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The life and times of a landmark

Caffé Lena’s long history being recorded, commemorated in comprehensive look back

Don McLean, famous for “American Pie” among other songs, at CafféLena, circa 1970. An effort to document and restore the venue’s records is underway, and hoped to be completed in 2013 in time for what would be Lena Spencer’s 90th birthday.

Don McLean, famous for “American Pie” among other songs, at CafféLena, circa 1970. An effort to document and restore the venue’s records is underway, and hoped to be completed in 2013 in time for what would be Lena Spencer’s 90th birthday.

— An effort to memorialize the history Caffé Lena, the iconic music and theater venue in Saratoga Springs — even as the Phila Street mainstay continues to operate.

Deemed the longest running folk club/coffee house in the country and formed by Lena Spencer, the landmark will live on for generations to come through the Caffé Lena History Project.

Spencer died in 1989, and since then the café has been operating as a nonprofit organization. Today, Caffé Lena still holds hundreds of shows a year and remains a regional draw for music lovers. The documenting of its history stems from the interest of Jocelyn Arem, a Skidmore graduate who is now at the helm of the project that started in earnest in 2002, along with Sarah Craig, the venue’s director.

“The Caffè Lena History Project began as a capstone fieldwork study and research paper during my undergraduate days at Skidmore. I’d been intrigued by the history of Caffè Lena since I climbed those mysterious stairs during my first months of school to perform at open mic night and Sarah offered me my first professional gig,” said Arem in an email. “I soon began spending my free time in between classes volunteering and absorbing live music at the Caffè, and trying to learn as much as I could about its legendary place in music history.”

Also helping with the project is musician George Ward, who hasbeen connected to Caffé Lena and knew Spencer from the beginning. His role inthe project is to do some of the things that Arem can’t from her home in North Carolina, most notably inventorying the Caffé Lena archive at the Saratoga Historical Society.

“Lena's artist files have led us to some former Caffé artists with great stories about the place, people whom we otherwise might have missed,” said Ward, who is a folklorist in addition to his musical talents.

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