Jun 9, 2013

March 15, 1969: Hilton Hotel, San Francisco

The Black and White Symphony ball is certainly being revived with a blast. The Grateful Dead, one of the world's top rock groups, will play at the March 15 dance that will be a benefit for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.
The Symphony Orchestra will play for those who like to waltz at the Sheraton-Palace; Ernie Heckscher's band will play on Nob Hill; his son, Earl Heckscher, and his orchestra in another hotel, while the Country Weather, an East Bay rock group, will alternate with the Grateful Dead.
The last time the Dead played for a society party was the debut dance Sept. 2, 1966, of Ayn and Lynn Mattei at the Hillsborough showplace, La Dolphine, which their grandparents, the Albert C. Matteis, were renting at the time.
It remains to be seen how much dancing there will be to the Grateful Dead. Like other rock groups of late, they present electronic concerts and audiences generally sit on the floor and listen instead of dancing. (Takes old- timers back to the '30s and '40s when people didn't dance, just crowded around the bandstand and listened to those sentimental songs.)
Bob Weir, the son of the Fred Weirs, is the group's rhythm guitarist, and you can expect this Atherton family to concentrate on the Grateful Dead's locale during the lively evening that starts at 9 and continues until 2 a.m.
The ball marks the first time a noted rock group has performed for the Symphony Association, although the Opera Guild had the Jefferson Airplane play at its 1966 Fol de Rol. Reception was mixed -- but the ladies of the Guild feel now that perhaps they were just a little ahead of the times.

(by Frances Moffatt, from the "Who's Who" column, San Francisco Chronicle, 16 January 1969)

* * * 

Except for the rock band that may be nicknamed the Ungrateful Dead, Saturday night's revival of the Black and White Symphony Ball was a big, beautiful party enjoyed by more than 2,000 dance-happy people who rode shuttle buses to and from four of the City's major hotels.
Party-goers were short-changed at the Hilton, touted in advance as the place where the action would be. ... The Dead, under contract to play two one- hour sets, played only one.
Rock Scully, manager of the Dead, blamed the problem on the fact that the group had great difficulty in setting up the sound equipment and that there was no liason between them and either the symphony or the ball committee.
As to reports that members of the Jefferson Airplane were planning to join them for the last set, Scully said this was true, but that "there weren't any tickets left" for them, so the guards wouldn't let them in.
However, the guards at the Hilton's Imperial Ballroom did admit a fantastic-looking crowd during the evening -- all of whom were holding the $17.50 tickets.
Some who identified themselves as "members of the family of the Grateful Dead," were children dressed as angels, others were adults in various guises - - clowns, nuns, monks, toy soldiers, convicts, you-name-it.
This sight, plus an enormous light show operated by at least a dozen young people would have blown the minds of party-goers the last time the Black and White was given in 1965.
But most San Franciscans are used to Rock Culture, and the costume look was carried out by plenty of socialites who wore every conceivable combination of black and white -- from Mrs. Kenneth Monteagle's floor-length white skirt with black bodice to Anita (Mrs. Paul) Fay's black and white harlequin pantsuit.

(by Frances Moffatt, from the "Who's Who" column, San Francisco Chronicle, 17 March 1969)


* * *


At the Hilton end of the Black & White Ball, the Grateful Dead, the pioneer S.F. rock group, was making a terrible racket. Jerry Garcia, blackbearded as Smokey the Bear, screeching his guitar up to 130 decibels, louder than a jet engine, the two drummers flailing away and the "Angels of the Dead" - the five little daughters of the group - swaying in the background, wearing white robes, looking like swinging seraphim. Will they be stone deaf, the Grateful Deaf, by the time they're 15? "No, because we never never stand in front of Jerry's speaker."
After the gig, Jerry Garcia was depressed. "We sounded terrible," he lamented, rubbing his thick black beard. "Couldn't get the feel of the room. It was like playing in a cocktail lounge. We wanted to do a good job tonight - this is our home town, after all - but we've played better out on the road after five nights of no sleep. Too bad. But say, did you see all those people out on the floor dancing? Having fun? That part was good. I wish the kids at the Fillmore, who never dance, could have seen that."
With him was Mountain Girl, the ex-playmate of Ken Kesey. Fresh-faced, shining-eyed, apple-cheeked - the most beautiful girl at the Black & White Ball.
As Garcia walked away, a society matron followed him with her eyes and said, "Oh, it talks, does it?" Yeah, it talks. "What in the world do you find to SAY to people like that?" she asked. I couldn't find anything to say to her, so I left.

(by Herb Caen, from the San Francisco Chronicle, 18 March 1969)

(This picture also includes a rare poster for the Black & White Symphony Ball, which calls the Dead "one of the world's top rock groups" and says they will be "alternating with Country Weather," another SF rock group whose involvement has been forgotten.)

* * *

We were hired to play at the 1969 Black and White Ball, an annual benefit extravaganza for the San Francisco Symphony. The original idea was to dress up in those black and white striped prisoner outfits made famous in the old time movies, but that proved impracticable. The ones we settled on weren't too shabby, though - Jerry was a pirate, Mickey was Zorro, and I had an 18th-century bell-ringer costume complete with three-cornered hat. All this in black and white. It would have been a smashing success, if only the PA system could have been ready a few hours sooner. Like, by curtain time.
In the preparatory meetings with the Symphony people, Phil and I suggested the possibility of a musical collaboration between the band and the orchestra... They all but laughed in our faces.

(excerpt from Tom Constanten's book Between Rock and Hard Places, 1992)



  1. Some articles just can't be improved on. Though short, Caen's review is great.

    McNally has a lengthy account of this show in his book, p.304.
    Weir's mother was chairman of the SF Symphony entertainment committee, and she got the Dead to play at the symphony's benefit ball. With the rock portion of the event located in the Hilton Hotel's Grand Ballroom, admission $17.50, and attendees attired in black & white, this show would not have attracted the Dead's usual audience! (Though Garcia contrasts the dancing ballroom audience with "the kids at the Fillmore, who never dance.")
    McNally: "The band and equipment arrived on time, but Bear announced that he needed a missing item back in Novato, and vanished. While the musicians prepared themselves in a room upstairs, Bear actually went to sleep in an equipment case under the stage. When the lateness of the hour dawned on the band, they rousted him from his refuge, scourged him into setting up the stage, and at long last began to play... The Dead played for an hour, and McIntire told them to stay put while he pinned down the night's schedule. It took him quite a while to find the right person, too long in fact, and when the mayor arrived...there was no band left."
    They drifted off before the final ceremony, leading one society columnist to call them the "Ungrateful Dead."

    McNally goes into great detail about the evening's costumes. Apparently the "Angels of the Dead" were Ron Rakow's wife and "the Jensen girls from Marin," who despite their youth, had the wisdom to "never never stand in front of Jerry's speaker."

    Our tape starts with lengthy sound adjustments & complaints to Bear. Given the high-society ballroom setting, naturally they start with their first-ever rendition of Hard to Handle, which is uncoordinated to say the least.
    It's understandable why Garcia lamented about the performance afterwards!

    It was also Phil's birthday.

  2. So many thanks for the info an insight on this date .

  3. I was happy to find a couple more pieces on this event from Frances Moffatt's society column in the Chronicle, and have added those.

    Despite Weir's mom's efforts, the Dead weren't quite warmly welcomed by high society, and we're left with Scully's apologies. I suppose the elderly socialites would have drifted to the more sedate orchestras playing at other hotels that evening. Moffatt wondered whether anyone would dance, but Garcia was happy to see people dancing, in contrast to the Fillmore audiences who "generally sit on the floor and listen instead of dancing."

    1. It strikes me that the other band, Country Weather, was listed in advance (on the poster and a couple newspaper listings), but the available newspaper reviews after the ball don't mention them. Assuming more evidence doesn't turn up, this either means they didn't appear after all, or just that they were considered beneath notice by the Chronicle reporters.