Wednesday, February 17, 2010

660 Great Highway, San Francisco September 4, 1969 The Playland Girls Of 1969

Chet Helms's succesor for his legendary Avalon Ballroom was The Family Dog On The Great Highway, located at 660 Great Highway, where the Pacific Ocean meets San Francisco (or "The Edge of The Western World" as it was known). The Family Dog was a venue with a rich and complicated history, and the project was fraught with possibilities, most of which were only partially realized. The biggest factor was the dramatic changes in the live rock concert market, so that the Family Dog was too small to compete with the major venues nearer to downtown San Francisco and Oakland, while a few years too early to benefit from being near the suburbs.

While the list of Family Dog shows at the Great Highway location from 1969-70 is interesting, it also represents an unsuccessful, undercapitalized enterprise. Ironically, it turns out that many of the events at the Family Dog which were not, in fact, Family Dog events hold a lot more historical interest, even if they were not economic successes. At various times, I have written about a Light Show performed to unreleased live tapes from The Matrix club (August 26, 1969) and an unannounced Grateful Dead/Jefferson Airplane show at the Dog (September 6, 1969), and there are a number of other intriguing events as well.

The most widely known of the "non-Dog" events was a TV special called A Night At The Family Dog, featuring The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Santana and recorded on February 4, 1970. While a tad misleading--the Airplane rarely played The Dog, and Santana never played any other time at the Great Highway, much less all three bands together--it still gives a nice flash of the wide-open, free flowing San Francisco scene. Probably more people saw A Night At The Family Dog than ever attended a show there (you can rent the DVD from Netflix--I did).

Another intriguing event at The Dog was something called "Monday Night Class," a series of lectures by a local figure named Stephen Gaskin. Up to 1500 people would attend these events, which featured lectures and questions from the audience about topics like philosophy, drugs, sex and love (really, 1500 people--I'm not making this up). Granted, the events were free, but there was an interest in this sort of thing that was not being served by other sources. Gaskin would go on to start a successful commune in Tennessee called The Farm that was another story entirely, well outside the scope of this blog, but interesting in its own right.

Chet Helms had a monthly bill to meet, and on a personal level felt that The Family Dog should serve as a sort of hip Community Center. Although commercial hippiedom was in full flower in 1969 San Francisco, it was still focused on enterprises like head shops, rock concerts and t-shirts. There weren't many spaces for new ideas. That left the Family Dog as one of the few substantial buildings that welcomed somewhat untypical propositions. It does appear right now that the most interesting presentations at the 1969-70 Family Dog were those events that were not explicitly Family Dog concert productions.

As a result, I am now very interested in "Non-Dog" events at The Family Dog On The Great Highway, even when I know very little about them. The ticket above is for an event apparently called The Carnival Ball and Coronation Honoring The Playland Girls of 1969. It was sponsored by Playland-At-The-Beach, the amusement park right next door to the Family Dog ballroom. The ticket was sent to me by a member of the band Devil's Kitchen, who provided music for the show. Apparently it was  fairly conventional fashion show/beauty pageant, and the two bands provided dance music. In this case, Helms was simply renting his hall, but it was still an interesting intersection of cultures.

Devil's Kitchen was a band from Carbondale, IL, who had moved to San Francisco in Spring 1968. They  became the "house band" at The Family Dog, opening many of the shows there, even ones for which they did not appear on the bill. They also played other clubs around the Bay Area. The band members were guitarist Robbie Stokes, keyboardist/vocalist Brett Champlin, bassist Bob Laughton and drummer Steve Sweigart. While Stokes remained in the Bay Area for a dozen years or so, the rest of the band members ultimately returned to the Midwest later in 1970. Ironically, a recording of the group's performance at The Family Dog on March 22, 1970, promulgated by Wolfgang's Vault, roused the band back to life, and that is how I got in touch with them (Brett Champlin responds very kindly to emails, and to answer the obvious question, he is a 4th cousin of Bill Champlin but they had not met prior to the band arriving in SF).

According to Brett Champlin, Devil's Kitchen were just another dance band at this show, providing music after the pageant was complete. The Metropolitan Sound Company was a soul band from Oakland, playing original soul music with a Hendrix touch, and the bands probably alternated. While the ticket rather enticingly says "Dress Optional," I take that to mean that guests were not obligated to dress formally, rather than at all.

Brett Champlin only vaguely recalls the event, since he still has the complimentary ticket, so it was probably just another night for a working band. From an archaeological perspective, however, it points out that considerably more seems to have occurred at The Family Dog On The Great Highway than the limited run of Family Dog posters would suggest, and suggests that there are probably interesting events, hitherto unknown, waiting to be dug up.

Update: Judith Vacek Crowned Queen Of Playland
The September 6, 1969 San Francisco Chronicle reports
Judith Vacek shoots a good game of pool, measures a classic 36-26-36 and is "Playland Girl '69."
The 20-year old Tiburon girl was officially crowned as the Queen Of Playland At The Beach Thursday. The contest was conducted all summer and decided by popular vote of the public.
Miss Vacek, who aspires to be an airline stewardess, received a 1970 Ford Maverick that went along with her new title.

While a new world was dawning in the 1960s, the casual sexism of this news item is a reminder that the world of 1969 was a lot closer to 1959 than 1979. In any case, a pretty girl who can play pool sounds a like a lot of fun, and an apt ruler for Playland.

While its easy to chuckle today at Ms Vacek's aspiration to be a stewardess, its important to remember that many of the fun things that women aspire to today--whether Firefighter, Fighter Pilot or Futures Trader--were effectively if not legally barred to women, and stewardess was actually one of the most exciting options available. Anyway, here's to hoping that Judith Vacek had a happy reign, and had some fun driving to the pool hall in her new Maverick.

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