Palm Beach Music and Art Festival, Florida, 1969

Palm Beach Music and Art Festival, Florida, 1969
Authored By John Nicholson

The event was both the first and the last held in Palm Beach. It drew 40,000 people to the 149-acre Palm Beach International Speedway.

As was typical; local officials worried about health, sanitation and traffic, who were mortified by images of drugs and sex they'd seen three months earlier at Woodstock.

Local opposition was immediate from Florida's Republican governor, Claude Kirk, and rumour had it that President Nixon's cronies were at work behind the scenes doing whatever they could to disrupt it. They didn't want no hippies in their county doin' that stuff that they do, so, again, as per usual, they denied a permit to promoter David Rupp, who'd bought the track at foreclosure.

As was also often the case - the hippie promoter was smarter than The Man. He got around the lack of permit somehow but gained a new obstacle: Sheriff William Heidtman, who I imagine looked like one of the prison warders in Cool Hand Luke.

The sheriff set up surveillance cameras and positioned 150 deputies around the clock at nearby Pratt & Whitney to keep an eye on all the goddamn freaks arriving. He vowed to make life miserable for the free-loving, pot-smoking, anti-establishment youngsters who were coming to the Palm Beach Pop Festival. He threatened to herd alligators toward the crowd, gathered on a grassy field at the Palm Beach International Raceway. And he promised to dig out fire ant colonies and relocate them at the venue. 

Wow, he sounds like a bundle of laughs. Getting 'gators to eat hippies doesn't sound legal to me. 

The opposition from the authorities were overcome but there was no getting over the weather. Chilling rain fell and temperatures dropped into the 40s and in a repeat of so many late 60s festival disasters, vendors ran short of food and many of the 300 portable toilets were dismantled for firewood, hopefully not while they were being used.

Musically, the Palm Beach Pop Festival boasted a host of A-listers. The Rolling Stones performed there the day after a Madison Square Garden gig immortalized on the group's live album Get Yer Ya Yas Out. Aside from the notorious Altamont gig a month later, it was the Stones' only U.S. festival appearance that year.

Other bands included the Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, Spirit, the Byrds, Grand Funk Railroad, Iron Butterfly, Country Joe & the Fish, Chicago Transit Authority, the Chambers Brothers, Vanilla Fudge, King Crimson, Sly & the Family Stone, and the Moody Blues. It was an absolutely brilliant line-up of bands.

Area leaders feared the hordes of hippies and itinerant outsiders would create a catastrophe and poison the minds of the local youth, not realising that the local youth were already hip to the scene. Ironically, it took an underground people's minister from Los Angeles named the Rev. Arthur Blessitt, who made the trek at the behest of the promoter, to assuage the evangelicals who were freaking out about these Godless kids.

Photographer Ken Davidoff says It had rained for about a week, leaving it very swampy on the edge of the Everglades. On the first day, late in the afternoon, just as Iron Butterfly hit the stage with 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,' a strong cold front moved in, sending torrents of rain from the sky (where else would it come from, Ken?). The temperatures plummeted down to near freezing. The local newspaper called it 'Woodstock South.'

Funny how Woodstock was, even just a few months later, the brand that everyone used as a shorthand description for a festival.

Joplin slagged off Heidtman and Gov. Claude Kirk on stage and sang while drinking from a bottle of Southern Comfort. Yeah!

The Rolling Stones, paid $100,000, went on at 4am on Monday and played a short set for the few hardy souls still there.

Some weird stats were released to local newspapers after the event. There were 130 drug overdoses, 14 eye injuries, 42 intestinal disorders, 1,700 headaches and minor cuts (who counted the amount of headaches and how?!), 1,000 reported conversions to Christianity (exactly 1000?!), 130 drug arrests, and one death, of a poor teenager struck by a truck. Promoter Rupp lost $300,000 to $500,000, "all the cash I had and all that I'd borrowed."

In 1999, Heidtman who would die at 91 in 2007 dismissed as myths reports he planted alligators in canals and red ants in the fields, saying Florida always supplies plenty. But he did unapologetically say, "If I had it to do over again, I'd try to stop it." Boo.

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