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)


* * *

ON THE TRAIL OF THE B&W  (excerpt)

It didn't take any effort at all for a group of young people - most of them students at UC's Berkeley campus - to bridge the generation gap and just have a ball at Saturday night's Black and White Ball.
They got their evening off to a gala start by attending a party at the Hilton in the suite held by Mr. and Mrs. Fred Weir for the evening.
The Weirs' pretty daughter Wendy acted as hostess for her friends. Her brother Bob, the lead guitarist for the Greatful Dead, which held sway at the Hilton, had some of his more colorful friends around before he had to excuse himself and join the band.
The girls, many of them Alpha Omicron Pi sorority sisters at Cal, were all appropriately dressed in black and white. [ . . . ]
When 9 o'clock rolled around, heralding the start of the ball, the crowd at the party got restless and ready to have at it. They piled on one of the shuttle buses and headed towards the Mark Hopkins.
"Let's flame," was their battle cry for fun. [ . . . ]
The straight, pump handle beat of Ernie Heckscher in the Peacock Court didn't cramp the group's hip style and they all took to the dance floor for a couple of turns.
But soon it was back to the bus and on to the St. Francis. Someone passed around a flask of bourbon.
Still keeping up with the younger generation, we arrived at last in the Imperial Ballroom in time for the Dead's last set.
No one was tired and at 2 a.m. when the ballroom lights went up, the Weir group was the last there.
That wasn't the end of the evening by any means. It was back up to the Weirs' suite, then on to Berkeley for an early morning breakfast.
Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda couldn't have set a better pace.

(by Virginia Westover, from the San Francisco Chronicle, 17 March 1969)

Thanks to Dave Davis.

* * * 


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.

  4. The San Francisco Examiner also covered the Symphony Ball, though without much attention to the Dead.

    From the Society column, 1/16/69: “The suspended animation since 1965 of the Black and White Symphony Ball is being revived by The Grateful Dead, one of the nation’s top rock groups – an ironic touch, to say the least. They will be one of the musical groups to play at the four hotel locations, March 15...
    And if the Grateful Dead aren’t your cup of tea dancing, the Symphony orchestra will play for dancing, as will Ernie Heckscher’s society band.”

    3/6/69: “While you can pick and choose what type of music you prefer that night, the hip money is on the Grateful Dead and the Little Princess 109 light show at the Hilton. Avant-garde Paraphernalia will present the fashion show. Smoking you-know-what is at your own risk.”

    3/9/69: in the list of hotels the various orchestras are to play at, "the Grateful Dead and Country Weather will rock in the Imperial Ballroom at the Hilton."

    The Ball was reviewed in the 3/17/69 Examiner (Albert Morch, "Flittery Black, White Ball"). Being a society column, most attention was devoted to names, costumes, and hotel decor; but it did mention “the raucous rock at the heavy hands of the Grateful Dead and the Country Weather inundated by the mind-bending light show of ever-changing colors and patterns at the Hilton... Surprisingly, there were not a lot of costumes in evidence, meaning the ball-goers were more geared for dancing than parading. A number of hippies hovered about the rock bandstand at the Hilton and were easily discernible by their costume, attitude, or both... Those [youngsters] who like to give their eardrums a workout spent a goodly time at the tempo-tossed Hilton. Wendy Weir had to be there. Her brother, Bob, plays guitar with the Grateful Dead.”
    The Examiner sneered that the "smartly dressed young With-Its," beautiful post-debs and handsomely dressed gentlemen "made one realize just how passe is Hippiedom." But now it's confirmed that Country Weather played as well...or at least, were mentioned in a post-show review, whether or not the reviewer saw them.

    1. I added another short piece from the Chronicle, describing the evening from the point of view of Wendy Weir, dancing the night away with her college friends. Bob shows up at the start of the party with some "colorful friends" before hurrying off to play. And naturally, Wendy doesn't miss the Dead's show!
      Note the "straight, pump handle beat" of Ernie Heckscher's orchestra, house band at the Fairmont Hotel. Though considered totally square (and best known for playing mellow background music for deb balls and proms since the '40s), I had to picture the orchestra playing an early Pump Song.