A movie about Thanksgiving

In Fall 2006 I set out to explore Western Massachusetts and see a few Bob Dylan concerts in the process. I started by taking a train from New York to Boston, for a two-night stand at the Agganis Arena. Jack White’s side project, the Raconteurs, was the opening act on this tour and I remember the house music included the Ramones’ “Sheena is a Punk Rocker.” The rest of those two shows don’t stand out in any particular way, possibly because my seats weren’t very good and nothing out of the ordinary happened.

After Boston I had a couple of days before Dylan returned to the state to play the University of Massachusetts Amherst, so I took a bus out that way and rented a car for the first time. (I’d been to Amherst once before, in 2004, to see Dylan perform there, but that trip was just one night and I stayed in college housing.) Okay, you might be thinking, but what does this have to do with Thanksgiving?

Well, the answer is not Bob Dylan, at least not in full. Instead, these couple of days were devoted to Arlo Guthrie and finding Alice’s Restaurant. For several years, maybe as many as 5 in a row, my family developed the tradition of watching the movie Alice’s Restaurant sometime during the Thanksgiving holiday. If you’re not familiar with the song or the larger story, please do yourself a favor and seek one or both of them out!

The movie more or less tells the same story as the song, but it includes filler by using some of Arlo’s biographical details, like a scene with his ailing father in the hospital. The heart of the movie, however, takes place at a large white church owned by Ray and Alice Brock, who decide to throw a large feast for Thanksgiving. Arlo, of course, gets into trouble when he tries to help clean up afterwards, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The real “Alice’s Restaurant” was located in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, about a hour’s drive west from Amherst, and it was called The Back Room. I remember finding a sign showing where the restaurant used to be, but there wasn’t much more to the downtown that compelled me to linger (Norman Rockwell fans may disagree!). Instead, I used one of those colorful souvenir maps to find the church, otherwise known as the Guthrie Center.

When I got to the church I had a moment’s hesitation about parking and I didn’t know what to expect, but a woman quickly appeared to welcome me and ushered me inside. Again, I don’t remember much, but I do recall standing in the space talking to her about being an archivist, and she said, “oh we need one of those!” Nowadays it looks like they’ve established the Guthrie Center as the site for Arlo’s archives and those of other members of his family, excluding Woody’s papers, which can be found in Tulsa.

Photo from guthriecenter.org

On my return trip to Amherst I stopped in Northampton to walk around a bit, visiting a used book store and the local yarn store, but I was a new knitter at the time and became quickly overwhelmed by all the different kinds of yarn. I saw the site of the Iron Horse Music Hall, which is perhaps a venue for my concert bucket list; it’s one of those places I typically see on tour schedules but have never tried to see a show there.

The following day, November 15th, Dylan returned to play at UMass Amherst. It’s amazing to look back at the set lists and see the variety of songs he played, especially compared to his shows today that have little if any variety. But the most exciting thing to happen at the show, was after it was over. I always like to watch the roadies take apart the stage, and as I was standing in the bleachers, I saw a piece of paper on the floor of the first row of seats, just past the stage. I went over to the student worker guarding access to the area, and said, “I’m just going to run down there and grab that paper,” which turned out to be the Raconteurs set list. But as I was reaching down, I heard a voice say, “if you take that it’ll be an even better souvenir.” I look up to see Dylan’s main roadie motioning over to a cracked snare drum head sitting on the edge of the barrier. It was also from the Raconteurs’ set, and as I started to thank him profusely he just shook his head and said something like, “I’m not allowed to talk to you.” Probably on Bob’s orders…but it was enough of an out-of-this-world moment that I began hyperventilating and a woman in the restroom asked me if I was okay.

****

Fast forward to a few Thanksgivings ago, and my mom was looking for something to watch on TV. I noticed that the Last Waltz was about to start, and recommended that we watch it. “Why?” she asked. Because, I said, it’s a movie about Thanksgiving! (It isn’t really, but music fans will know that it starts with a feast, and indeed, I’m not the only one to call it a “Thanksgiving movie.”)

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