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Lena Spencer; Gave Stage to Folk Singers

October 25, 1989|From Staff and Wire Reports

Lena Spencer, whose creaky, clapboard Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., was a training ground for a generation of folk singers and was also believed to be the nation's oldest continuously operating coffeehouse, died Monday. She was 66.

Ms. Spencer, who fed, nurtured and encouraged such folk and rock stars as Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Michael Cooney and Maria Muldaur, died at a hospital in Schenectady of injuries she suffered when she fell down a flight of stairs Sept. 10 at her 29-year-old coffeehouse.

"When I first met Lena Spencer," said Guthrie at an anniversary celebration two years ago, "I came to believe that she was someone I could trust. I stayed with her . . . and she took care of me."

Ms. Spencer and her then-husband, Bill Spencer, opened the coffeehouse in May, 1960, providing a needed stage early in the careers of such folk singers as Dylan, Guthrie, Muldaur, Don McLean, Pete Seeger, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, David Bromberg, Steve Goodman and John Phillips.

A loft cafe wedged between a handmade violin shop and a chicken shack on Phila Street, it featured flower boxes in the windows and seating for about 80.

Despite its fame, it always was a hand-to-mouth operation, fed occasionally by benefits and fund drives from supporters.

Coffeehouses and folk music were at their peak when the Spencers, who divorced more than 20 years ago, opened Caffe Lena. Over the years its eclectic fare included jazz, blues, country, bluegrass and sometimes political songs, all of it acoustical in a growing era of amplified music. And there never was any liquor.

"I'm committed to fostering folk music and the folk musicians who are equally committed to the idiom," she said in 1987.

"The Caffe is my whole existence, the be-all and end-all of my life," Ms. Spencer said in another interview earlier this year.

"I've weathered the (economic) crunch through determination, perseverance, hard work and a strong conviction that what I'm doing here is worth continuing."

When the popularity of folk music declined in the late 1970s, both Caffe Lena and its proprietress suffered. She took odd jobs, once earning $32 for a bit role in the movie "Ironweed," which was filmed in the Albany area. She had spent the last several years of her life living in a back room of her coffeehouse.

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