Unlike the former Fillmore East two blocks north, there is no plaque at 66 Second Avenue between 3rd and 4th Streets to honor the Anderson Theater. The forgotten Anderson kicked off with a series of rock concerts sponsored by Crawdaddy magazine on February 2, 1968 with Country Joe and the Fish, Jim Kweskin and Soft White Underbelly, predecessor to Blue Oyster Cult. Notable bands followed in the months ahead: the Yardbirds, Traffic, Procol Harum, Moby Grape and Big Brother & the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin. Big Brother’s Feb. 17 show introduced Joplin to many New York rock fans.
Cinema Treasures notes that the venue opened in 1926 as the Public Theatre and presented Yiddish vaudeville shows and films. After a few years as the Antillas, a Spanish language cinema, it became the Anderson in 1957. The hall, named after theatrical agent Phyllis Anderson, offered Yiddish plays through the 1960s.
Two Stony Brook University students, Neil Louison and Sandy Pearlman, came up with the idea to present rock concerts at the Anderson. The pair had produced rock shows at the college and Crawdaddy asked them to do the same in the East Village.
The Village Theater, which would become the Fillmore East, was Louison and Pearlman’s first choice, but the deal fell through. Backed with financing by a shady bar owner, Tony Lech, the Anderson hosted a few months of concerts until Bill Graham opened the Fillmore East in March 1968. Most of the Anderson staff were quickly hired by Graham and the Anderson closed soon after.
Hilly Kristal renamed the hall the CBGB Second Avenue Theatre in 1977 and featured punk and new wave acts like Patti Smith and Talking Heads but the venture only lasted until 1979. Most of the building was demolished in 1997. Its lobby is now a bicycle shop and the rest of the auditorium, which extends to 4th Street, is an apartment building.
The marquee is gone but the building’s façade has largely survived. Its curtain cartouche hints at its origins as a theater.
For a look back into this brief but memorable period in the East Village music scene 50 years ago, we talked with some of the insiders who worked behind the scenes and on stage at the Anderson Theater.Neil Louison (Managing Partner): I was about 18. And the brains behind the music scene at that point was Sandy Pearlman. Crawdaddy magazine very much wanted to duplicate what we had been doing at Stony Brook. We had gone in to Crawdaddy and became acquainted with the fellow who ran the Cafe au Go Go, Howard Solomon. He was packaging blues and folk before the San Francisco stuff came in. We would make it possible for the artists to have a tour by giving them a pretty big chunk of money for them to perform in a gymnasium.
When we left the school, we didn’t want to stop doing it. So I got up an investor, Tony Lech, who was not a very savory fellow to say the least. This guy gave me a whole bunch of cash. And with that cash we were able to go to the talent agencies and we were able to get people. They were very keen on marketing the San Francisco bands.
Our first show was to be in what was called the Village Theater. Roger Euster had the lease and I gave him $5,000 to book this date. Country Joe and the Fish, Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band and Soft White Underbelly, which was Blue Oyster Cult. Sandy Pearlman was their producer and manager. This was all to promote his producing career.
Roger had taken the money from us and then the marshals came and seized the building. So we didn’t have a venue and we’d already coughed up half the money on the other end of it. And then Roger said call this realty company on 21st Street and they had the Yiddish theater, which became the Anderson.Joshua White (Joshua Light Show): The Anderson was just a smaller-than-the-Fillmore, kind of rotten old theater. I just wanted to do light shows and I was looking around for anything I could get my hands on. I had heard that Crawdaddy magazine was going to put on concerts every weekend at the Anderson.
John Morris (Operations Director): In those days it was called the Yiddish Anderson Theater. And in fact there was a play playing that I got to watch, with Menasha Skulnick and Molly Picon. It was called The Bride Got Furblundget – it means “confused.”
Joshua White: It was funny because all of the dressing room signs and all of the doors were in English and Yiddish. John and I went there. We talked them into including us.John Morris: I went in to look at it and went OK, we can do it. And so there was Chip Monck, who was around, there was Josh White, who I had worked with over the years and there was Chris Langhart, who I just met, who was the head of the theater technical department at NYU. We went into the theater and there was a guy named Tony Lech who put up some of the money and who introduced us to Jerry Pompili, who was supposed to be Tony’s heavy.
Jerry Pompili (House Manager): Tony was a real colorful character. Tony was a Polish Jew from Brooklyn. His big claim to fame was he went to high school with two of Carmine Lombardozzi’s nephews, Santo and Danny. Santo’s nickname was Lead Pipe for obvious reasons. Tony thought he was connected. And he did have a relationship in some way or another but not as much as he thought.
Tony had bought this bar in the Village just south of Sheridan Square called the Village West. It was my local bar. Tony and I got to be friends and what happened was Tony had me working from midnight to four in the morning.
He thought of himself as a gangster but he wasn’t. He owned a gun, he owned a little .25 caliber Baretta that was never loaded. And he used to do this thing, he used to have me come with him to places and he would have me put the gun in my waistband and if he gave me a signal he would want me to flash it, which never happened.
John Morris: We discovered pretty soon that Jerry was too nice to be a heavy. So we referred to him as the light heavy.Jerry Pompili: Tony agreed to front them $15,000 on the condition that he ran the box office and they put together the booking and production and everything. Tony had me come over to, in his words, guard the door but I ended up being the house manager after the first week because it was totally disorganized.
Joshua White: So we figured out how to do it. We were all friends that worked together, we were intense, early 20-somethings. We figured it all out.
Neil Louison: What a great house, 1,750 seats. Beautiful house. Not built as a movie palace, so it didn’t have a proliferation of gilt plaster or the scale of the Fillmore, about twice the size.
The Anderson had a 32-foot proscenium arch. I think the stage was 30 feet deep. There was no AC current in the building. It was antique.
John Morris: We started to put on concerts. I remember catching a Yale lock that had been thrown across the hall just before it hit my wife at a concert. It was a zoo.
Neil Louison: It was a lowlife endeavor, the whole thing was criminals on one end, psychopath people high out of their minds all of the time. Shows would be an hour and a half late opening the curtain, which drove me crazy.
I very stupidly booked Gladys Knight and the Pips at some point. I wasn’t experienced enough to know that I should have cancelled the concert because it just did not sell. There was no crossover between the sort of music sung by Gladys Knight with the grungy San Francisco rock and roll, the hippie stuff. I didn’t cancel and I think we sold 50 seats. I owed them something like $3,500. It was a real expensive act.
John Morris: We booked in Janis and B.B. King, the first time he’d ever played downtown.
Neil Louison: The Big Brother guys were really nice guys. I remember vividly when they arrived because I let them in the building. And Miss Joplin was really concerned about being reviewed in New York. They just wanted to party. She was already behaving like she did. She had a pint of Southern Comfort in her bag. That was pretty shocking to me.
John Morris: Janis and Big Brother & the Holding Company, of course, went through about seven and a half bottles of Southern, cleaned out the local liquor store of Southern Comfort.
Jerry Pompili: It was where I first saw Janis Joplin. I walked in on her sound check and I think she was doing “Piece of My Heart” and it was just a sound check, she wasn’t even trying and she was mind-blowing.
John Morris: She was terrified to go on. Because B.B. went on and he’d never played before a white audience downtown and he just blew everybody away. He was phenomenal. And Janis said, “I can’t follow that. He’s just too fantastic, too good.” And I said, “Honey, you got to.” And so she said, “What do I do, what do I do?”
There was a curtain in the Anderson which was grey and it came up and down. I said, “I’ll tell you what. When I pull that curtain up, you guys do ‘Ball and Chain’ and you just come charging at that audience and just grab them and make them yours.”
And that’s precisely what she did. It was one of the most exciting things that I have ever seen in all the years I did it. She just came from way upstage and just went WAH…! Bam. And she had ’em.
B.B. was standing in the wings. He was flabbergasted, he’d never seen anything like it either. So it was a night where two great artists who’d never seen each other, never met each other, got to blow each other away. As well as the audience. And that’s how we started.
Peter Albin (Big Brother & the Holding Company): I don’t remember much about the Anderson theater gig, but I do remember that we had fun and it was impressive to see B.B. King up close. The East Village neighborhood was kind of funky, almost scary. We got turned on to the Jewish dairy restaurants in the neighborhood.
Jerry Pompili: It was her first New York appearance and it broke big in the media. By the time she opened the Fillmore East, she owned the town.
John Morris: It really became the test to talk Bill Graham into coming to New York to do the Fillmore East.
Joshua White: Bill Graham was shy about coming to New York. We met with him at least once or twice in September of ’67 and he just was having such a good time in San Francisco and the ballrooms were a cash cow, it was all cash. The permissible attendance was 1,500 people and he was putting in 3,000 people.
He was rolling in money. But he was afraid to come to New York because it’s a whole other ballgame there. These Crawdaddy concerts were just great. We got him to come east during the Janis Joplin / Big Brother concert that sold out. He stood on the stage and he watched the screen go up, which is how they could change the scenery, and he saw the house full. And that’s where he was good. He counted the seats.
Jerry Pompili: Tony was approached by Bill Graham and set up a meeting at the Tin Angel on Bleecker Street, which is a restaurant above the Bitter End. Tony had me come with him. We were waiting there and Bill showed up, very politely introduced himself and set out this proposal about how he had been over to the Anderson, had seen the operation, was impressed with it and he thought that since he had these relationships with agents and managers and bands, he thought working together they could do something really good.
Of course Tony didn’t go for this at all. He went into a rage and started screaming at him, telling him, “Who the fuck do you think you are, coming into my town and telling me you’re gonna be my partner.” What none of us realized at the time – and I just came to this conclusion a little while ago – Bill already had the Fillmore East thing in the works at the Village Theater. Basically he was asking Tony to join him, which Tony didn’t get. So that meeting didn’t go well. Bill excused himself. I told Tony I think he was making a big mistake and it proved to be true.
Less than a month after this meeting, Bill opened up the Fillmore East and most of the production people jumped to Bill.
Joshua White: It all happened very quickly, we just marched out and marched across the street. It was only two blocks away.
Jerry Pompili: I stayed. Tony was my friend. I stayed until the opening night of the Fillmore East when I found out that Tony had printed up a couple of thousand counterfeit tickets to the opening night at the Fillmore. He gave them away around New York trying to disrupt the situation there. To me that was crossing the line and I told Tony I couldn’t be part of anything like that, people could get hurt, and I walked on him.
Within the year after he stopped doing shows at the Anderson, Tony was in a bar on Bleecker Street right across from the Bleecker Hotel and he was sitting there and to his right was a prostitute and to her right was her pimp. She dropped something on the floor and Tony bent down to pick it up and so did the pimp and they bumped heads. An argument ensued and the guy pulled out a gun and shot Tony and killed him.
It was really strange because the guy ran out the door and there was a cop car right there and they snagged him.