Saturday, August 15, 2009

Whatever happened to the Port-O-San Cleaner from Woodstock?

(Update 4/30/2016: Whoa. WHOA! HOLY (Awed and stunned cursing inserted here). Mr. Taggart if you're re-reading this blog my email link is here, please get back in touch with me at your best convenience.)

Today is August 15th. It was 40 years ago today in 1969 that a bunch of enterprising hippies started what they thought would be a modest-sized 3-day festival out in the hills of New York state.

I grew up after, being born in 1970, with the Myth of Woodstock permeating the American culture well into today. Having one of the best film documentaries of all time playing every so often on PBS or Bravo or Biography channels (did MTV ever broadcast it? Probably, but I bet VH1 did a few years) didn't hurt.

The Woodstock documentary is pretty long (director's cut on DVD prolly moreso), and let's face it away from showcasing the musical performances it does meander and get self-referential/self-indulgent. But there are images and sounds you can never ignore: Richie Havens' impromptu jam of "Motherless Child" turning into a uniquely brilliant song "Freedom"; nuns flashing peace signs; the mud baths; Wavy Gravy being relatively saner than usual and warning others about the brown acid; Hendrix's Monday morning wake-up call with the bomb-sonic "Star-Spangled Banner," as the movie comes to a close with images of before (the calm rolling hills of farmland) and after (the mounds of trash and mud left behind by indulgent hippies, damn for a bunch of bleeding-heart do-gooders you can't clean up your own pollution?!).

But the bit that stays in my mind was added toward the end, a brief interview with one of the few guys actually working that weekend: the Port-O-San cleaner.

Update: trying to replay the YouTube clip...

Here's this middle-aged guy, doing back-breaking work - and you don't see a crew there it looks like he's doing this solo, cleaning up after all the damn dirty hippies - and there's no anger or bitterness about him, he's just doing his job, and he says "Glad to be doing it for these kids. My son's here too. And I got one over in Vietnam too. Up in the DMZ now, flying helicopters."

Boom. Right there. One of the other things that Woodstock captured was the moment in history America was deep in a war. A war that had become increasingly unpopular, and not just with the hippies. Even by 1969 Vietnam didn't look like it was going to end well, but kids kept going over there as soldiers, families all across the nation had to recognize what the cleaner guy was going through. And there he was, a son in 'Nam, a son at Woodstock...

David Crosby mentioned the Port-O-San guy in an interview quote in Rolling Stone back in August 24th 1989 issue (can't find a full-text link, so check your local library!). Film reviewer Roger Ebert also took note. Crosby and I - and probably a few million others - all had pretty much the same question: What happened to that guy? What happened to his sons? Did his son survive Vietnam? Did his son survive Woodstock (I'm talking metaphorically here)?

Every so often, when this time of year comes around, I took a moment to dig about, try to see if anything available in the libraries - histories, newspaper articles, stuff like that - would provide some light on that question. Finally, someone updated a trivia note on the IMDb entry: the guy had sued the filmmakers "...on the grounds of mental anguish, embarrassment, public ridicule, and invasion of privacy. An appellate court opinion in this lawsuit may be read at Taggart v. Wadleigh-Maurice, Ltd., 489 F.2d 434 (3d Cir. 1973)."


This was kinda heart-breaking. Here he was, one of the real heroes of the Woodstock festival, filing a lawsuit out of what seemed to be anguish. Were people harassing him over his appearance in the film? What happened?

A link here to a copy of the transcripts to that court case.

36. Taggart contends that the sequence in which he was interrogated while performing his necessary though not necessarily pleasant employment was edited into the 'documentary' in such a way as to achieve, at his expense, a comic effect. That this may well have been the intended and actual effect is supported by evidence in the record of the reaction of critics. For example, Kathleen Carroll, the critic, stated 'The funniest scene shows the latrine attendant proudly demonstrating his job.' Craig McGregor, writing in the New York Times, April 19, 1970, stated '. . . and the man who is the real schizophrenic hero of Woodstock, the Port-O-San man, who empties the latrines of the beautiful people and has one son there at Woodstock and another flying a DMZ helicopter in Vietnam.' Taggart contends that while he was engaged in his ordinary work he was without warning, and without consent, drawn into a conversation and photographed so that the sequence could be used as a key part of the theme of the 'documentary' which was being prepared as a commercial enterprise.
37. When Taggart learned that he had been included in the commercial film he protested to the defendants, but they refused to delete the scene and proceeded to distribute the film nationwide. As a result, he alleges, he has suffered mental anguish, embarrassment, public ridicule, and invasion of his right to privacy which has detrimentally affected his social and family life and his employment. His deposition supports his contention that such ongoing damaging effects have occurred and are continuing...

Ouch. Well, I have to admit if I had been filmed and ended up in a movie without any compensation or right to say how I get shown in said film, I might be angry as well. The filmmakers contended as the defendants that, basically, they interviewed Taggart as he was part of a "newsworthy event," and as such isn't protected by most if any of the right to privacy laws. I'm not a lawyer, and I'm having a hard time figuring out what the appellate court is actually saying, but it looks like they're ordering the lower court to re-try the case in Taggart's favor. Dunno where it goes from there. Probably got settled out of court. Might need to check the New York court cases...

I'm still concerned though. Was Taggart getting hassled at work or at home by people for being in the movie? For being the Port-O-San guy? I've been scanning the 'Net, there's forums and blog entries here and there, and not one person is saying bad things about him. He makes the movie: some commenters say his part in the movie is the best one, way more than any of the performers. Maybe back then, back in the 70s when everyone was sulking away from the 60s like a bad dream, and people went out of their way to hassle any leftover hippies and anything associated with them even if they weren't hippies themselves. 'Tis the pity of it, if that be the case.

Look, I dunno where Taggart is now, given his age, given that it's 40 years later he might not even be here with us. But his family probably is. Maybe even his sons from Vietnam/Woodstock. I hope they're still not bitter about it. Please don't be (yeah I know, like they'll find this blog, like any of the seven commentators I've ever had ever came back...). Guys, your dad was a hero in that film, one of the good guys just doing his job and doing it well, and like the judge wrote in that appellate ruling "...the latrine sequence apparently makes a significant and memorable contribution to the film's overall impact..."

A toast, people. To Mr. Taggart, the Hero of the Woodstock Festival.

UPDATE (2/2/13): This is one of my most popular articles, and I've discovered some of the links (especially the ones to YouTube) have gone bad, I will try to fix them where I can.

Update (7/4/15): I've hopefully located a replacement YouTube clip of the documentary.

Update (8/14/15): Just sharing this again on Twitter and Facebook, just to share the moment.  Hopefully the YouTube clip is still good.


swampy said...

i agree,this guy had nobility and along with some of the other so called straight folks in the film he had an open mind and was positive about what must have been a bit of a mind blower for the people who lived in the area.i take my hat off to this guy and i hope his kid got back from the war ok and i am sad to hear he was upset about his part in the film and the response he had from it.

Anonymous said...

Here's an obit for who I think is the "son flying the helicopters". Looks like Mr. Port-O-San and his boy are both now passed on:

Paul Wartenberg said...

Just a reminder to people: the links on articles do go bad, especially the links to stuff like YouTube clips (accounts closed, videos pulled by copyright-obsessed lawyers). If you want to view the clips of Woodstock performances, you'd have to go direct to YouTube or other video providers and search from there. Sorry.

Brian C said...

According to the book "Woodstock: An Oral History" --- a terrific book, by the way --- Taggart's wife was the one who wanted to sue. Here's a quote by David Myers, one of those involved with making the movie "Woodstock", from page 312:

"It was just unfortunate that his wife talked him into suing. Actually, he came to the film's opening in New York and he was delighted, all smiles. And then the way I heard the story, he and his wife lived in a subdivision in New Jersey and apparently his wife had told the neighbors that her husband was a sanitary engineer, implying a higher status than the guy who cleans the toilets. And when the film opened in New York and it all came out, she was very upset. And they had two trials, actually. One was without a jury, a trial in Newark, and it was thrown out. And then his lawyer talked him into appealing to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court heard the case but they didn't pass on it. They sent it back to a federal court for jury trial. And the jury threw it out."

I have to disagree with Kathleen Carroll's take --- I've watched the DVD at least three times, and I never once thought of that scene as being funny; rather, I thought it was touching and was quite impressed by Mr. Taggart. In Roger Ebert's review of Woodstock, he seemed to genuinely appreciate the Port-O-San man's appearance in the film. I thought he seemed a bit heroic in an everyman sort of way.

Michael Taggart said...

I am the son of Thomas Taggart the Port-o-San man. I was at Woodstock with my Dad. I would like to contact you.

Paul Wartenberg said...

SERIOUSLY? /faints

Paul said...

Mr. Taggart, if you need to contact me I've left an email link up top at the Update notice, but just in case it's also p.warten AT gmail dot com.

Anonymous said...

According to some internet searching on the lawsuit, Mr. Taggart would be 98 years old now (as of 2016). Highly unlikely he is alive. Still curious to know if his son made it out of Vietnam. Also interested in knowing what Mr. Taggart's life was like. Apparently it was his wife that made him sue.

Anonymous said...

Follow up to my prior message. Mr. Taggart passed away in 1994. The following obituary is for his son who was in Vietnam. He made it, but passed away in 2012.

Thomas J. Taggart, III, 64, of Keyport, passed away, Monday, February 13, 2012, at Lyons Hospice, East Orange, NJ.  Born in Kearny, he resided in Cliffwood before moving to Keyport.  He graduated Park College, Parksville, Missouri with a Bachelors Degree in Business Management.  He was a helicopter pilot for Roger Penski Racing. He was a member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.  He served his country in the Army during Vietnam, as a Chief Warrant Officer W-2.  He flew many missions over hostile territory.  Thomas received the Army Commendation Medal and the Bronze Star.
Thomas was predeceased by his parents, Thomas J. and Claire M. Walsh Taggart.  He is survived by his siblings, Michael J. Taggart of VA; Claire Catherine Smith of FL; and David P. Taggart of Jackson

Paul Wartenberg said...

Well, Anonymous, the Mr. Taggart I'm referring to is Michael who posted a comment here awhile back (see above) and then went silent, not leaving me much to get back in touch with him. So here I am sending up flares every other week hoping Michael Taggart comes back and says more.

Brian C said...

Every great once in a while, I come back to this post in the hopes that Michael Taggart will re-appear and offer some fascinating testimony on his Dad's background and time at Woodstock. But given his one brief appearance, and then disappearance, I'm starting to wonder if someone just decided to clown around and claim he was the son of the Port-O-San man to lead us on.

But I'll keep coming back from time to time, anyway. It would be so cool to hear from a family member of the Port-O-San guy that it's worth it.

Lou / FL said...

8/13/17...I was just watching the "Woodstock" movie - again - last of my favorite parts was always "The Port-O-San guy" who, to me, showed much dignity in his pride doing a nasty job that someone had to do (thank you, sir!). For all these years that I'd see him whenever I'd watch the movie, I'd always wonder whatever happened to him and did his son get home from Vietnam. I got on Google today and was led to this now I've finally got a name for Mr. Thomas Taggert and know that his son got home from service in Nam. I'm sorry to read about Mr. Taggert suffering ridicule...I never saw anything in the clip to ridicule...on the contrary, I saw a good-natured, salt-of-the-earth guy I'd have liked to have a beer with. God rest you, sir.

POTUS_Breath said...

Oddly enough, I always felt a kind of kinship with the Port-o-San man.

Back when I was a senior in high school, I took a job as an usher at a local multiplex theater. On weekends, they would often show a Midnight Movie. And on one occasion, "Woodstock" was one of those choices.

However, the film projectionist discovered a problem: Due to the film's enormous 4-hour long 35mm film strip laid on a platter, it had a tendency to want to roll up off of the spool & would risk completely tangling. That wouldn't do, so the manager asked the Ushes if anyone were willing to spend each night that weekend with their hand on the film spool to make sure that it didn't roll up. Needless to say, I took the offer when they said "we'll pay you double" :-)

Anyways, I always looked forward to the Port-o-San man's arrival, not only because it signaled to me that this ordeal was finally over (whew!), but also because I felt a certain sense of understanding about what he contributed.

To me, Mr. Taggert is emblematic of the incredible amount of time, resources, and people that devote every but of effort (& sometimes in very thankless ways, such as Mr. Taggert's), with every intention with having everyone there able to enjoy the experience of such an amazing event with as little awareness of the 'machinery' in the background that makes it all possible.

The feeling was not lost on me at all each night as I sat there with my hand resting on a platter of this film, and feeling cramps in my legs but unable to move... I acknowledge you Mr. Taggert on a job well done. ': ^ )