Jun 6, 2013

Spring/Summer 1968: The San Francisco Ballrooms


San Francisco, where the rock and roll dance concert originated, is rapidly becoming the hub of a national network of ballrooms and concert halls. The local scene is showing more signs not only of growth, but of health as well, than at any time in the past year, now supporting three full-time ballroom operations on the weekends, plus assorted other gigging.
The Fillmore East, Bill Graham's venture in New York, opened last month to local critical acclaim and popular success. "It's making waves ten feet high," according to one music industry-alist; "Looks like an enormous money-maker," said another. The opening night performance of Janis Joplin of Big Brother and the Holding Co. drew raves; the Doors were featured in a subsequent show. Despite rumors of moves to London and other places, Graham insisted, "I have no intention of franchising this operation. There will not be a Tucson Fillmore. I am not expanding after New York."
The Family Dog has reversed the downhill trend of its Denver branch after a shake-up in the police department there. Chet Helms has been devoting his full-time attention to the Denver Dog so Whitey Allen, late of Portland, is now running the show at the Avalon Ballroom where Family Dog dances are held in San Francisco. Allen is also responsible for coordinating operations with ballrooms in Portland, Oregon, Vancouver, B.C., and Anchorage, Alaska. "By working together and guaranteeing the bands four weeks of work, we can present better music than when we were going it alone at the Avalon," he said.
Ron Rakow, who helped put on the Great Northwest Tour of the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service, has leased the Carousel Ballroom near downtown San Francisco for a series of weekend dances that have so far featured the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Chuck Berry, and Country Joe & The Fish. The Carousel holds substantially more people than the Fillmore or Avalon...and a lot more of them dance. The owners of the Carousel also run a chain of dance halls in England and on the Continent, and have reached an agreement with Rakow about using them for a tour of American rock bands.

(from Rolling Stone, April 27 1968)

* * *

The Grateful Dead and a group of other rock bands, including the Jefferson Airplane, have taken a lease on the old Carousel Ballroom on Market Street (formerly the El Patio) and beginning Friday night will run dances there regularly.
Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights the Airplane and the Dead will play there for dancing.
Next weekend, Chuck Berry and the Buffalo Springfield will appear.
The Carousel is owned by Bill Fuller, the Irish ballroom operator who has similar properties in Chicago, New York, Boston, London, Manchester, and throughout Ireland.
As part of the current arrangement, it is hoped to organize a European tour later this year with some of the San Francisco groups based on Fuller's ballrooms.
In another aspect of this band-oriented operation, the Grateful Dead, Steve Miller's Blues Band and other groups are forming their own publishing groups to be operated jointly.

(excerpt from Ralph Gleason's column, SF Chronicle, March 13 1968)
Courtesy of Lost Live Dead

* * *

At midnight Tuesday night it was a beautiful scene at the Carousel Ballroom. People came in off the street with late election news and inside there was a long jam session going on with all kinds of guitar players and saxophones and rhythm men and on the floor there was more dancing than I've seen anywhere in months.
Throughout the ballroom an outstanding feature was the peacefulness and the joy as a wondrous assortment of people relaxed. There were Hells Angels and hippies, many black people and many long-haired youth. It seemed for a moment like the hope of the future.
And then I went outside, got into the car and punched the radio button only to hear a voice saying "...when Senator Kennedy was shot tonight." And the terrible real world came crashing in on me again.

(excerpt from "Strung Between Dreams and Reality" by Ralph Gleason, SF Chronicle, June 7 1968)
Courtesy of jgmf.blogspot.com

* * *


The Fillmore Auditorium, of supergroup, lightshow and dance poster fame, ended its two-and-a-half year career as a fulltime rock hall on July 5. Bill Graham, the Fillmore's manager, is moving his scene to the old Carousel Ballroom, which recently became a well-known rock dancehall in its own right under the goodhearted but insufficiently professional ownership of Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and some cronies. The Carousel will henceforth be known as the Fillmore West, to complement Graham's recently opened New York operation, the Fillmore East.
There were several reasons for Graham's move. The old 1500-capacity Fillmore was always overcrowded, for one. Graham usually booked big acts on prime nights not at the Fillmore, but at nearby Winterland, which has a capacity of 4200, though its dance floor is small. For another, the Fillmore is located in the Fillmore District, a Black ghetto, and the sporadic instances of harassment of patrons had become more frequent since the assassination of Martin Luther King, according to Graham. And finally, the Carousel is a more desirable hall, larger and more attractive and more accessible by public transportation.
The Carousel had been operated for several months by Headstone Productions, a corporation initially financed by a series of dances given by the Dead and the Airplane starting on St. Valentine's Day this year. The operation of the Carousel was marked by careless mismanagement in many details, although it was generally agreed that the feeling of the dances was good. On several occasions Headstone booked unwisely, paying high fees for low draws, and it was saddled with what Ralph Gleason has called "the stupidest lease in show business." The Free City Convention, a freakout with nude dancing, public grass-smoking and a "dirty" word ("cunt") on the marquee, started bringing an undesirable amount of police attention to the hall, and when Headstone fell several thousand dollars behind in its rent, landlord Bill Fuller opened his ears to Bill Graham.
Graham had started organizing dances as manager of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. The first Mime Troupe Benefit held at the Fillmore, on December 10, 1965, headlined Jefferson Airplane, the Great Society and John Handy. Graham's Fillmore dances began on a regular basis in March 1966, at first alternating weekends with the Family Dog. In the early days Graham had to overcome the reputation rock concerts had for violence, and the Fillmore happened to be one of the halls in town that would rent to him. Today, after innumerable hassles with civic authorities, he can point to two and a half years of dances without a major disruption.
Graham's lease on the Fillmore runs to March, 1973. He plans to put the hall at the disposal of the Fillmore community, at no profit to him, for Black-run political events and musical and theatrical productions. He has already contacted Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers, the Peace and Freedom Party and the Black Student Union. Graham emphasizes that the incidents of harassment of the dance patrons have never involved militant Blacks.
As for the new Fillmore West, Graham plans to remodel the stage and perhaps replace the satin ceiling. The Tuesday night musicians' jam session instituted under Headstone will be revived and one night a week will probably be set aside for "jamming" and rapping among local lightshow technicians. Graham also has hopes of establishing a "young political platform" and building the solidarity of the underground community. "Haight Street is a tragedy," he has said, "and it should be saved."

(from Rolling Stone, August 10 1968)

(Rolling Stone also printed a picture of the Carousel with its final marquee sign: NOTHING LASTS.)

* * *

History will show, I believe, that the San Francisco dance renaissance played a key role in the evolution of teen-age schlock-rock into music, as well as a key role in the social-cultural and political revolution in which we are involved.
The sheer existence of Bob Dylan, the Beatles and, to a lesser extent, the Rolling Stones opened the way for the logical expression of the forces that were frustrated, denied and also generated by the rock concert syndrome of the Cow Palace shows (i.e. the big, stageshow presentation of rock from Alan Freed to Murray the K to Tom Donahue).
The Byrds' gigs at Ciro's in Hollywood opened the last gate and it was obvious that dancing was a necessary thing. It was at this point that the San Francisco dance scene came into existence, created by necessity and provoked by the imagination of a group called the Family Dog (of which, at that time, Chet Helms was not a member). The Family Dog put on the first adult rock dances in San Francisco at the Longshoremen's Hall in October, 1965, with the Lovin' Spoonful, Jefferson Airplane, the Charlatans, the Warlocks (now the Grateful Dead), the Great Society and others.
This was before the first rock dances at the Fillmore and before the Trips Festival. At that time, Bill Graham was manager of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Mime Troupe was in its customary financial panic. They ran a benefit at their loft to which some of the rock bands came and played. This was in October, 1965, also. A second benefit in December for the Mime Troupe was staged at the Fillmore Auditorium, which for decades had been the scene of dances for the black community run by Charles Sullivan and presenting everyone from Count Basie to Ray Charles.
After the Trips Festival in January 1966, Graham took over the Fillmore, first alternating weekends with the Family Dog. Luria Castel and Ellen Harmon, the originals and the visionaries who saw what was needed, had left the Dog and it then consisted of Chet Helms and John Carpenter. There had been a couple of other transitory Dog personnel, among others, Rock Scully and Danny Rifkin, now managers of the Grateful Dead.
Their instant success spun off into a myriad of benefits at every available place in the Bay Area. An incredible number of dances for fund raising purposes, for profit and for fun took place. It has been an unbelievable three years. The response to the dances was ecstatic. The floors leaped and tumbled and swirled with the dancers and the evolvement of light shows as an adjunct was spectacular.
Other cities began to turn the same way, with varying degrees of success depending on local conditions. The poster business became a heavy profit-making arm of the dance halls and the whole scene contributed to the emergence of innumerable groups, record label activity and other attempts to skim off some of the available bread. At times there were probably as many recording executives in turtleneck sweaters and jeans scouting talent as there were dealers. In fact, one record company officer went around with a stash of hash in his pocket for months, signing up bands.
It ought to be said, it seems to me, no matter what any individual may feel pro or con about either the way the Fillmore Ballroom has been operated or the man who operates it, that during the past two years the Fillmore and Bill Graham have brought an incredible list of great and important music and performers to San Francisco. Its presentations have been, in effect, a crash course in American popular music without which San Francisco and (to the heavy extent that San Francisco has set the pace for the rest of the country) the U.S. would have been a great deal poorer culturally.
Now a struggle is going on between those who want to dance and those who want to listen. It repeats the situation of the Forties in which the swing era dancers (the jitterbugs) became listeners, first crowding around the bandstand and then sitting on the floor and then demanding chairs. The Benny Goodman band was astonished when it first played the West Coast that the people pushed up to the lip of the stage to hear the trumpet player (Bunny Berrigan). Eventually, of course, dances ceased almost altogether and the stage-show concerts took over.
The stiffness of the concert hall is a drag and the booze of the night clubs is a bigger drag, and so the informality and the flexibility of the dance halls has been delightful. The problem is two-fold at the moment - the press of the crowd and the floor covered with people sitting and lying down.
At some point in the near future, somebody will build a structure to house these shows which is designed for the new purposes. I don't know what it will look like but it will obviously need to provide space for seeing and dancing, ease of movement and places to sit from time to time.
Meanwhile, the ways in which the changing audience feeds back and changes the bands is interesting to observe. That alone reconfirms the star system. Individual applause breeds stars and breaks up bands. How long will Janis Joplin be part of Big Brother and when will it become Janis Joplin AND Big Brother? . . .

(by Ralph Gleason, from Rolling Stone, June 20 1968)


  1. These pieces aren't strictly Dead-related, but eventually I would like to post more articles on the general San Francisco rock scene. These were at hand and seemed to go together.

  2. I found the full Ralph Gleason article from 7/20/68 and have expanded the excerpt that was here.

    Writing a piece for the Rolling Stone rather than his at-the-moment column for the Chronicle, Gleason gives a little overview of the past three years & the changing SF music scene.
    I noticed he lists the Warlocks among the bands at the October '65 Family Dog dances, which wasn't the case - they attended, but didn't play.

    Gleason would have been finishing his book on Jefferson Airplane & the San Francisco Sound around this time.

  3. An expanded collection of articles on the Carousel Ballroom is now here: