Feb 23, 2018

June 1968: the Carousel Ballroom


The Carousel Ballroom is a beautiful place to hang out. There's good local bands like the Dead and the Airplane, plus they've presented people like Thelonius Monk, Johnny Cash, and Dr. John the Night Tripper. But it's more than a dance concert. The place is big enough so you aren't forced to listen. You can wander off into the side rooms and talk or eat and drink. And since you have all those choices, it's easier to listen, easier to be relaxed. It's like a big party in a big house.
Food? I had a plate of chicken cooked in tomatoey sauce, saffron rice, asparagus cooked in wine, and home-made bread for 95 cents. My old lady had a piece of Ambrosia Cake with real orange slices in the layers. Ahhhhhh, instant Falstaff bliss! Take your whole harem for a meal today.
The dance floor has a ceiling made of velvet silver glittery drapes arranged like huge upside down mushrooms. There's carpets and chairs on the side, and a big bar area with more carpets and a restaurant with damask walls.
It was groovy like a Victorian opera house bordello even before people started turning it into a rock palace with their decorations. Now paintings are growing on the walls. Mouse painted a stoned Donald Duck on a pillar. Spider did a wall. Ovid is painting a three-wall mural. You can't go wrong with names like that. And Bob Thomas is painting a Magical Black Light Forest.
The Carousel, new as it is, radiates an important force in the community. There's a great sense of participation there. We're all part of it. There's jam sessions on Tuesday night for a dollar. A band forms up and plays for about an hour, then another band forms. Last week, Jerry Garcia and Elvin Bishop jammed together. And last Sunday, the Carousel moved their whole show, which included the Dead, Charley Musselwhite, and Petris out to Golden Gate Park for the afternoon as a holiday celebration.
Last Friday Ron Rakow, the manager, got together with Bill Graham for a three-hour talk over breakfast about ways in which the ballrooms could cooperate so that each could do their scene and it would all work and make a more total thing.
A lot of people like to put down Bill Graham. It's a favorite indoor sport. Because he's successful, or ornery, or commercial, or too straight...lots of reasons, lots of put-downs. The great thing about put-downs is that while you are describing what THAT person did wrong, you don't have to DO anything right yourself, you can just play Instant Expert.
We can't afford that luxury now. We have to do something affirmative, whatever we can: rap, sew, eat, dance, sing, or set up another dance hall. Argument can be very good when it's face to face. When we do our thing somehow in relation to each other, a tremendous energy force flashes between us, our various scenes and methods reflect on and strengthen each other. Insofar as we do that, we are a community.
So when the Carousel people and Graham try to work out ways to cooperate, just the fact of their trying helps us. This kind of sharing and of breaking down barriers is characteristic of the things the Carousel has been involved with, such as the beautiful Free City Convention, the Hells Angels Dance, the jam sessions...even the strike-breaking that Ron Rakow got into when he advertised on KMPX. I didn't like that, but in fact it DID help blow open a situation that had by then turned into pretty much a game.
The whole feeling of the Carousel is that it's a gathering, a place for all of us to happen, rather than a concert. Go there and hang out, meet your friends, it's our palace.

(by Sandy Darlington, from the San Francisco Express-Times, 6 June 1968)

Thanks to jgmf.blogspot.com

See also: http://deadsources.blogspot.com/2013/06/springsummer-1968-san-francisco.html


  1. The Carousel lasted one more month before Bill Graham took over and turned it into the Fillmore West.

    I'd like to find more reviews of the Carousel while it was being run by the Dead's associates. This piece isn't a show review, just a description of the place and how it serves the community - a good look at the ideals of 1968. A very brief mention of the Tuesday night jams, but more about the decor, food menu, and atmosphere there.

    There are a couple mentions of Ron Rakow, who managed the Carousel (or tried) - meeting with Bill Graham to discuss "cooperating" with the Fillmore, and running Carousel ads on KMPX during the strike. Rakow was kind of like the anti-Graham in that he completely screwed up running a dance hall (though granted, he was part of a cooperative effort, trying to do things differently than the business-minded Graham, and wasn't fully in charge). After the Carousel fiasco, naturally Rakow was the Dead's first choice to run their own record label five years later! With perhaps predictable results...

  2. Dave Davis found a piece from the June 9, 1968 Independent Press-Telegram, which gives a little more background into why the Carousel shut down less than a month later:


    San Francisco (UPI) - The Carousel Ballroom, one of the city's three regular rock music halls, opened as usual this weekend after its lessees filed a $5,000 bond with superior court.
    Judge Charles S. Peery withdrew a temporary restraining order forbidding planned weekend concerts by the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.
    The judge granted the restraining order at the request of City Center Ballroom of California, owners of the Carousel. The firm charged [that] Headstone Productions, Inc., which leases the hall for rock dances, failed to pay $11,600 in back rent and that visitors were damaging the ballroom.

  3. JGMF found an illuminating piece on Ron Rakow and the Carousel, from a May '68 Berkeley Barb article on the KMPX strike:

    "Rock fans loyal to the KMPX strike are choosing up sides this week as the Carousel Ballroom continued to advertise on the struck station.
    The Carousel broke the strike early last week because, according to Ron Rackow, Carousel general manager, the ballroom is going broke.
    "I've lost fifty thousand dollars in the last nine weeks because of my sympathy for the strikers," Rackow told BARB Friday night. "Last week (two weeks ago) I spent $1200 on five AM stations; I've got more people out there tonight than I had in three nights last week."
    Indeed the hall was considerably full; however, visits to the competing Avalon and Fillmore ballrooms turned up thoroughly packed houses, more so than at the Carousel. Neither of the other two have broken the strike.
    Striker Bob McClay, just returned from a week in New York, was understandably perturbed. "If it wasn't for KMPX there wouldn't BE a Carousel!" McClay was referring to the live-remote broadcast the station did of the Dead and the Fish several months ago which provided the initial push for the ballroom's success.
    Rackow told BARB that both the Dead and the Airplane, who are partners in the ballroom, were informed of the move to advertise beforehand, and that while they disagreed in principle they consented on the grounds that Rackow was in charge.
    "That's not true," McClay countered. "I was in New York at the Chelsea Hotel with the Dead, Tuesday night when Rackow went on the air and Jerry Garcia told me he had heard nothing about it. It wasn't until AFTER the contracts were signed and it was too late to do anything about it that the Dead was told."
    Rackow still contends that his "sympathies lie with the strikers; I'm sorry to [go] back on the air but it's the only thing that works. I'm running this ballroom as a business."
    "So are the Straight Theater and the Avalon," McClay bit back, "and they're not in any better financial shape than the Carousel. They've just got more principle."
    An aftermath of the Carousel ads, according to McClay, was the intimidation of Avalon manager Whitey Davis by the station management. "Whitey was told that he'd better go back on the air now because in a couple weeks the station 'would be hard to deal with.' Whitey's reaction was 'Do you want to tell that to my lawyer or should I?'"

    (Jef Jassen, "Let's See, They Say, Every Man Has His Price," Berkeley Barb 5/10/68)

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