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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," he said.


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 punkers NOFX.


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 Ballroom.


"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. "

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