Most if not all of us in the Capital Region are familiar with Caffe Lena. We go for the legendary folk music or to see up- and-coming performers at the open mic nights and for the sense of community. It’s been a Saratoga staple since 1960 and the stories surrounding the place abound, as do the stories surrounding its founder, Lena Spencer.
She’s an intriguing person, who had an eccentric management style and a dogged passion to keep the coffeehouse going.
“Lena: A Life in Folk,” a new documentary from WMHT, which premieres tonight, sheds light on Spencer’s childhood and on what led her to open a coffee shop that eventually became a musical institution.
Producer Nicole Van Slyke began working on the film last year, interviewing people like Andy Spence founder of Old Songs, and Sarah Craig, the executive director of Caffe Lena. After some digging, Van Slyke was able to find some of Spencer’s extended family, namely her first cousin Marie Nagri Mollo.
The film opens with a voice singing “Lena is the queen of Saratoga,” and it weaves together stories from people who knew Spencer, as well as photos and videos of Spencer herself, including recordings of her singing original songs.
There’s also a narration of her autobiography, which Craig found at Caffe Lena not long after she started working there.
Spencer was born in 1923 in Milford, Massachusetts, and given the name Pasqualina Rosa Nagri by her parents, who were both Italian immigrants. She had a difficult childhood; while she was born a twin, her sibling died shortly after being born and her mother committed suicide when Spencer was quite young.
According to Mollo, Spencer was very quiet as a child.
“She read a lot. Her father thought she was wasting her time reading [but] I think that’s how she broadened her interest,” Mollo said in the film.
“I think that because she was reading so much she really wanted to become an actress and [be] in the theater. So she had this secret side to her where she wanted to be a performer, be in an arts community but she wasn’t allowed to,” Van Slyke said.
Spencer would run off to New York City and go to the theaters, museums and jazz clubs. She had a few dreams of becoming a songwriter as well as an actress. In one recording included in the film, Spencer reflects on that time: “The songs you’re going to hear are songs that I wrote when I was a starry-eyed songwriter hoping that I was going to become the female Irving Berlin.”
As a single woman, she was stuck working at a family restaurant until she was in her early 30s when she broke away and found work in Boston. Shortly after, she met Bill Spencer, a sculptor at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
“He was also into music but he had a dreamer mentality where he wanted to make some money quickly and then move to Europe,” Van Slyke said.
They got married in 1958 and moved to Saratoga Springs the following year, opening Caffe Lena in 1960.
“They wanted to open a cafe because coffee houses were really new at that time and they were hoping to make a lot of money in two years and then move to Europe and travel. But when they opened it it was really going to be a theater and an art gallery, with Italian coffee and treats.
“Then there would just be some music there,” Van Slyke said.
“She wasn’t trying to be a concert venue. It wasn’t supposed to be a place where people went to listen to music.”
The coffeehouse quickly gained a following, however, it wasn’t as financially successful as the Spencers hoped. Three years into the business, Bill left Lena for a Skidmore woman, eventually divorcing Lena.
“She stayed on. People tried to get her to say exactly why but she said she just didn’t want to leave. Some of her friends said they think she stayed because she didn’t want to lose the community that she’d formed. They started to get the theater going and she really wanted to be an actress and she didn’t really have anything for her back in Milford,” Van Slyke said.
Lucky for Saratoga Springs, she stayed on to run the coffeehouse.
She was always scouting for new talent, visiting major cities to find the next thing in folk.
“She would take from train to New York City or Boston and go to coffee houses and unabashedly walk right up to [musicians] and say to them ‘would you like to come up to my cafe in Saratoga?’ She got the young Bob Dylan; the rumors are this is the first place he played outside of New York City. Arlo Guthrie, these names that are now huge,” Van Slyke said.
Many musicians would stay with Spencer at her spacious apartment and she would cook them dinner.
On top of that, she would often produce plays and theatrical productions, keeping her other dreams of acting alive.
“They still did a lot of theater work. They never became famous for that but I think that was her passion. At the back of the cafe was this tiny little black box theater. Most of the old photos I have of her was her in a play,” Van Slyke said. Her claim to fame is her role in “Ironweed,” which starred the likes of Meryl Strep.
However, Caffe Lena remained her focus.
“She really did depend heavily on help because she did not have the resources, financial or physical to do everything that needed to be done,” Field Horne said in the film.
The historian was also one of the people who Spencer often recruited to help wait tables or help keep the place running.
“She was able to mobilize people to keep her dream alive,” Horne said.
During the 1980s, people in power around Saratoga Springs started to recognize the impact Spencer had. In 1984, Saratoga Springs mayor Ellsworth Jones declared Lena Spencer Day and three years later Skidmore College awarded her a Doctor of Humane Letters.
However, in the same decade, coffeehouses went out of style and attendance numbers lowered.
“She got very discouraged in the ’80s and wanted to know why people didn’t come anymore,” Andy Spence of Old Songs said in the documentary.
Spencer’s health was also failing.
“She didn’t take care of herself at all. She took care of the cafe,” Van Slyke said.
In her later years, she became homeless, eventually living in the Caffe. It’s unclear exactly how long she lived there, but according to Van Slyke Spencer spent most of her nights in a recliner at the back of the Caffe.
When she died in 1989, shortly after falling down a set of stairs outside the Caffe, there was a scramble to figure out what should happen with the coffeehouse. She didn’t leave the institution to anyone; though there were enough people who wanted to see what she’d started kept alive.
Eventually, a board of directors came together and the legacy of Spencer continued on and grew.
Van Slyke said one thing she tried to stress with the film was that Caffe Lena didn’t die when Spencer did.
“She created it and she pushed it in the direction it’s going but it’s still very much alive and it’s probably thriving more now,” Van Slyke said, adding, “I think they do a really good job of holding her existence on a pedestal but not forgetting that they have to move forward.”
“Lena: A Life in Folk”
WHEN: 8 p.m. tonight (Sept. 19)
MORE INFO: wmht.org