Avalon's spirits rising
Restored music hall holds the city's past
Tuesday, April 22
The ghost of Janis Joplin hides in the corners of the Avalon Ballroom,
where she played her first show with Big Brother and the Holding
Company in June 1966. It was the first place she was ever a star.
For more than 30 years, it has been hidden behind the walls of a
movie theater called the Regency.
But all the ghosts of the Avalon have been freed with the ballroom's
reopening this year in the hands of a young hippie entrepreneur
not even born when a dissolute Joplin, already far from her happy,
girlish glory days at the Avalon, died at age 29 alone in a Hollywood
motel in 1970.
Steve Shirley, 31, grew up named Morning Spring Rain with the Hog
Farm commune, unrepentant hippies who live outside Laytonville in
Mendocino County. He rented the Avalon last October for a trial
run and immediately booked the current edition of Big Brother and
the Holding Company. "It was symbolic that I had them in there,"
Shirley first heard that the historic hall might be available from
Stanley Mouse, the psychedelic poster artist who with his partner
Alton Kelley produced most of the famous posters for the Avalon
during its first incarnation and is about as far from a real estate
agent as you can get.
In January, Shirley took over the master lease to the balconied
jewel box of a ballroom perched above Sutter Street at Van Ness
Avenue and has since presented an increasing schedule of thriving
shows from hip-hop rockers Spearhead, a thrash/metal festival with
Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford, famed funkateers P-Funk and reggae
man Buju Banton.
Punk rock sensations AFI chose the Avalon over the Warfield for
their hot- ticket showcase dates next Saturday and Sunday, and Bill
Graham Presents rented the hall from Shirley for the occasion.
Other forthcoming shows at the Avalon include Motorhead, the Sons
of Champlin and a Jimmie Vaughan-John Mayall double-bill. The Graham
people have also rented the room again for a show next month with
Mouse, who designed a poster for the Spearhead show, attended the
March performance. "I'm sitting there selling my posters,"
Mouse said. "I'm having flashbacks. I used to dance over here.
I used to stand over there. It was amazing."
The escalator that took movie patrons to the Regency II remains,
but all the facades that had been installed have been torn out.
Everything has been painted wedding cake white and the floors are
covered with thick carpeting. The stage now fills one side of the
room, instead of the corner. But reach the top of the stairs and
there it is, back in at least some of its former glory, the Avalon
"We went up to the dressing room, which was exactly the same
place," said Big Brother guitarist Sam Andrew. "We thought
about everything that happened. We were afraid to look, but couldn't
not look. Everything's real slick -- you can see the skylight, which
I'm not sure I even knew was there in the old days. "
In 1966, after splitting his brief partnership with Bill Graham,
Texan transplant Chet Helms rented the ballroom, originally opened
as the Puckett Academy of Dance in 1911, for $800 a month.
For the next two years, Helms presented Dionysian revels every weekend
featuring bands all but unknown outside certain neighborhoods in
San Francisco. They all had funny names such as the Grateful Dead,
Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Daily Flash, Captain Beefheart
and his Magic Band. Before long, the Avalon Ballroom was known around
the world as the crucible of the new San Francisco rock.
Helms also managed Big Brother and the Holding Company and, when
the band decided the group needed a female vocalist, Helms summoned
an old friend from Austin named Janis Joplin.
But Helms lacked Graham's capitalist instincts. He was a hippie
zealot with a missionary's dedication. Although the Avalon was known
as a far more authentic alternative to Graham's more commercial
Fillmore Auditorium operation -- Joplin once famously earned Graham's
ire by saying the Fillmore was "a place where sailors go to
get laid" -- Helms' business ultimately foundered. By November
1968, after the city pulled his sound permits, he was looking elsewhere
for a place to throw his shows.
Another group of would-be rock impresarios took over the room for
a few shows the next year, but live music hasn't been heard in the
Avalon since Iron Butterfly was on the charts. In fact, the fictitious
business name "Avalon Ballroom" long ago expired, and
Nob Hill Hotel owner Rudy Columbini took out a new license a while
back and briefly used the name for a dance hall in one of his buildings
three years ago. He gave the license to landlord Scott Robertson,
an old friend.
Shirley, who lives in Cave Junction, Ore., with his pregnant wife
and their young child, promotes his concerts primarily on his Web
site (http://www.morningspringrain.com/). "He's got the youth,"
said Hog Farm tribal elder Wavy Gravy. "He finds them on the
Internet. That's where they hang out. He speaks their language."
Shirley is not an experienced promoter. He is still figuring out
small details like advance ticket sales, box-office staffing, advertising
and publicity. A catering company operates the bar. His house manager
previously worked on the catering crew of the Hog Farm's annual
PigNic. "Every show, I learn something new," Shirley said.
But Shirley does have the spirit. He put together a loose-knit house
band, the Avalon All-Stars, that features former members of the
Jerry Garcia Band, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and
others. Sheets cover the side wall for the psychedelic light show.
A curtain helps dampen the room's bright sound. He acknowledges
the spiritual role of Helms, who runs an old-school downtown art
gallery. "He comes in from time to time," said Shirley.
"He's got a standing welcome."