Editor’s Note: You probably know Susan Farnsworth from her long tenure with the Saratoga Springs Downtown Business Association. Or the Saratoga County Fair. Or Hats Off / Final Stretch. Or even at SPAC – but as a planner, who was brought in as a consultant to help plan all the SPAC50 hoopla that you are enjoying this season. But what you don’t know is that Susie got a singular honor: To be asked to sit in as a performer on the SPAC stage as part of an ensemble when she was a Skidmore student in 1973! She acquired life-changing experiences at a formative age. And they happened at SPAC. I promised you when we began this series that we were going to surprise and dazzle you. Susan’s remembrances are one big way we are fulfilling this promise.
- Arthur Gonick
What I remember most about playing on the main stage at SPAC was that it took a long time to get over the amazing feeling of playing for thousands of people and I was too innocent to be scared. I was asked for my autograph. If I had been aware of the caliber of the local musicians with whom I was playing, I also should have been in awe. The band’s leader was from Ohio. I believe he was discovered in Chautauqua - by the wife of Craig Hankenson (the President of SPAC at the time). She brought him to Saratoga Springs. He wrote all the music and the lyrics to the songs we were rehearsing, and he had some musicians he brought with him from Ohio.
He put a sign up at Skidmore looking for a flute player, and I answered it; I auditioned and was accepted, I played flute and sang backup. I was happy because I was self-taught on the flute, and didn’t read music for this particular instrument. I started on clarinet in fourth grade and played it until about 10th grade. When my sister started on the flute, I picked that up and never looked back.
We rehearsed in a local farmhouse he rented from a dentist; there was an alleged deal with Columbia Records and we would be his studio musicians. We rehearsed 5 days a week, from 10 p.m. to about 2 a.m., then I would get up and go to classes. It was exhausting. I never once thought about money for this gig, as any musician who loves to play can tell you, this is the natural, default position. We didn’t play at local bars or music festivals, we only rehearsed for the album. So when we were asked to open at SPAC for Maria Muldaur (Midnight at the Oasis) and the Headliner, America (Horse with No Name), we said yes. I believe that is when we got some local musicians to join us (including Peter Davis and Butch Walkanowski).
The curtain went up, I remember looking out and being very happy that I couldn’t really make out the audience…thousands of faces. The original music was nothing to write home about, but the band was tight, the arrangements were great and we got applause. The adrenaline was ridiculous. The Columbia Record deal fell through, I doubt that I would have seriously considered leaving Skidmore for the road tour that would have been necessary, (I remember my father being extremely anxious about this possibility) but it was a moot point. That fall, the bandleader composed a song for me, for flute and guitar. We performed it together at the Spa Little Theater: me on flute, him on guitar, no vocals. I remember it was a haunting and beautiful piece. I played it from my soul. It was very different from his other music.
We got a standing ovation. That was the end of my musical performing career, I left on top. I have been friends with the local musicians that were on stage with me that night ever since. I remember that the bandleader and I were also hired to bring food and drinks specified in the performers’ riders backstage to the Green Room for a whole summer.
Two memories stand out to me from that; John Denver was furious that the string instruments kept going out of tune during his first set because it was not a climate controlled environment, and he threatened to leave at intermission. The other was Linda Ronstadt was on the stage, and I was in the wings about 15 feet from her. She is a tiny little thing. She opened her mouth and belted out a song with a fullness and volume that astonished me. I couldn’t believe that it could be coming out of her tiny frame. SPAC was an important part of my life the whole 40+ years that I lived in Saratoga Springs, from the Jazz Festival to the Ballet, Orchestra and special rock concerts.
I was thrilled to be asked to help plan the 50th Anniversary season celebration, and spent 3 ½ years working with Marcia White and the SPAC team. I left the country in January 2016, the parts of the celebration planning I did were finished, and I am watching everything unfold -one after another -from afar.
Congratulations to everyone.
Susan Farnsworth now resides in Israel with her husband and his family.