During 1967’s Summer of Love, the Village Theater at 105 Second Ave. was New York’s premier rock music venue. The Anderson Theater, two blocks south, competed with rock acts in early 1968. But the landscape changed later that year when San Francisco promoter Bill Graham converted the Village Theater into the Fillmore East. Most of Graham’s technical staff defected from the Anderson, which soon closed. Graham’s “Church of Rock ‘n’ Roll” presented stars that included Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, John Lennon, Eric Clapton and Elton John.
The Fillmore East’s March 8, 1968 debut show featured Big Brother & the Holding Company with Janis Joplin a month after the band rocked the Anderson. The show also featured blues great Albert King and folk rocker Tim Buckley. Graham’s eclectic lineups exposed rock fans to the best of jazz, folk, blues, Latin and Eastern music and made the East Village the center of the rock universe. Competition from arenas like Madison Square Garden and increased salary demands from bands convinced Graham to close the Fillmore East on June 27, 1971. Graham died in a helicopter crash in 1991.
The 50th anniversary of the Fillmore East will be celebrated tonight, March 8, at Theatre 80 in the East Village, and next month the Who will release a live album recorded at the Fillmore East in 1968. For an inside look at its history, we talked with some of the people who worked backstage and on stage at the storied venue.
Joshua White (Founder, Joshua Light Show): Bill Graham was shy about coming to New York. He was having such a good time in San Francisco and the ballrooms were a cash cow. He was rolling in money. But he was afraid to come to New York because it’s a whole other ballgame here.
We had already been doing shows regularly for several weeks at the Anderson, which was a real dump. So when Bill finally agreed to come to New York, he bought the Village Theater. It all happened very quickly, we just marched out and marched across the street. It was only two blocks away.
It was an old movie theater. And we just restored it a little bit, we didn’t remodel it or do anything like that.
John Morris (Managing Director): Chris Langhart ran the theater technical department of New York University. Josh introduced me to Langhart, which was the best favor he ever did me. Langhart became my tech director. He brought in all these students to do the Fillmore East. We paid like two bucks an hour and you had all these people who had theater backgrounds and they were all working in a new era, in a new milieu and medium, but it was theater to them. And it was theater to all of us. It just happened to be music instead of a play. And that really was the beginning.
Joshua White: It was a group effort. Chip Monck did the lighting but the light show people helped him hang his grid. I painted the box office and fixed the marquee. It was really like summer stock, a little bit. There was no departmentalizing. Kip Cohen ran the back end, the box office and stuff like that. The real person running the theater was John Morris. And Jerry Pompili was someone who had worked for the Anderson and just came along.
Jerry Pompili (House Manager): The house manager offered me a job as an usher. They had these horrible orange jumpsuits like prisoners wear. And that’s what the staff wore. I was there only about three months when I made house manager.
Joshua White: We were rushing to get it done. And because everybody was theater people, we just did it quickly and brought it off. The light show was fully developed. It was just a matter of giving us a place to stand. Everybody had had a dry run across the street under much more difficult circumstances.
We got ready for opening night at the Fillmore, Big Brother and the Holding Company. $3.00, $4.00 and $5.00, that was the opening ticket prices.
Kip Cohen (Managing Director): And then there was the painstaking period of about a week where we labored over the terrible, dreadful and consequential decision to raise the ticket price by 50 cents. It went to $3.50, $4.50, $5.50. And stayed there.
The groundswell internationally about the place and its opening was hyper-intense. There were so many people crushing and trying to get in, with or without tickets, that people were actually crushed in the lobby and pressed up against those marble walls. It was actually a little bit scary at first.
Peter Albin (Big Brother & the Holding Company): The opening of the Fillmore East was more impressive than the Anderson. Graham and his staff had done a lot more promotion than the other promoter. I do remember Albert King coming on to Janis in the dressing room. I liked his sets but I don’t remember a thing about Tim Buckley’s sets.
Joshua White: It was just spectacular. The thing that you tend to remember is Janis, who was really at the peak of her naive form. She just brought the house down. The audience already loved her, they came knowledgeable and loved her. It sold out. And she was just great. Nobody had seen anything like that.
Her songs from my point of view were very much made for light shows because they were full of pauses and things where she’d sing and then it would get very tiny and then it would explode and that’s perfect for us.
She’d sing “Ball and Chain” and she’d get to a part where she’d reduce it and the band would drop out and it was just her singing but you knew it was gonna come back with a big explosion. And that made for a great light show. Less interesting bands were people that played long, complicated songs. As good as they were, it was harder to do light shows behind a lot of them.
David Edward Byrd (Poster Designer): Bill Graham said, “We need posters.” I got a call from Josh saying, “We need posters.” Of course, I had never done a poster. I was a painting major and I pictured myself as the next Francis Bacon but that soon came to a halt.
So I said sure, I’ll do posters. I had no idea. I had to do a quick study on what’s going on in rock posters. So I did a real quick study and ripped out the first poster. I kind of felt like a fraud, that I was faking it.
The first one was Traffic, Blue Cheer and Iron Butterfly. It was all done by hand in those days. There were no computers. I did this first poster and it seemed to go over. Then I did another and another after that. Whenever there was a poster to do I did it. Some were good, some were not so good. I had no idea what I was doing. I was flying by the seat of my pants.
Joshua White: The light show was behind the screen and up on a scaffolding hanging off the wall. When you turned on that light show and mixed it and balanced it, it was amazing because it was 20×40-feet of pure color. The musicians were great but they were maybe six feet so it was a very big statement and incredibly satisfying.
We just kept growing. That was the great thing. It was a permanent gig. Bill Graham was very supportive of us. Gave us credit, gave us a fair enough amount of money that could grow. And it only got better because Bill knew quickly that if he had Chicago in for four shows, he could put anybody else on the bill, it didn’t make any difference.
So instead of putting on crap he brought in great blues artists. He brought in big bands, he brought in Latin music. These were just amazing shows and they were right in front of us.
David Edward Byrd: B.B. King and Albert King and Miles Davis, all those people were brought to those bridge and tunnel people who came in from Long Island. There were opening acts that would just blow you away. Who are these people? And then suddenly they became very famous. Or not.
Kip Cohen: If you’re a legitimate rock musician, if you did not play there, you really didn’t make it. That was your calling card. You had to be there – for a moment, anyway.
Jerry Pompili: The Fillmore East surrounded this supermarket and apartments right on the corner of Second Avenue and Sixth Street and there was a fire in that store. It was really bad. The flames were shooting right across Second Avenue, it was that big.
The Who were playing and a plainclothes cop jumped on the stage and tried to grab the microphone and of course no one knew who he was and Townshend kicked him off the stage and the stage crew grabbed him and threw him out the door.
We did two shows a night and I could empty the house in seven minutes normally. I talked with Bill. As soon as the Who were done, Bill got on stage and told everyone what to do, which was, don’t go out the front door, go out the Sixth Street doors from both upstairs and downstairs and we emptied the house in three or four minutes.
While we were trying to do that the fire department came running in the front door all freaked out because they hadn’t had a theater fire in God knows how many years and we literally stopped them in the outer lobby, saying, just hold on, we’ve got this, give us a second and they actually stopped and let us do it. And we just emptied the place out real quick.
We just got some smoke in the theater, the theater wasn’t burning at all and the only injury we had was one of our ushers doing a final sweep up in the balcony got a little overcome by smoke but we got him out, he was fine. But that was it. None of the audience was injured in any way.
John Morris: We re-did the rigging system in the Village Theater. Chip came in and hung a bridge over the audience that he could light from. Once Jim Morrison came to visit us. I was pissed at Morrison because he played Long Island and hadn’t played for us. And Morrison said, “My dad was in the Navy, that’s a boatswain’s chair,” because Chip was going up and down in the boatswain’s chair. “Can I ride in the boatswain’s chair?” So we put him in the boatswain’s chair and ran him 60 feet up in the air and tied him off and went next door to Ratner’s and had coffee. We could hear him screaming through the buildings.
Kip Cohen: There’s a photo of the Show Office, just off the rear of the orchestra section in the theater. Used only on show nights and shared by me and Bill. Bill is sitting at my desk. Being the transient, he used the folding table (under the punch bowl) for his desk. The other person is Tony Mazzucchi, the head technician on the stage.
This was the room that the managers and agents hung in, and where I settled the shows with the tour managers. One was considered elite if given access to this room. You had privacy but could hear every note from the stage. It’s also where Bill had a private conversation with Jimi Hendrix about his performance one evening before the show. Bill felt that he had not worked hard enough once and did not give the audience what they paid for– $3, $4, $5. Hendrix, humbled, agreed and his show that night, which lasted ’til 4 a.m., was electrifying.
David Edward Byrd: I had an agreement with Bill that I would get a front row seat so I was very close. I remember Jimi’s debut and all those amazing shows.
The Hendrix poster, people can’t believe I did all those little circles with a drop bow compass. They had to be perfect, you couldn’t make a mistake. It was very tedious but when you’re young and have certain drugs it makes it much easier [laughs] to do such boring shit. But in the end that’s what makes the image. Before that I had already done an image which was just Jimi alone. Jimi wanted me to put the other two band members in. He was a very fair and egalitarian guy and his partners were not so much like that.
Kip Cohen: Bill was arbitrarily despised politically by a large group of people including the denizens of the Lower East Side. Regarded as a capitalist and so forth. A lot of friction and negativity from the audience, even as they appreciated and adored the shows. There were physical fights. I saw him hit with a chain. He was appreciated much more after his death than early on.
David Edward Byrd: Bill was really great to me. A lot of people hated him because he was a no-bullshit guy. I remember Fleetwood Mac was five minutes late for their show. They had been out smoking in their limo and he canceled the show. And they came back in and the show was canceled. And everybody was leaving. He just would not put up with that. Five minutes was way too long.
And they were totally blindsided. But that was Bill, no bullshit, you don’t be late. This is show biz! This ain’t some loosey-goosey street performance. This is the second largest theater in New York next to Radio City.
Joshua White: It was the Woodstock effect that was one of the factors in the closing of the Fillmore. He couldn’t get the big acts. They all wanted to do one show in an arena. They could do one bad show in Madison Square Garden and make $75,000 as opposed to doing four shows at the Fillmore and make $25,000. So one by one the bands were eluding him.
And he didn’t really care for the next wave of bands, like Kiss and Alice Cooper. Not because they didn’t make interesting music, but because they had to put on much bigger, more profound and pompous shows. Ultimately Bill did just that, he just did the big shows. But for a while they just closed it down because they could.
David Edward Byrd: In 1971 when I was getting ready to do the final Fillmore poster, Bill demanded that I put every band that ever performed at the Fillmore East on the poster. Which didn’t leave a lot of room for anything else. And was just a bitch because I had to do it in paste-up and then Kip would call and say, “We left out three bands.” And then I would have to redo all the paste-up to fit those three in so it all filled the background area.
And then they would call up and say, “Oh, we forgot two more bands.” And this went on and I was tearing my hair out. And when I brought the poster in I said, “Bill, why are you closing?”
And he said, “Let me tell you. The drugs changed from acid and pot to red wine and barbiturates. I’m just sick and tired of cleaning up vomit. I’m not gonna do it anymore. We’re closing.”