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A Woodstock for kids Featured

9:46am EDT July 22, 2002
It was the phone call Beth Kohn knew might come one day and dreaded. Kohn, a children’s entertainment event producer, had devoted countless hours to developing a musical program that was to be part of a huge, month-long children’s festival in Atlanta, Ga.

Her show, Kidstock, patterned after the generational icon Woodstock, was so successful that while it was being staged, national media organizations took note. It landed Kohn’s event in Billboard magazine.

For Kohn, it appeared her biggest worries would be selling tie-dyed T-shirts and coordinating the musicians’ schedules for the remainder of Kidstock’s run. But the event’s success not only caught the eye of a national audience, it grabbed the attention of the creators of Woodstock, who had recently purchased the trademark rights to the Kidstock name.

So with a few weeks left in Atlanta, Kohn found herself on the phone with one of those owners, who wanted to talk about the event.

“Of course, I freak out,” she recalls. “I call my attorney (and say), ‘Oh no, they caught me. I’m using their name.’”

That phone call could have led to the end of Kidstock, but it didn’t. Instead, it took Kohn to New York, where the door opened to an extraordinary opportunity which the soft-spoken, artistically driven Clevelander never imagined.

A few years earlier, Kohn, who also works as the director of event production for Eventworks Inc., was mired in the business of producing benefit parties.

She was mildly successful, but it wasn’t until she met David Jack, a children’s entertainer looking for bookings, that she hit her stride. Jack couldn’t afford to contract Kohn to act as a full-time booking agent, but he was willing to pay an agent’s fee for any shows she arranged.

“He wanted a marketing promotions person,” she says. “I knew nothing about booking talent, but I was up for the challenge. I started to do a lot of research and spent a few years learning the children’s entertainment business.”

Kohn traveled around the country with Jack, attending conferences and putting on shows.

“We did conferences. We did schools. I met more artists,” she says. “A lot of them said, ‘If you can book him, book me.’”

But it wasn’t as easy as she thought. Kohn quickly discovered that booking children’s entertainers in a world geared toward adults was akin to finding the latest toy craze for your five-year-old on Christmas Eve.

“It was a very hard business,” she recalls. “People are not geared toward spending money on children’s entertainment. You can go to a big fair or festival where they have huge talent and a children’s stage, and they’re spending $1 million on all the big talent. And for the children’s stage? There, they have a budget of $500.”

In the summer of 1997, Kohn decided that rather than book performers for other shows, she would leverage her expertise to produce a show of her own. She founded Dream Team Inc., and chose Chicago as a launching point. With the support of the city’s Children’s Museum and the financial backing of Sears, in early 1998 she staged a successful show. That prompted her to take the show on the road to as many cities as she could book.

“I called it Kidstock,” Kohn says. “During the course of all this, I decided to trademark the name. I went to a trademark attorney and he said, ‘You can’t use the name, it’s taken.’”

That didn’t sit well with Kohn, who put herself in an interesting situation.

“I have to use the name,” she explains. “I’m basing this whole thing on Woodstock. I ordered tie-dyed T-shirts. I ordered peace sign necklaces. It’s based on Woodstock. Each singer gets up there and they do 20 minutes, then they get off. It’s continuous. Just like Woodstock.”

But Kohn’s attorney didn’t budge. He had done a trademark search and found a woman in Minneapolis owned the name, but wasn’t using it.

“He said, ‘Find another name.’ I didn’t like the answer, so I called another attorney, explained the situation and he said, ‘Let me look into it.’”

The new attorney discovered that the Minneapolis woman had sold the name to the original producers of Woodstock, but they weren’t using it, either. So Kohn and her attorney came up with a plan.

“He (the attorney) told me, ‘We’re going to trademark it in Chicago.’ He said, ‘Let’s get through this first show and then we’re going to give you the state mark on it.’”

The plan, Kohn says, was to trademark the Kidstock name state by state.

“Eventually, we could appeal and say, ‘We’re using this and they’re doing nothing with it,’” she says.

Around the same time, Sears expressed an interest in backing shows in Houston and Atlanta, then returning to Chicago. For the entrepreneurial Kohn, it was like a dream come true. Her business idea was being brought to fruition.

In the summer of 1998, the month-long show in Atlanta finally gave Kohn some of the press she’d been looking for. And with it came that fateful call. But as it turned out, the trademark owners weren’t going to put the kibosh on Kohn’s show.

“They hold the trademark,” Kohn says. “They wanted to do something with it. They didn’t want to stop me; they wanted to work with me.”

So Kohn hopped on a plane and met with John Roberts, Joel Rosenman and Michael Lang, three of the original producers of Woodstock. They were impressed with Kohn’s work and had some ideas.

“I thought (her event) was delightful,” says Lang. “It was just scratching the surface of what we envision it could be, but she had a real feel for it.”

The trio saw a much broader event, Lang says, “a sort of a kids’ expo.”

Lang, Roberts and Rosenman agreed to allow Kohn to produce her smaller shows, but she would also help them create a Kidstock festival which followed in the footsteps of its musical elder. To give it the right feel, it would be held on the original Woodstock site. But before they held that concert, the trio wanted to bring Kidstock to Woodstock ’99.

Although the Woodstock ’99 producers were not encouraging children to attend, they knew many attendees would bring their children. Kidstock was set up to run six hours a day during the event to entertain those children and their parents.

“The first day that they opened up, kids overtook our stage,” Kohn recalls. “Our stuff got overtaken. The third day, after much stress and turmoil, Michael (Lang) put us on the third smaller stage. We performed Sunday, for one day. We were supposed to be there for three. (It was) nobody’s fault.”

If it comes as a surprise that there was a Kidstock at all at Woodstock ’99, it should. Kohn wasn’t allowed to publicize that part of the show because the producers didn’t want to promote children at the event.

But that was then, Kohn says. The focus now is on a Kidstock-only festival with a target date some time during the summer of 2000.

“If we do this festival, it’ll be the best thing,” she says. “I think it’s the way Kidstock should be. The way I’m doing it now, it’s expensive and it’s hard to sell. People aren’t geared toward children’s entertainment.”

For all its promise, the mystic aura surrounding the original Woodstock still carries power, Kohn says, which continues to spill over into other ventures.

“When I went with Michael to the original site of Woodstock last May, I had based the show on Woodstock,” Kohn says. “I had read their book about it and learned all about Woodstock. I became really knowledgeable to plan this show.”

Even the best laid plans, extensive research and business experience didn’t prepare Kohn for the feeling that rushed over her that day when the two of them stood and surveyed the event location.

“There I was on the original site with the original producer,” she says. “He was saying ‘That’s where we got our water from, that’s where the stage was, those were the fences that were up for four minutes before they knocked them (down).’ If nothing else, I did all this and it brought me here with him. To me, it was really cool. And that’s why I’m hoping that this festival takes off.”

With more than a fistful of event planning experience under her belt, Kohn knows there is, indeed, a viable market for children’s shows. Kidstock, she says, is proof.

“I think there are so many geared to adults that I keep saying to (Michael) that this is going to be successful and it’s going to be easy. I’ve told him I’m here to do it, all you have to do is get me started. I can take it from there and you can sit back.”

And if all goes the way Kohn expects and Kidstock takes off, she, Lang and the others will bring music to the ears of a new generation.

How to reach: Beth Kohn, Dream Team/Eventworks Inc. (216) 575-0177

Daniel G. Jacobs (djacobs@sbnnet.com) is senior editor at SBN.