PANAMA CITY — Fifty years ago, on Aug. 15-18, the fields of a 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York, became Ground Zero for the counterculture's historic music festival.
"Woodstock 50," an exhibition at Gallery 721 in Panama City, explores not only art and artifacts of the event that was called "an Aquarian Exposition," but also places the festival in the context of history.
VIP gallery nights will be 6-10 p.m. Thursday and Friday, Aug. 15-16. Tickets are $50 per person (available at EventBrite.com), which includes a catered evening with heavy hors d'oeuvres, your choice of two beer or wine tickets, and a raffle ticket for a chance to win an original 1960s Peter Max poster. DJ Capo will play tracks from the original Woodstock Music Festival. Costumes evoking the 1960s are encouraged.
"It's a rare opportunity to relive this iconic festival by feasting your eyes on the unique 1969 Woodstock art and memorabilia from the Larry T. Clemons Collection," said a post from Destination Panama City, one of the event sponsors. "Help us celebrate the 50th anniversary of Woodstock with peace, love, art and music in your finest '60s attire."
Stepping into the gallery, patrons will first see images of Frank Sinatra, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. They will find a velvet Elvis and a guitar signed by Presley for the president of one of his fan clubs. The psychedelic era in movies will be represented by posters, such as those from "Easy Rider."
The materials are part of a collection accrued over a lifetime by gallery owner Larry Clemons.
"I'm seeing stuff I haven't seen in years," Clemons said last week as he pulled items out of packing materials.
"The fact that he signed something that looked like something he would have learned on, the cheapest little box they could find," Clemons said as he set the Elvis guitar in place. Then he pulled an electric guitar out of a box, showed me the signature on it, and added, "Of course, if Jimi's gonna sign a guitar, it better not be a box."
Some of the artifacts were damaged in Hurricane Michael. Water stains mark many posters and other materials. But Clemons said that only adds to the texture of their history.
"You know what? It's part of its history," he said. "It truly has been touched by Bay County. It's kind of like us."
Among the displays are wooden portraits created by local doctor and artist Mark White. Original musical artifacts include Janis Joplin concert posters, movie posters, a Grateful Dead at Madison Square Gardens concert poster, items related to Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley, and hundreds of other items, many never seen before. Among the memorabilia from Elvis/Sun Records are records signed by "The Million Dollar Quartet" of Johnny Cash, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins — including Perkins' signed contract.
Clemons also has a copy of the book "Woodstock Remembered" signed by numerous performers including Hendrix, Richie Havens, Jonny Winter, Arlo Guthrie, Graham Nash, Joe Cocker and many more.
"Basically, you're going to get the really cool music stuff. This exhibit's going to bring back the memories," Clemons said. "People are going to have some fun with it."
Hanging by the official posters for the event is a windbreaker worn by festival security.
"If you wore this, you got access to anywhere on the Woodstock grounds," Clemons said of the jacket.
Each piece has a story, from the original Woodstock poster that promotes a different location, to the Elvis guitar and why it has a broken string. Clemons enjoys sharing the stories. Ask him why the festival grew so big, and he'll start with the Newport festival in the spring of 1969, which many fans missed.
"People who missed that show were so bummed out, when they heard the lineup for Woodstock, that's when the buzz started going around. 'We're not missing Woodstock,'" he said.
Clemons pointed out that many of the performers represented in the exhibit were not at Woodstock, but their influence on music helped precipitate the event.
"Remember we went big band, then idol with Frank Sinatra and all these great crooners ... and then Elvis broke down barriers," Clemons said. "Musical history changed, man, and it brought us to Woodstock. ... The story behind the British invasion wasn't British bands coming to America, it was British rock bands bringing blues music back to America."
Taylor Hamilton and Jennlee Gunn stopped by the gallery while Clemons was setting up last week. He gave them an impromptu tour, showing off the signed guitars and more.
"I'm so excited," Gunn said. "We only had a sneak peek but, oh, my gosh, y'all, you're gonna have to come. There's so much musical history here."
The official Woodstock 50 concert, planned to run the same dates as the original, was recently canceled. But smaller celebrations, such as the one at Gallery 721, are happening all over the country, according to the folks at Woodstock.com, and that keeps the spirit of the festival alive — "a unique recipe of peace and music blended with community and love," site administrators posted.
The exhibit opened Thursday with a VIP party and fundraiser to benefit ReTree Panama City. It will remain open through Sept. 7, at 445 Harrison Ave. For more information, email email@example.com or visit Facebook.com/Gallery721.