Filmmaking | Interviews

Oasis in the Berkshires: Music Inn

1 May , 2007  

Written by Nancy L. Babine | Posted by:

After three decades screening and producing other people’s films, independent film legend Ben Barenholtz indulges his passion for jazz with a debut documentary. Music Inn premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival and screens at the Berkshire International Film Festival this month.
From the landscape of the Cold War, Joseph McCarthy, and U.S. Supreme Court-endorsed segregation, a sanctuary appeared in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts called Music Inn.   

Philip and Stephanie Barber were living in Manhattan with jobs in public relations.  They shared a passion for music and a desire to find a summer refuge from the intensity of the city.  So, in 1950, they purchased Wheatleigh, a sprawling country cottage in Lenox.  Their rural retreat consisted of a half dozen rundown buildings on a hundred acres, nestled in a thriving arts community — with Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow, and the Berkshire Playhouse only minutes away. 

Though the purchase price was only $20,000, they soon realized upkeep alone would be costly.  They decided to offset their expenses by opening an inn.  They forged ahead with preparations and received their first guests for the July 4th weekend.  But their inn offered guests more than a comfortable room and a hearty meal.   

Their first concert became a two-day festival hosted by Alan Lomax, a pioneer in musicology, and included performances by Woody Guthrie, Reverend Gary Davis, and Pete Seeger.  It was the first of many such groundbreaking moments. 

At the time, jazz was largely confined to small urban clubs and the genre had not undergone serious study by music scholars, but the Barbers provided musicians the opportunity to perform in a concert setting in exchange for room and board.  Legendary jazz greats and yet-to-be greats joined veteran and up-and-coming folk musicians in the carriage house concerts, which were followed by roundtable discussions of the music.  Performing at Music Inn became a “must-do” for musicians of the day.  

In 1955, the Barbers increased the performance space from seating for 60 to 600.  In 1957, they opened the School of Jazz, a place for young musicians to study under the tutelage of accomplished musicians, effectively challenging the notion that jazz can’t be taught.   

But operating Music Inn grew into a monumental endeavor.  In 1960, they decided to sell.  Throughout subsequent years it continued in varying manifestations until it was converted to condominiums in the 1970s.  Though many of the greats who walked through the doors of Music Inn are gone, many who taught and studied there still perform and teach.   

Independent film veteran Ben Barenholtz first learned about Music Inn in 1971, while vacationing in Great Barrington, VT. Though not a musician, Barenholtz has been a jazz fan for years.  He met Stephanie Barber and they became friends.  Barber told Barenholtz that over the years several people had raised the idea of documenting the story of Music Inn, but nothing had materialized. When John Lewis, the first director of the School of Jazz, died in 2001, Barenholtz knew the time was ripe to make a film while many of the musicians were still alive to share their stories.   

In 2002, Barenholtz met with Barber, David Rothstein, who owned Music Inn during its final decade, and Casey Meade, filmmaker and founder of Projectile Arts.  Both men had a long relationship with Barber and Music Inn.  They decided to make the film under the auspices of the nonprofit Projectile Arts, designating all profits to be used to create a scholarship in Barber’s name.  

They began by perusing Barber’s scrapbook and interviewing some of the musicians who were affiliated with Music Inn over the years.  One year into the project, Barber passed away at age 84 and funds were depleted.  Through various means, including funding from a friend and proceeds from an auction of the hats for which Barber was famous, they were able to continue, but very few people were paid.  “It was a labor of love,” said Barenholtz.  

Originally, Meade planned to direct the film and Barenholtz to produce.  But Meade’s commitment to other projects prevented him from undertaking that role.  “I became a director by default,” Barenholtz said. This is both his first documentary and his directorial debut.  He was assisted by jazz musician, George Schuller, faculty member of the School of Jazz, who did most of the interviews with the musicians, and by co-producer, Naomi Bombardi-Wilson, who handled much of the production work.  They collected over 100 hours of footage, including interviews, photographs, and film clips.  Of course winnowing that footage to a feature-length film means much was left out.  But the filmmakers hope to create a free website where all the footage will be available for the benefit of music history scholarship.   

Barenholtz is well known as an innovator in independent film.  In the early part of his career he was a film exhibitor, managing the Village Theater in New York — a specialty and revival house that featured classic, independent, underground, cult and experimental films, as well as speakers, rock concerts and live acts.  “Anybody who needed a theater,” he explained. 

When the Village Theater closed to be reopened later as the renowned Filmore East, Barenholtz went to the Filmmakers Co-op and told them he was looking for a venue for alternative cinema.  They told him that the Elgin Theater was available and gave him $48 to open it.  Within a few years, he made it work.  His programming was eclectic and creative, and included revival, daily changing double features, and all-night movies. “We’d start at midnight and show four films.  Everybody was there.  A lot of future film critics got their education there.” 

In the early 1970s, Barenholtz made the move to distribution.  He proved to be a man of vision.  He was the first in the U.S. to launch a film at midnight.  With no previews and a $38 ad in the Village Voice, he premiered the cult classic, El Topo, at a midnight screening.  The film continued to play for six months only at midnight screenings to sold-out houses.  Eventually, the film caught the interest of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who were instrumental in garnering distribution for a mainstream audience.   

In 1975, he was approached with David Lynch’s Eraserhead.  Barenholtz saw Lynch’s talent, considering him 10 years ahead of his time.  He nursed the film for two years, screening it only at midnight at selected theaters.  Though he never held a screening for critics, word-of-mouth brought them in, and eventually the film developed a following and critical acclaim.  

After distributing films that include Pink Flamingoes, Return of the Secaucus Seven, Cousin Cousine, and Blood Simple, Barenholtz made the transition into production.  He produced the Coen brothers’ next three films, as well as Requiem for a Dream and Georgia, among others.  

Barenholtz considers being independent as a filmmaker a state of mind.   He judges his decision to stay out of Hollywood as one of his best.  “If you’re there you have to play their game,” he said.  “You’re not going to change the dynamics.”  His independence has allowed him to be eclectic in his choices. Though he has no particular agenda in selecting a project, he portrays it as something he feels in his bones. “And it all depends on your bone of that day.”

Music Inn will premiere on May 3rd at the Tribeca Film Festival. Its New England premiere will be at the Berkshire International Film Festival (www.biffma.com) on May 19th. More information about the film can be found at www.projectilearts.org/musicinn/welcome.html.

Nancy L. Babine is a writer and filmmaker. She can be contacted at NLBab@comcast.net.


Music Inn will premiere on May 3rd at the Tribeca Film Festival. Its New England premiere will be at the Berkshire International Film Festival (www.biffma.com) on May 19th. More information about the film can be found at www.projectilearts.org/musicinn/welcome.html. Nancy L. Babine is a writer and filmmaker. She can be contacted at NLBab@comcast.net.