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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.

— “Lena, in her early years was extraordinarily energetic. It’s easy for people who knew her later in life when her health was not as good to not realize just how much energy she put not only into the Caffé, but what we would today call outreach, and how she encouraged the coffee house as a local place for teenagers to drop in. She was also involved in community events. If there was a community festival, particularly in the old Italian neighborhood…she’d be there with food. And she would bring along people who were musicians who were in the café’s orbit,” said Ward.

Spencer’s connection to the community, such as the fact that every year at Christmas time, she held a reading of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” may not be as well known as those that talk of her taking a road trip to Boston to track down Bob Dylan to get him to perform at the Caffé, but to many they’re just as important.

“She had become part of the Saratoga scene. She had become someone and the Caffé had become someplace that was as integral to Saratoga’s image of itself…The Caffé was also an extended family of choice for some people, and that never really went away,” said Ward.

Arem said that while Caffè Lena is recognized as an important cultural site, the full impact of its role in music history remains largely unappreciated.

“We hope the results of this project will be used as teaching tools to help students, cultural historians and aspiring performers better understand the value of a local landmark, that local organizations will use this information to fill in a missing piece of local cultural history, and that the project will enhance the Caffè’s upcoming capital campaign to renovate its building and prepare its space for future generations of performers,” said Arem.

The history project is still collecting audio and video recordings made at the venue from 1960 through today for preservation. If you have Caffè Lena recordings to donate you can visit Caffélenahistory.org for information on how to contribute.

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