Wednesday, 26 July 2017 18:14

Caffe Lena: Still Bringing Good Things to the World

 This is an article from our publication: Simply Saratoga, out now! Or view it online!

You hear them advancing with trepidation, an apprehensive echo of footsteps atop the sturdy new staircase, creeping around the corner and anxiously peeking inside. Can the beloved space that has stood for more than a half-century ever 

be the same?   

“They’re wondering if it’s still going to have the right vibe,” explains Sarah Craig, who has witnessed the scenario over the past several months many times.  “Finally, they do this big ‘Wow! It’s a more beautiful version of what it always was,’ says Caffè Lena’s executive director. “And it’s very gratifying to hear people have that reaction.”    

Following a six-month renovation, the legendary café which first opened in 1960 and has played host to some of the folk music world’s biggest names, re-opened with a new look, and sound. Cameras were installed capable of producing hi-definition music videos, and a new digital soundboard punches up state-of-the-art tones. The listening room capacity has been expanded from 85 seats to 110, and the backstage dressing rooms are fitted with a shower - much to the delight of traveling musicians. 

Many traces of the hallowed past have been preserved, or upgraded anew. The vintage wood entry doors have been relocated to the main room upstairs, where yesterday-meets-tomorrow in a frame of redbrick. Historic performance flyers were rescued and placed on display, and comfortable couches line the wall, providing a homey feel. Overall there is a funky gleam to the re-modeled space. 

Craig remembers the January day in 1995 she first set foot in Lena Spencer’s hallowed café.

“It had this legendary reputation. It was famous and held in such incredible esteem, but when you walked in those front doors it seemed so…shabby,” she says. The bright lights grew dim, a pale-yellow hue clung to the walls and architectural signs of chipping and warpage were everywhere. When Spencer died in 1989, the cafe lost its guiding light. Craig came aboard and the café began to build anew. A nonprofit corporation was formed and purchased the building in 1998. In the new millennium, a $2 million capital campaign was launched. 

“I’m here to nurture the café, to help it be what it wants to be in the world,” Craig says. “I’m excited at the possibilities of building community around music and launching new artists into the world.” One of those launch pads is the weekly Open Mic night, where anyone can come and perform, read, or share a story. It is a window into people’s lives, Craig says. 

“You can be the most successful businessman in town and not the most talented guitar player, but you come down and do your thing at the Open Mic because it’s part of who you are, and you have the need to share it.”

“Some people who have played the Open Mic have gone on to some big things: Sawyer Fredericks, Hal Ketchum, G. Love,” says Joe Deuel, longtime photographer and soundman at the cafe. “It’s just endless how many great and notable shows were here. This place opened up a lot of the universe to me.” 

Deuel first picked up a camera as a young boy and his image-capturing abilities have served the community well: his photos of Lena Spencer and Don McLean, Dave Van Ronk and Rick Danko preserve an important part of the music’s past. 

The fifth-generation Saratogian first wandered into the café during his high school years in the early 1970s during a Utah Philipps performance. He returned a few years later to simply help out with picking up dishes, ended up “turning a few knobs” on the soundboard, and has been at the café ever since. 

“Lena kind of stuck me on it and there was no getting out,” laughs Deuel, recalling with fondness Spencer’s days presiding over the room, chain-smoking Pall Mall’s, playing Scrabble and listening to music.

Despite the newness, the threads to the past are in plain sight. Some of the venue’s tables harken back to the venue’s origins – including most notably the “Dylan” table, where the then barely-in-his-twenties folk singer is famously pictured sitting with Spencer and Suze Rotolo during one of his visits in the early 1960s. The café has also adopted Al McKenney’s record collection. The beloved Saratoga figure often seen wearing his purple Caffè Lena T-shirt and red suspenders died in 2015 and left his collection - comprised of about 600 albums and 400 CD’s - to the café, where there are plans underway to launch a lunch-time music series during which people would bring their food and listen to the music McKenney left to be heard.

“There is so much need for optimism to be fostered in the world right now and I think there are a million ways we can serve the community,” Craig says. “I feel the music you hear at the café can trigger compassion and open-mindedness, set the stage for positive things to happen and provide the opportunity to bring good things to the world.” 

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