I am a child of the ’60s, and the name Bill Graham was ubiquitous as I was growing up. While still in what we then called “junior high,” I sang in a little band that played at the opening of what was then called The Century City Mall.
In my orange paisley one-piece “bat dress” and with the best vibrato I could muster, I sang “White Rabbit” at this most unlikely venue. I knew about Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane because they’d been making their name on the concert scene thanks to Graham, the famous producer and promoter.
The Skirball Cultural Center has mounted a compelling and comprehensive exhibition of Bill Graham’s life and works. With 400 objects ranging from photographs to guitars to costumes, posters and even a light show, you will come away impressed. Tragically, his life was cut short in a helicopter crash at age 60. But what he accomplished in his lifetime could have filled many more.
He launched the psychedelic music era at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco and the Fillmore East in New York, with bands such as The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. But he is also renowned for spearheading benefit concerts supporting humanitarian causes, such as Live Aid and Human Rights Now.
In fact, this year marks the 30th anniversary of Live Aid, the 50th anniversary of The Grateful Dead’s live debut, and the 50th anniversary of Graham’s first-ever concert.
What I did not know about Graham is that he was a child of the Holocaust, and this exhibition brings that story to light.
Born Wolfgang Wolodia Grajonca in Berlin in 1931, he was the youngest and only son in a family of six children. His father died two days after his birth. His mother struggled, but as the Nazis rose to power she had no choice but to put him on the “Kindertransport” train with his sister to an orphanage in Paris. He discovered later that she was gassed by the Nazis on the train to Auschwitz.
Graham became friends with Ralph Moratz, who is featured in a video talking about their orphanage experiences. They were always hungry and would sneak out to steal apples in the nearby orchard, which is perhaps the reason why there was a tub filled with apples for attendees at the entrance to his concerts; the original is on view here.
When the Nazis overcame France, the children were no longer safe. His sister was too ill to leave — he would never see her again — but Graham and Moratz were transported to New York after a harrowing journey over land and sea, dodging German U-boats during their crossing.
Arriving in New York in 1941, he was taken in by a family in the Bronx and by age 18 was drafted into the Korean War; he received both the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
Unsure of what to do next, Graham studied with two top teachers (Uta Hagen and Lee Strasberg) but realized he wasn’t meant to be an actor. After a few cross-country hitchhiking trips, he became business manager of the politically radical theatre company, San Francisco Mime Troupe.
Shut down for an allegedly obscene performance, Graham pulled together a legal defense fundraising party for the Mime Troupe in 1965 that featured Beat poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, and Jefferson Airplane.
That was the turning point for Graham and rock ‘n’ roll history. Organizing two more benefit concerts at Fillmore Auditorium, he found his life’s calling.
He soon took over the Fillmore West, added the Fillmore East, and began staging not just concerts but full-on performance events and arena-sized festivals with the hottest bands of the time. Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Crosby Stills Nash & Young are just a few of those names.
“The Last Waltz,” the farewell concert by The Band, was later documented in a Martin Scorsese film of the same name. In 1981, Graham put together The Rolling Stones’ U.S. stadium tour. After raising $45 million for Live Aid to fight hunger in Africa, Graham put together a six-city 25th anniversary tour honoring Amnesty International with U2, Peter Gabriel and Lou Reed. Locally he set up a relief concert for victims of a Bay Area earthquake and later organized 60,000 people to welcome Nelson Mandela to Oakland.
There were tragedies and fights along the way — Graham’s anger was legendary — including a suspicious fire that destroyed $1 million in memorabilia at his San Francisco office. Remnants of that fire are on view at the Skirball.
A week after his death, nearly half a million people filled the Polo Field in Golden Gate Park for a free concert held in Graham’s memory. Among the performers were Carlos Santana, Robin Williams, Joan Baez and Kris Kristofferson singing “Amazing Grace.”
Three months after his death, Graham was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
This show is a must-see, for those who lived through the times and will rejoice in reliving them, and for those who will benefit from the history presented here.
Venice Art Walk
Speaking of benefits, the grand-daddy of them all locally is the Venice Art Walk.
On Sunday, May 17, join L.A.’s hottest established and emerging contemporary artists in raising over $650,000 to fund health care for the 20,000 low-income, uninsured and homeless patients of Venice Family Clinic.
Hosted at Google Los Angeles, Venice Family Clinic’s Art Walk & Auctions is free and open to the public and showcases a gallery-quality contemporary silent art auction. Don’t miss the accompanying artist studio tours (ticketed), artisan shops, family activities, entertainment, music, food and more at the most anticipated art event of the year.
For more information, visit www.veniceartwalk.org or call (310) 664-7916.
Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also reviewed theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.