Chevy Chase will be in Woodstock this weekend for three events: He and wife Jayni will be awarded the Lifetime Environmental Achievement Award at the Catskill Mountainkeeper’s Barnfest on June 22, and then the next day he’ll be hosting a fundraiser at Opus 40 to restore damage done to Harvey Fite’s sprawling stone masterpiece by the recent hurricane. That night, he and Jayni will head to Kingston for the performance at Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC) by fellow Saturday Night Live veteran Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, wife of Paul Simon, a friend of Chase’s [also featured in this edition of Almanac Weekly]. But it’s not just a critical mass of events that is luring the Chases to the mid-Hudson Valley: Turns out that Chevy has deep roots in Woodstock’s artist community and probably knows the town better than most of us. Let him tell you about it himself, in an e-mail interview he conducted with Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods a couple days ago from Chicago, where he and Jayni were attending this year’s Clinton Global Initiative:
Chevy Chase: I was born and raised in Manhattan, but I spent weekends and summers in Woodstock in my childhood and youth. My father was born in Woodstock the very year that his father and uncle, Edward Leigh Chase and Frank Swift Chase, were instrumental in founding the Woodstock Artists Association. The brothers were early residents of the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony, a bohemian commune of a sort established in 1902 just up Rock City Road from the Village Green in Woodstock. They came up from the Art Students League in Manhattan to paint landscapes in the spirit of the Hudson River School. The Byrdcliffe Colony, which made Woodstock the creative community it is, was inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, a reaction against urbanization and the Industrial Revolution.
My parents met in Woodstock in 1939 and got married two years later, gifting the world with my elder brother Ned and me. (Well, more me than Ned, it goes without saying.) As a city kid I loved our escapes to the Catskills. We weekended there year-round. My grandfather was a resident artist throughout his life, and I loved to visit him at his studio/house in Byrdcliffe. I attended the “Little Red Schoolhouse” in Woodstock during my kindergarten years. Summers we ran wild. I learned to swim at “Big Deep” on the Mill Stream, which courses through town. Winters we sledded on hills from Saugerties to Phoenicia. And there were always the mountains, the “Healing Mountains” of my Native American ancestors. (We’re descended from the Mohawks, generations back to the 18th century.)
The Catskills hold a magical place in my memories as a city kid. Woodstock lies entirely within the Catskill Preserve, and so to me the work of Catskill Mountainkeeper is extremely important. I’m proud that this organization is honoring my wife Jayni and me this year for our lifelong commitment to our Earth’s environment. Jayni’s a tireless environmental activist, as you’re likely aware.
Almanac Weekly: Do you still spend time here? What keeps bringing you back?
Chase: What’s not to love? The Catskills are glorious. And yes, I still visit Woodstock. I have family here. My youngest sister lives in Catskill and my younger brother lives in the village. Our recently deceased mother rests in the Woodstock Artists Cemetery, across Rock City Road from the town “Rec Field” where I played ball as a kid and where Catskill Mountainkeeper’s fifth annual Barnfest will honor Jayni and me this June 22. My grandfather and granduncle, the Chase brothers of Old Byrdcliffe, lie in that old cemetery, too. It’s an extremely exclusive club I’m trying not too hard to get into…
What I love most, besides the enduring natural beauty of the Catskill region, is its creative culture and thriving artist communities. Towns like New Paltz, Phoenicia, Saugerties, Catskill and Hudson host studios, galleries and artistic and spiritual centers where imaginative folk still paint, sculpt, photograph, farm, write, make music and practice healing arts. The Hudson Valley is full of energy and activity. My eldest daughter attends Bard College, my alma mater, right across the river from Kingston and Woodstock. And it’s all a pleasant drive from my home in Westchester, just outside New York City.