Festival House Lenox 1950-1961

From 1950 to 1961 Bruno and Claire Aron owned what is now Ventfort Hall and ran it as a hotel for culture oriented travelers of all races and religions. Festival House was a precursor of many attitudes and activities important to Lenox today.

Claire and Bruno Aron

Claire and Bruno were first generation Americans in a family of Eastern European Jewish heritage.

Claire and Bruno Aaron Grew Up in New York and Went to City College
Claire and Bruno Aron Grew Up in New York and Went to City College

They both loved culture and were very concerned with social justice.  Bruno left his job at the Pittsfield Jewish Community Center in 1949 and started looking for other opportunities in the Berkshires.  Bruno and his family loved the beauty of the Berkshires and wanted to increase opportunities for others to visit.  While working at the Pittsfield Jewish Community Center, Bruno was often contacted by Jews traveling to Tanglewood about where they could stay when attending concerts, so he was aware of the discriminatory practices of some lodgers at the time and wanted to create a place that would welcome all visitors.  Demonstrating foresight on what was to come, he and Claire also envisioned leveraging the attractions of Tanglewood to make the Berkshires a cultural destination.

Ventfort – Tracy –  Hall Became Festival House

Ventfort Hall, then called Tracy Hall, had not been lived in for twenty years as of 1950 and was in foreclosure.

Ventfort Hall (Then Called Tracy Hall) was in Foreclosure When It Was Purchased in 1950 by the Aaron's
Ventfort Hall (Then Called Tracy Hall) was in Foreclosure When It Was Purchased in 1950 by the Arons

With its proximity to Tanglewood, the Arons thought it would be an excellent way to achieve their vision.  They purchased Tracy Hall in 1950 and called it Festival House.  The furnace had to be replaced and the vacant house had to be furnished, but they did manage to open for summer of 1950.

By the summer of 1951 they had bumped out the dining room

Dining Room as it Appearing During Festival House - Bruno and Judith
Dining Room as it Appearing During Festival House – Bruno and Judith Aron

to create a larger, first floor kitchen (previously the only kitchen had been in the basement) and were able to  begin offering the kind of affordable culture they had envisioned.

 

Festival House Offered Affordable, Open Accommodations for Tanglewood
Festival House Offered Affordable, Open Accommodations for Tanglewood

Instruction in Arts and Crafts for Guests at Festival House

To encourage longer stays and fully realize their vision, Claire and Bruno invited artist Anthony Tony and his family to join them and gave him a free hand in creating an arts program.

Festival House Guests could Watch Artists Paint and Do Their Own Landscapes From the Porch
Festival House Guests Could Watch Artists Paint and Do Their Own Landscapes From the Porch

Hotel guests and other Berkshire visitors were given the opportunity to study with a variety of artists as well as to attend art evaluations, sketch groups, trips,  life classes and modeling.

In addition to painting and drawing, instructional offerings were eventually expanded to include sculpture, pottery, leather craft, and woodwork.  Students would often display their work on the walls of what had been,

Art on the Italian Garden Walls at Festival House
Art on the Italian Garden Walls at Festival House

in the George and Sarah Morgan era, the Italian Garden (remnants still stand between Ventfort Hall and the carriage house.)

As the reputation and network for the program grew, Festival House saw a constant stream of artists who often displayed their work at Festival House.  When space became available at Lenox Library for an art show, it became the precursor to Lenox’s (according to the Aron sisters) first art gallery.  Claes Oldenburg was one of the curators.

Lenox Art Gallery - Initiated by Festival House
Lenox Art Gallery – Initiated by Festival House

Festival House Encountered Some Resistance From the Conservative Attitudes of the Lenox of the 1950’s

To encourage longer stays and add to the cultural offerings at Festival House. the Arons launched a series of plays.  Bruno considered the existing theatre in the Berkshires, at Stockbridge and Williamsville to be “insubstantial.” Bruno approached a New York city group that trained future actors, the Theater Lab,  and they agreed to perform in exchange for lodging at Festival House.  With characteristic ingenuity the Arons located seating and a dimmer board they installed in the carriage house and proceeded to put on an international drama festival as follows in 1953

Festival House Used the Carriage House to Put on a Series of Plays in 1953
Festival House Used the Carriage House to Put on a Series of Plays in 1953
  • Street Scenes by Elmer Price for the United States
  • Lysistrata by Aristophanes for Greece
  • The House of Bernardo Alba by Garcia Lorca for Spain
  • The Madwoman of Chailleot by Guardoux for France
  • Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky for Russia.

The plays were declared, by the Eagle,  to be the most meaningful and outstanding theatre in the Berkshires.  However, the permit to perform was not renewed because of complaints that:

  • there was too much late night noise
  • some of the actors were seen in town dressed inappropriately.

Hard to imagine today, but Madeline recalled this being a time when women who arrived wearing anything other than a skirt were loaned  one to wear for the concerts at Tanglewood.

And even in the late 1950’s, Festival House was initially denied a liquor license because “Blacks and other questionable characters stayed there.”

Classical and Popular Music and Dancing Came to Festival House as Well

Housing Tanglewood visitors and performers had been part of the original vision for Festival House.

Lenox Quartet Practicing at Festival House
Lenox Quartet Practicing at Festival House

Four of he BSO musicians who stayed at Festival House eventually agreed to play twice a week in exchange for room and board. With the Aron’s encouragement they eventually formed the Lenox Quartet.

But the music wasn’t limited to classical.  The Aron daughters described Festival House as a “Hopping Place.”  Some nights there was classical music in the lobby,  folk dancing in the main lounge, folk singing in the library and drumming on the back porch.

Unknown Singer Leading Folk Singing at Festival House
Unknown Singer Leading Folk Singing at Festival House

Although the Aron daughters could not identify the man pictured, they said it was typical of a folk singing night.  Note the records displayed.  Vanguard Records recognized the audience coming to Festival House and used it as a marketing

Name to follow - Folksinger and Songwriter
Irving Burgie – Folksinger and Songwriter

venue.  Performers  included Pete Seeger, trumpeter Dizzy Gilespie, jazz pianist Randy Weston and singer Odetta.  Irving Burgie, pictured here, regularly played calypso and wrote songs picked up by Harry Belafonte and the Kingston Trio.

Pete Seeger Was a Regular at Festival House - At a Time When He Was Blacklisted
Pete Seeger Was a Regular at Festival House – At a Time When He Was Blacklisted

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In addition to the performing arts, there were lectures on the lawn and fireside chats.

Festival House Cultural Activities Included Lectures on the Lawn and Fireside Chats
Festival House Cultural Activities Included Lectures on the Lawn and Fireside Chats

Dining, Entertainment and Accommodations

To create further inducements for longer stays, the Aron’s added a pool in what had been the Italian garden.

A Pool Was Installed in What Had Been the Morgan's Italian Garden
A Pool Was Installed in What Had Been the Morgan’s Italian Garden

They turned the gardener’s tool shed into a snack bar.  it was one of the first pools in Lenox.  They also installed a tennis court and had a ping pong table on the back porch.

Ping Pong Table on Festival House Back Porch
Ping Pong Table on Festival House Back Porch with Young Madeline Aron

Dining included breakfast, dinner and boxed lunches for Tanglewood performances.

Dining at Festival House Included Breakfast, Dinner and Box Lunches for Tanglewood Concerts
Dining at Festival House Included Breakfast, Dinner and Box Lunches for Tanglewood Concerts

The Aron daughters report their father considered the box lunch a new innovation.  Another part of the Tanglewood tradition at Festival House was the presentation of baked Alaska for guests returning after concerts.

To increase revenues, the Arons rented the property off season (initially the Tanglewood season was only four weeks long).

Festival House Rented for Special Events and Meetings
Festival House Rented for Special Events and Meetings

They also let the youth hostel network use the carriage house.

Expansion and Exit

Several years after Madeline was born in 1951, the Arons built a small house

In 1953 the Family Moved Out of the "Big House" to 126 Walker - Across the Lawn From Festival House
In 1953 the Family Moved Out of the “Big House” to 126 Walker (Street Numbers Appear to Have Changed to 132 Walker)

on Walker St. (across the lawn from Festival House),  so they didn’t have to heat the big house all winter and to provide some family space during the summer.  Previously they had lived in an upstairs bedroom at Festival House that had been converted into an apartment .

The number of guests continued to grow so they purchased purchased another property

The Aaron's Purchased sss Walker St. for Festival House Staff and Overflow Guests - They Called It Sunnyside
The Aron’s Purchased this Walker St. Property for Festival House Staff and Overflow Guests – They Called It Sunnybank

across the street for staff and overflow guests.  They called the property “Sunnybank,” and continued to operate it as a guest house for several years after they sold Festival House.

 

By 1961 a number of new venues had come into existence – including Music Inn – and the Arons felt that their goals of opening up the Berkshires had been achieved.  They also wanted to allow Bruno to stop having to commute to New York (where he worked selling Israeli bonds), to provide better care for Claire’s rheumatoid arthritis, and to give Madeline and Judith more options for schooling.  So they sold Festival House and moved to New York city.

What would eventually return to being Ventfort Hall then became, for several years,  the home of the Folkine Ballet.

All of the above is with thanks to Madeline and Judith Aron (Lite) who gave a lecture at Ventfort Hall Oct. 11, 2014 on their experiences as children at Festival House.

 

Judith Aron Lite (b.1948) - at Ventfort Hall Talk on Festival House 10-11-14
Judith Aron Lite (b.1948) – at Ventfort Hall Talk on Festival House 10-11-14
DSC_0854
Madeline Aron (b. 1951) Giving Talk on Festival House at Venter Hall October 11, 2014

See You Tube –Lenox History Channel for 3 videos capturing most of the talk by the Aron daughters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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