SUMMER JAM, WATKINS GLEN, NY
Excerpt from "AQUARIUS RISING" by Robert Santelli
Shelly Finkel and Jim Koplik, the two promoters of Summer Jam, had been producing rock concerts in Connecticut and had established a regular audience. In 1972 they staged a series of shows in Hartford, one of which was a Grateful Dead concert. During their performance members of the Allman Brothers Band who were backstage were invited to come out for an informal jam. The reception they received from the Deadhead-dominated crowd was lavish and striking.
Finkel and Koplik loved what they saw and heard. The promoters talked with members of the Dead and the Allman Brothers to see if they were interested in a large outdoor concert that would feature the two bands performing separately and then, at the conclusion, merging for one spectacular, memorable jam. The promoters added that the profits could be astronomical for all involved if a large enough concert site was chosen. Both bands were very interested.
Finkel and Koplik searched high and low for an appropriate site. The Pocono International Raceway was considered, but when the promoters heard of the availability of the Watkins
Glen Grand Prix Raceway, they immediately made plans to talk with raceway officials there. Both the town of Watkins Glen and the racetrack management were accustomed to handling large crowds, and since the event was to be a one-day affair, few obstacles prevented a contract from being signed. Finkel and Koplik promised to limit ticket sales to 150,000. Privately, raceway officials doubted whether the rock promoters could sell even 100,000 tickets. But more power to them. They had certainly paid a considerable sum to rent the facilities for the day.
In order to fill out the remainder of the billing, Koplik and Finkel suggested that another band or performer, perhaps Leon Russell, be added to the show. The Dead and the Allmans both agreed to the concept but felt that the Band would be more appropriate than Russell. Besides, they were local New York State boys from the Woodstock area and had a more concentrated Northeastern following than Leon Russell. The Band was approached with the idea and quickly signed a contract.
Two weeks prior to the festival more than 100,000 tickets at $10 each had been sold. The promoters secured permission to put on sale an additional 25,000 tickets the day of the show, since it was obvious that many more people than were originally anticipated would show up. Watkins Glen was to be the first huge rock music event in New York to be produced since the state passed the Mass Gathering Code following Woodstock. Koplik and Finkel adhered to the stringent rules in a precise,almost religious manner. More than one thousand portable toilets were rented and twelve wells were dug to increase the racetrack's water supplies, in addition to strategically locating more than a thousand gallon jugs of mountain spring water throughout the grounds. The promoters even ordered 300,000 premoistened paper towelettes, although no one could figure out what real value they would have at a rock festival. A makeshift heliport was also built.
Henry Valent, president of the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Corporation, was impressed. Jim Koplik and Shelly Finkel seemed to be real professionals. Watkins Glen would not be like those other rock festivals he had read about. It would be different, he thought. It would be a first-class operation.
People began arriving a full week before the festival. Many thumbed their way in or drove campers or vans up early to select an ideal camping location. On the Tuesday before the show, the first of thirty ticket gates had opened. Rather than have the young people mill about the town, the promoters and Valent agreed to open up a bit early. But there was cause for consternation. Summer Jam, as it was called, was supposed to be a one-day affair. Sure, promoters and track officials had realized that many would show up early. That's why they had prepared sizeable campgrounds. But not this early. And not this many.
Promoters Shelly Finkle and Jim Koplick made sure no one went thirsty at Watkins Glen. Photo by Shelly Koplik
The crowd grew. On Wednesday the New York State police estimated that fifty thousand people were at Watkins Glen. On Thursday the approximation more than doubled. By Friday afternoon they were certain that a full quarter of a million kids had made camp in or near the festival grounds. The troopers recalled Woodstock and the nightmarish traffic problems. This was worse. Cars sitting in traffic stretched back almost fifty miles, while the impact of it all could be felt one hundred miles away. They began turning back young people with or without tickets. There was no doubt about it. Summer Jam was going to be bigger than Woodstock. Much bigger.
A row of latrines at Watkins Glen one week before 600,000 people stood in line to use them. Picture by Shelly Finkle.
When the Grateful Dead went to do their sound check, more than 100,000 of the 250,000 people present at Watkins Glen were already assembled in front of the stage. Graham suggested what the hell, might as well start the concert early. The Dead consented, and the sound check turned into a two-hour set with a few interruptions to balance out the wall of sound. The Band and the Allman Brothers felt compelled to do likewise. They delivered one-hour and two-hour sets, respectively. In all, a five-hour prefestival performance disguised as a sound check.
After it was over Jim Koplik sat himself in a chair in the backstage trailer and remarked to Finkel, "I'm beat. I feel like everything is over and we actually pulled this off."
Finkel nodded and broke a tired smile. "I can't believe, though, that wasn't the real thing. Tomorrow is the real thing. Tomorrow is the concert. We have to do it all over again, for at least twice as long and probably for twice as many people."
Koplik glanced over at his partner. Shelly Finkel had fallen into a deep sleep.