Friday, June 18, 2010

415 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA December 29, 1969: Big Brother and The Holding Company/Youngbloods/Ramblin Jack Elliott/Penny Nichols

The underground rock explosion in San Francisco in the mid-1960s was critical in turning rock into big business, for good or for ill. With a city full of bands, all sorts of efforts were made to create successful rock promotions. Many of them remain largely mysteries. The above clipping from the Datebook section of the San Francisco Chronicle of Monday, December 29, 1969 is one such mystery. The Geary Theater was and is San Francisco's premiere "legitimate" theater, but in 1969, even the Geary attempted to put on some sort of Holiday Rock Extravaganza. Lacking any other information, I will use the post to speculate on what might have been intended. Anyone with even the most fragmentary memories or information is encouraged to Comment or email me.

The Geary Theater
The Geary Theater, located at 415 Geary Boulevard near Mason Street (just East of Union Square), was completed in 1910, and has a capacity of 1,667 patrons. The great 1906 earthquake had destroyed all of San Francisco's theaters, but they were soon replaced. Although the elegant Geary has a complex and interesting history, in 1967 it became the home of the American Conservatory Theater. I am no historian of American theater, but even I know that ACT is a leading Western Theater company. It seems to have been no accident that a vibrant Theater company was established in the cultural ferment of San Francisco in the 1960s.

I can attest that by the 1970s, at any rate, when I saw their productions, while ACT put on many fine productions of 'classics' (George Bernard Shaw, etc), it also produced more cutting edge playwrights like Tom Stoppard. Today, ACT is still widely regarded, although I suspect it depends a little more heavily on more classic playwrights, like Tom Stoppard.

In any case, ACT took up residence in San Francisco in 1967, presenting year-round theater at the Geary as well as elsewhere. By 1974, ACT's reputation was so sterling that an extraordinary donation from the Ford Foundation allowed them to buy the Geary, which has remained their home ever since. I do not know the exact circumstances of the Geary Theater lease in 1969, but I have to assume that American Conservatory Theater at least generally controlled the facility, and if a rock show was put on there it was with ACT's approval if not outright cooperation. To my knowledge, this show has been the only rock show in the history of the Geary Theater.

The Concerts
The Datebook listing advertises 2 shows, at 2pm and 7pm. Although December 29 is a Monday, it is between Christmas and New Years, so there is a reasonable assumption that people will be free to attend the show. Monday night is also most likely to be the night that the regular ACT productions would be dark, so the theater would be available for a rock show. I can't help but think that the ACT business managers were looking for a chance to make a little extra money by booking a rock show on a Holiday Week Monday.

Although ACT is a well-established program today, in the 1960s all the major players at the Company were probably well shy of 40. Also, part of ACT's strength has always been that besides presenting excellent shows, they always had training programs and workshops for younger actors, so many of the participants at ACT would have been the same age as all the Fillmore rock bands. Actors and musicians always keep the same hours and are naturally inclined to each other, so I don't doubt there were many social connections between the younger theater community and the rock bands.

The Geary was presenting two shows, at 2pm and 7pm, with two different headliners and the same opening acts. The headliners were Big Brother and The Holding Company in the afternoon, and The Youngbloods in the evening. The opening acts were Ramblin Jack Elliott, Penny Nichols and The Zig Zag Follies. The choice of acts suggest a conscious effort to create a kind of "revue," which bespeaks a more theatrical approach to the show than the typical aggregation of rock bands. A look at the listing shows that it just says "Geary Theater" without an address, since the Chronicle assumes that everyone should know where the Geary was located. San Francisco exceptionalism aside, this suggests that this show was intended with more of the trappings an 'event' than a typical rock concert.

While the other performers at these concerts are known--if you're me--the Zig Zag Follies are entirely a mystery. It is self-evident today that 'Zig Zag' refers to a brand of rolling papers popular with pot smokers, but that was hardly self-evident in 1969 to people who weren't hippies. I can't help but think that the Zig Zag Follies were some of the younger members of the ACT Company, who prepared some sort of theatrical entertainment to go along with the rock bands. Even by 1971, "Zig Zag" would have been such an obvious doper reference that ACT may have frowned on (at least publicly), but at the time it was like saying "4:20"--in order to know, you had to know.

To my knowledge, this event was not repeated. I do not know whether this was due to a lack of financial success, or because of some constraint of the facility involving theatrical requirements (ACT may have been between productions, for example). Unlike many 60s stories, however, I doubt that there was any conflict between ACT, their staff and the rock bands, as they were all young, alive and living in San Francisco. Maybe this show was just another gig, but I suspec the Zig Zag Follies were more interesting than they might initially seem. Many famous actors got their start as junior members of ACT, so perhaps there are some celebrities involved in this story as well, but unless someone involved recalls it we may never know.

Notes On The Performers
Big Brother and The Holding Company with Nick Gravenites
Janis Joplin had left Big Brother in December of 1968, and the group had scattered somewhat. In Summer of 1969, the original four members of the band (Sam Andrews, James Gurley, Peter Albin and David Getz) got together again. They were a "name" band in San Francisco, but without their star attraction.

Nick Gravenites had been the leader of the Electric Flag, but his largest contribution to San Francisco rock was as a producer. He produced Quicksilver Messenger Service, and, ironically enough, Janis Joplin among many others. He actually recorded with Big Brother (on their 1970 and 71 albums), and performed with them periodically, but this is one of the few shows I know of where he was actually billed with them. He sounded very good with Big Brother, but the peculiar onus of "replacing" Janis made it difficult for the band to use different lead singers.

The Youngbloods
The Youngbloods had moved to San Francisco in September, 1967, and had established themselves as a San Francisco band. By late 1969, they were at their peak, as the re-release of their 1967 song "Get Together" had become a huge radio hit.

Ramblin Jack Elliott
Legendary folk singer Ramblin' Jack Elliott was actually a doctor's son from Brooklyn, but nonetheless he re-invented himself as a troubadour of the American West. Friend to Woody Guthrie and a huge influence on Bob Dylan and many others, by now he sounds familiar even if you've never heard him. In the 1960s, he was not widely known outside of Folk circles. He is a remarkably engaging, hypnotic performer in a way that does not translate well to recordings and is very difficult to explain to those who haven't seen him.

Penny Nichols
Penny Nichols had been an Orange County folksinger in 1965, who ended up touring Vietnam in 1966 as part of a folk duo. By 1967 she had moved to San Francisco, where she was a regular performer at the Fillmore and elsewhere (she opened for Traffic at Winterland in March, 1968, for example). She recorded a 1968 album for Buddah, and then went to England. By late 1969, she had returned, but for the next few decades she mostly wrote and recorded as a studio player (for more see here). This 1969 performance is the only one I can think of for this period, and leads me to suspect that there may have been some personal connection, as she was not a regular performer around the Bay Area at this time.

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