In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock festival, we are proud to present the Charter alumni with an interview with Joel Rosenman ’63. Mr. Rosenman was a member of Charter during his time at Princeton and went on to become one of the four co-founders of the Woodstock Festival in 1969. Mr. Rosenman was kind enough to allow us to interview him. Below is a summary of his conversation with Samantha Halpern ’14. Some answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Question: Can you tell me about your time at Princeton?
Mr. Rosenman, a member of the Class of 1963, was an English major at Princeton. He has memories of many professors, especially Sherman Hawkins, who was “uncompromising about getting a sentence right” and whose lessons still guide Mr. Rosenman’s work. When asked to describe how Princeton has changed since he was a student, Mr. Rosenman noted, “They air-conditioned the dorms – that was big.” While at Princeton, Mr. Rosenman founded the Footnotes, a campus a cappella group. He remembers, “When we sang in Blair Arch, it felt as if we were levitating.” Mr. Rosenman’s son, Ned ’06, was also president of the Footnotes – forty years after his father. “Seeing my son in the exact same chair I had sat in decades before really brought it home to me: someone should reupholster that chair.”
Question: Can you tell me about your life before Woodstock?
After graduation from Yale Law, Mr. Rosenman worked as a lawyer by day and a club emcee/singer by night. One night, the head talent scout at Columbia Records offered him a recording contract. After thinking about it overnight, Mr. Rosenman made some lifechanging decisions. The next day he turned down the recording contract and hours later resigned from his law job. That afternoon, he was at his typewriter creating a sitcom about two very rich, not-so-smart venture capitalists and the harebrained ventures they got themselves into. Looking for plot material, he placed a classified ad in the Wall Street Journal identifying himself as a “young man with unlimited capital, seeking legitimate business proposals.” The nutty proposals poured in, enough for a dozen sitcoms.
Question: Can you tell me the story of how Woodstock came to be?
“My late partner and best friend John Roberts and I were building a huge recording studio in Manhattan. The attorney for that project had another client who was looking for backing for a tiny recording studio in Woodstock NY. To get some notice in the media they were going to invite NYC music business decision-makers to come upstate on opening day and mingle with some of the local Woodstock musicians: Bob Dylan, The Band, John Sebastian, et al. For me, their recording studio idea didn’t make sense. But all that talent caught my attention. I suggested we scrap the studio idea and have a big concert instead.”
What followed was “six months of mishaps, overspending, and breakthroughs” which ultimately brought them to the opening day of the Woodstock Festival. Although initially planned for 50,000 people, almost half a million showed up. As Mr. Rosenman describes it, “On Thursday it was a cow pasture; on Friday it was the second largest city in the state of New York.” Mr. Rosenman described that weekend as full of challenges for his team as well as for the audience. He says proudly, “There wasn’t a single incident of violence – or even selfishness — over the entire weekend. Show me a city with that kind of record.”
Question: What did you do after the big festival?
In the years following Woodstock Mr. Rosenman and his partner John Roberts specialized in leveraged buyouts, and continued to manage the Woodstock trademarks. In 1970, Warner Brothers released “WOODSTOCK” a three-hour documentary of the festival. It won the Academy Award that year, and it is still being shown to this day. The music from the festival also has a life of its own, fifty years later.
Question: What are you working on now?
These days, Mr. Rosenman is working on a musical about his Woodstock experiences. He is co-writing the script with Marshall Brickman, who wrote Jersey Boys, Annie Hall, and many other hits. When asked to describe this project, Mr. Rosenman just says he is “beyond lucky to be co-writing with such a genius.”