, Dan Mason agreed and bankrolled their purchase, justifying the considerable expense by reminding himself that Nan was eventually going to get his money anyway.

            Treasure Farm required some serious renovations to bring it up to 1920s standards and Dan Mason paid for these as well, raiding his several savings accounts in New York, Pennsylvania, and California for cash to buy a new furnace, kitchen, and indoor plumbing. He also managed from three thousand miles away to make sure his naïve and mercurial girls didn’t ignore certain boring but essential details like buying insurance on the property. When the girls moved to Treasure Farm in 1927, Dan sold his former cottage near the now-defunct Betzwood movie studio, and had the furniture shipped to Bearsville, anticipating that he would follow it in a few years.

            But Dan Mason would never retire to Treasure Farm, despite his fervent promises to do so. A practical and thrifty man by nature and one who had been chastened by several frightening brushes with poverty over the years, Dan worried that he had depleted his savings too much to quit the lucrative movie business, and continued to stay on in Hollywood, hoping to make just a little more money “to keep Nannie safe.” There, in 1928, he was overtaken by serious illness and became unable to work. Though finally persuaded by Nan and Wilna to come east to recover his health, he continued to decline. Arriving at Treasure Farm as a near invalid, Dan discovered that it was impossible for him to live there—or even die there. The only bathroom in the old farmhouse was up a steep flight of stairs, stairs he could no longer climb. He died in a small cottage just down the hill from the farm in July 1929.

            By the time the Big Girls held their first full moon party at Treasure Farm in the fall of 1938—the beginnings of a tradition that would last over three decades—Dan Mason was gone, and thanks to the Great Depression, his money was gone too. All that was left of his many investments was Treasure Farm. But Dan’s legacy lived on in more ways than one. The full moon parties were costume affairs, with prizes awarded for creativity and imagination, qualities never in short supply in Woodstock. Inevitably, there were guests spontaneously invited by friends of friends of the hostesses at the last minute. Those intrepid souls, arriving at the bacchanal without costumes, were not at a disadvantage for long. Dan Mason had left behind trunks full of eccentric clothing he had worn on stage and in front of cameras during his fifty-seven years of playing character roles in Vaudeville, Broadway, and the movies. Rummaging through these seemingly bottomless wardrobes, the random unadorned guests were welcome to improvise personas appropriate to the spirit of the evening. And having done so, they could join in the fun, parading out across the moonlit meadows that Dan had paid for, pausing at individual campfires to show off the ensembles of funny hats, beards, wigs, striped stockings, short jackets with wide lapels, baggy pants, and giant sunflower boutonnieres, that the old comedian had once worn.

Nan and Wilna could not have found a better way to honor his memory.

~Joseph P. Eckhardt

Joseph P. Eckhardt is the author of Living Large: Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason, published by WoodstockArts in 2015; and Dan Mason: From Vaudeville to Broadway to the Silent Screen, published by McFarland & Company in 2021.

Shiang Book on Jim Morrison’s Poetry

April 24th, 2019

Jim Morrison and The Doors broke through into national consciousness in 1967 with “Light My Fire.” Over the years, Morrison’s moody good looks—combined with the band’s visionary lyrics and propulsive music—helped to catapult them onto Rolling Stone Magazine’s all-time top band list at number 41. In 2014 Classic Rock Magazine called them “America’s most influential band.”

David Shiang, author of the forthcoming book, Jim Morrison and the Secret Gold Mine: Breaking through the Doors to Hidden Reality and the Mind of God, was a fan from the start. Shiang, a child of Chinese nationals, recalls in his book that he grew up in a left-brain-oriented household where science and rationality were prized. Even so, he found that music spoke to him in a way that numbers did not.

David Shiang (at right) backstage with Frankie Valli

It was while the family was on vacation in the summer of 1967 that he became aware of The Doors. The car’s radio was tuned to a Top 40 radio station and “Light My Fire” came on. David immediately leaned in for a closer listen. That fall he left home for MIT. There he found that the scientific approach of the day was narrow and stifling. Soon he was haunting the bookstores in Cambridge and Boston and began to steep himself in treatises on philosophy, mythology, religion, poetry and mediation. He also began to dig into the lyrics and music of Jim Morrison and The Doors. He felt that their music helped to humanize his engineering education.

Shiang’s book is a welcome addition to the body of literature on The Doors. In addition to giving a brief overview of the magic of The Doors, he examines the reasons for their ongoing popularity and he delves into the deeper meaning of some of their songs. For example, with “The End,” (heard at the end of The Doors’ first album), he suggests that the West that Morrison is singing about is a mythological one and that he is invoking Joseph Campbell by singing about the hero, dragon and lost treasure. These psychological archetypes flow into the snake energy that brings to mind the awakening of the kundalini and the raising of consciousness. Could Morrison’s shamanic turn be the reason for the band’s enduring popularity?

David Shiang’s book is current available on Amazon as an e-book for $2.99, and a print version is imminent. Next up for David is a continuation of his work on Einstein. The project is tentatively titled, Vanishing Quantum Voodoo.

~ Weston Blelock

Candy-O Revisited

February 22nd, 2018

Jean and Jim Young owned The Juggler during the late 1960s in Woodstock, NY. It was an avant-garde bookstore that sold guitar strings and had a magazine rack featuring copies of Rolling Stone and Billboard magazines. In 2008 Jean participated in a panel discussion titled “Roots of the 1969 Woodstock Festival.” She recalled those days fondly: “And then of course the hippies came in . . . new thinking, anti-war sentiment . . . and then of course Michael Lang along with it. And I must say, when he came in to town and we were in our bookstore and he was looking for some place to rent for land . . . none of the real estate people in town took him very seriously. Like, he didn’t have any money. He wasn’t properly this or that. And so we thought, we’ll help him out, and my husband went around, looking for a place for the festival.”

Michael Young fell into the music business in a most natural way. His parents, Jean and Jim Young, rented a house on Zena Road to Tim Hardin. Every day after school, ten-year-old Michael headed over to Tim’s house to hang out. There he soaked up the vibe and met all the stars of the day, including Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. In those heady months after the Woodstock Festival it was an exciting time to be in town and Michael took full advantage of the scene. Soon Michael was playing music and gigging around town at places like the Sled Hill Café. When he was 16 it was time to head off to college. He got Rick Danko, the bassist for The Band, to write a letter of recommendation, and in 1972 Michael started his freshman year at the Berklee College of Music. The coursework must have been dull because within months he was back in Woodstock—though not for long. Soon he headed to London and Nashville, but returned later the same year with a personal mission to mix tapes of his band’s music.

Michael Young, on right, at the Mink Hollow Studio

He started as a glorified gopher at Todd Rungren’s Mink Hollow Studio. Todd must have observed a mature work ethic in his young protégé, because he left Michael in charge of his home while he went out on the road. Over a three-week period Michael had the run of the studio. There, by dint of ferocious focus, he mastered the studio equipment and mixed his songs on the 24-track recording system. Upon Todd’s return he promoted Michael to assistant engineer.

Calls came in daily about different record projects—and messages were left on the kitchen’s refrigerator. One day Michael noticed a message from Ric Ocasek, the leader of The Cars. Todd suggested that he follow up, so Michael did. Ric was looking for help recording Candy-O and he invited Michael up to Boston. Michael’s specialty is creating “a rounded and clean band sound.” In all, Michael engineered seven songs. Unfortunately none of them made the album. But recently Rhino released the Northern Studios versions on a 2017 augmented release of Candy-O. Michael got his well-deserved album credit and Pitchfork says of his tracks, “Listen closely, though, and Candy-O boasts bolder production that emphasizes the band’s heavy attack and gives plenty of space for guitarist Elliot Easton to spin out composed solos. It sounds not just like new wave—the umbrella term for any pop-oriented counterculture music that arose in the wake of punk—but album rock.” The timing couldn’t be better with The Cars being inducted into the Rock’n Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland on April 14.

For more info on Michael’s career visit: https://www.michaelyoungrecordproducer.com

~ Weston Blelock

Music Under the Moon

January 29th, 2018

Road to the old farmstead, site of many Woodstock festivals

No one had ever seen so many cars inching their way along the normally quiet country roads. Certainly not the deputy sent out by the county sheriff to impose some order on the tangled traffic. Everyone seemed to be heading in the same direction, descending upon an old farmstead where the sounds of music and high spirits were already echoing across the meadows. It was apparent that a major event was in progress, though the real significance of this joyous gathering in the boondocks of rural New York State would not be clear until much later. . . .

If this description conjures up images of “Woodstock, 1969,” you’re on the right track. Woodstock it was, but the actual year was 1938 and the epic musicale generating all the excitement was a fundraiser to benefit the Woodstock Art Gallery. At the center of this late afternoon costume party, that lasted until the full moon set just before dawn the next morning, were two of Woodstock’s most loveable eccentrics, Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason. Actresses, artists, erstwhile farmers, and life partners, Wilna and Nan were also among the Woodstock community’s best-known and most exuberant party hostesses. While this early September costume “picnic” was the largest and most ambitious soiree they’d ever thrown, it was far from their first. And it certainly wouldn’t be their last. Wilna and Nan’s first Full Moon party would, in fact, become an annual event for more than two decades and enter into Woodstock legend.

Wilna (far right) and Nan (second right) at the Maverick Festival, 1924

Staging big fundraising bashes under a full moon, with lots of music and rivers of free-flowing liquor, was already a well-established Woodstock tradition when Wilna and Nan embraced it as their own in 1938. As far back as 1915, Woodstock’s fabled series of annual Maverick Festivals had begun when Hervey White, the “first hippie” and one of the art colony’s founders, hosted the first such event to raise money to dig a well. White’s colorful costumed Maverick Festivals continued every year until 1931, by which time they had grown in size and popularity (and notoriety) to such an extent that the local authorities deemed it prudent to shut them down. None were more crestfallen to see their beloved Maverick Festivals come to an end than Wilna Hervey and Nan Mason, who had attended their first festival as a couple in 1924, wearing their signature clown costumes, and never missed any of the subsequent events. So, when the two women decided to entertain their friends and neighbors with a large open-air costume party on the grounds of their farm in late summer 1938, they did so as much with the intention of reviving a popular Woodstock institution as raising money for the local art gallery. The large and enthusiastic turnout they got that summer not only showed they were not alone in missing the old Maverick Festivals but guaranteed that the Full Moon Party would be back for an encore, again and again. Continue reading

Lambert & Stamp

April 21st, 2016

Poster for Lambert & Stamp. Chris Stamp at left and Kit Lambert on right.

Poster for Lambert & Stamp. Chris Stamp is at left and Kit Lambert is on the right.

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with Calixte Stamp, Chris Stamp’s wife.

Last April I saw a review of Lambert & Stamp, the documentary, in Rolling Stone. More recently I screened a copy from Netflix. Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp managed The Who. Usually one doesn’t focus on managers of bands, but over the years the team of Lambert and Stamp built up an undeniable mystique in my mind’s eye. For me, their story naturally begins in the early 1960s. I remember seeing The Who on Ready, Steady Go in the UK. The group’s music, dynamic visual delivery and destructive hijinks at the end of the show were mesmerizing.

The documentary by James D. Cooper was ten years in the making. Cooper met Chris Stamp in 1995 while the latter was working on a film about Keith Moon, The Who’s drummer. Ultimately Cooper didn’t work on this project, but Stamp liked Cooper’s approach to filmmaking and a friendship ensued. In 2002 Cooper explored the idea of a film on the creative team behind The Who with Chris and Stamp liked the idea. With Chris Stamp’s endorsement Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey came aboard.

Lambert & Stamp chronicles the formation of the partnership, the signing of The Who and the band’s rise to prominence. Lambert and Stamp were aspiring filmmakers. Christopher “Kit” Lambert was the son of Constant Lambert, the musical director of the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden. He attended Oxford, was an army officer and gay. Being gay in UK at the time was illegal. Chris Stamp was a cockney, son of a tugboat captain and straight. Both men were war babies. Despite Kit’s posh upbringing he was openly gay and this crimped his prospects. On the other hand, Stamp’s circumstances were dimmed by class and poverty. His section of London, the Isle of Dogs, was severely bombed during the war. The family lived in a partially collapsed building. In the postwar economy his opportunities were bleak, so he became a hoodlum. His older brother Terrence, a rising actor, intervened and got him a job as an underaged prop man at the Sadler Wells Theatre. There he saw Chita Riviera in West Side Story and became entranced with show business. This transformation is eloquently covered in the documentary. Continue reading