THE VILLAGE THEATER/FILLMORE EAST/THE SAINT--105 Second Avenue between 6th and 7th Streets. I haven't been able to nail down a precise history of the site's original embodiment as the Commodore Theater, but its page at cinematreasures.org comes mighty close. Apparently dating from 1926 and decorated in the Adamesque style, the Commodore was likely purpose-built as a combination legitimate theater and movie house. As befitting its Jewish Rialto address, it frequently hosted Yiddish productions. It was also occasionally used as a meeting hall for leftist groups in the '30s and '40s. At some undetermined point it was taken over by Loew's and live theater took a back seat to MGM films. At yet another undetermined point--presumably the early '60s--the Commodore became the Village Theater. [I've submitted a query to cinematreasures.org about the approximate dates for these transitions.]
Managed by Ben Barenholtz (who later operated the Elgin, a revival/art/midnight movie house at 175 Eighth Avenue--which is now the Joyce, a dance performance space), the Village Theater functioned as "a sort of bargain-basement counterculture Carnegie Hall," according to this article attributed to J. Hoberman. It must have still featured some Yiddish productions during this period; a 1966 photo of Timothy Leary standing outside the theater shows a "Yiddish-American Vaudeville and Films" sign hanging under the marquee. But many of its events were designed to appeal to the area's growing population of hepcats, hipsters, and hippies. A random sampling of notable performers follows:
Lenny Bruce--November 29-30, 1963, and March 27-28, 1964, days before his bust at the Cafe au Go Go. Another gig was planned for November 25-27 that year but it got cancelled.
John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman shared a bill during December, 1966.
Timothy Leary staged a series of lectures/"psychedelic celebrations" beginning in September, 1966. Jackie Cassen and Rudi Stern provided the light shows; Stern gives an account of his experiences here. Click here for a review of one of these events, "An Evening With God," held on May 13, 1967. And here's a photo of Leary, Allen Ginsberg and Ralph Metzer praying before a 10-foot plaster Buddha in preparation for another psych fest.
On page 221 of The Crawdaddy! Book (Milwaukee: Hal Leonard, 2002) there's a reprint of an ad for a concert by Chuck Berry "and his original band" on April 26, 1967.
Supposedly there was a "Cosmic Love-In" on May 3, 1967 or thereabouts, but I have no idea who played at it.
UPDATE 1/24/2013: Here's a poster for the event, which was recently shared on the Fillmore East Facebook group by the ever-lusty Harold Black. The New Yorker's website has an abstract for an article about it, as published in the May 13, 1967 issue.
Sally Eaton, a Hair cast member, remembers a fashion show she modeled in at the theater during May, 1967, in this 1970 Astrology Today article.
WOR-FM held its first anniversary concert there on June 11, 1967, with Janis Ian, the Blues Project, Richie Havens, the Chambers Brothers, Jeremy and the Satyrs, and the Doors, all emceed by WOR jocks like Rosko, Murray the K, and Scott Muni. The Doors played the theater again on September 9, 1967.
[UPDATE 6/1/2010: Richard Goldstein's "Pop Eye" column in the June 22, 1967 issue of the Village Voice features a review of this event. And a couple years ago, Tim at Stupefaction put up an image of the poster.]
The "Bread For Heads" Festival, a legal defense benefit for busted marijuana smokers, took place on June 28, 1967. Included on the bill were Allen Ginsberg, The Mothers of Invention, Tim Buckley, the Fugs, and in perhaps their only Manhattan appearance ever, the Left Banke. On the Leftbankism yahoogroup, Banke bassist Tom Finn recalled that this gig was probably set up by their stage pianist Emmett Lake, who by day worked as music editor for the East Village Other. Singer Steve Martin took issue with the retinal-searing projections of the Joshua Light Show, exhorting them to "turn those f---in' lights off, we're not a psychedelic band!" The Banke borrowed the Mothers' gear and left theirs in the van outside, only to find it all stolen afterwards.
UPDATE 7/20/2006: A while back a reader named Terry K. generously sent me a picture of an ad for another "Bread For Heads" gig. To the best of my psychedelic-blobby-lettering reading ability, this one took place on June 25, and included Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsburg, the Group Image, and the Northern Lights, among others.
The Who, July 8, 1967 with the Blues Project and Richie Havens, and November 25-26, 1967, again with Havens; the poster is available here. This guy offers some memories and a photo from one of those gigs (scroll down almost to the bottom of the page).
Vanilla Fudge played the Village Theater three times in '67. On July 22 they shared the bill with the Byrds and the Seeds--it could have been an extremely avian event had the Fudge not recently changed their name from the Pigeons. On September 2 they and the Illusion opened for Mitch Ryder, and on November 3 the Yardbirds were the openers (part of an apparent weeklong engagement for the 'birds, according to the Chromeoxide.com site--November 3-8).
Speaking of the Yardbirds, they had previously played the Village Theater on August 25, 1967, on a bill with the Youngbloods and Jake Holmes. Page and co. heard Holmes perform "Dazed and Confused" that night, which eventually "Led" to an act of "Page-iarism." (Holmes had also played the theater earlier that month on August 5, with Janis Ian, the Association, and Chrysalis.)
Cream, September 23 and 30, 1967. The 9/23 gig was shared with Moby Grape, who in turn headlined the place on November 11, 23 and; 24 later that year.
Blood, Sweat and Tears debuted at the Village Theater as openers for James Cotton--not sure of the date but I think it was in October, 1967.
Procol Harum, October 28, 1967.
The Grateful Dead, December 26-27, 1967.
Shortly afterwards came Bill Graham and the Fillmore East, about which so much has already been said that I'll mainly point you to other sources for more info:
- Glatt, John. Rage and Roll: Bill Graham and the Selling of Rock (New York: Carol, 1993).
- Graham, Bill and Robert Greenfield. Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out (New York: Doubleday, 1992). There's also a 2004 edition by Da Capo Press.
- Kostelanetz, Richard (text) and Raeanne Rubenstein (photos). The Fillmore East: Recollections of Rock Theater (New York: Schirmer, 1996).
- Rothschild, Amalie R. and Ruth Ellen Gruber. Live at the Fillmore East: A Photographic Memoir (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2000).
- The Fillmore East Preservation Society (lots of info, including a comprehensive list of shows).
- Wolfgang's Vault (all manner of memorabilia from the Fillmores West and East).
- Fillmore East Concert Journals.
- Fillmore East Show List
Still, I can't resist inserting some anecdotes from my library. Here's one from Joel Lobenthal's Radical Rags: Fashions of the Sixties (New York: Abbeville, 1990):
In the late '60s, the rock hall replaced the discotheque as as the prime area for innovative fashion display. "In fashion terms a Fillmore East opening night deserves as much coverage as the Philharmonic Galanosed Galas," claimed the Village Voice shortly after the rock auditorium opened in March 1968. "It's a scene-making pageant whether they're seeing Lenny at Lincoln Center or Jimi at the Fillmore." In 1968, Bill Graham...tied together the pageantry in the audience with the fireworks on stage when he organized a mini fashion happening during an interval in the evening's mixed bill. Unheralded, Barbara Mott, wife of designer Michael Mott, zoomed up the center aisle of the rock palace on an enormous Harley Davidson. Dressed in Mott's black leather bra top and miniskirt pegged with hobnail studs, she tore up a ramp to the stage and parked her vehicle to the accompaniment of a cannonade of cheers from the Fillmore's audience.
And from Perry and Glinert's Fodor's Rock and Roll Traveler USA (New York: Fodor's, 1996): Graham had to contend with the dynamics of a neighborhood even seamier than it is now. The Hells Angels, to whom an entrance fee was an alien concept, had their New York headquarters around the corner, while anarchic underground political groups like the Motherfuckers tried to use the place as a launching pad for changing the world. The MC5, who rolled into the Fillmore advertised as the "people's revolutionary band," had all their gear ripped off. Graham recalled the incident with an ironic chuckle in his autobiography: "The people's band had all their equipment stolen. By the other people, I guess." Other mishaps included Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones being turned away from his own gig in May 1969 by a security-conscious steward--Jones threatened to bring gargantuan manager Peter Grant's wrath down on the guy's head--and the firebombing of a grocery store next door during a packed Who concert. As the blaze threatened to spread, an undercover cop in full hippie gear rushed onto the stage to try to clear the building; not aware that there was a fire or that the stage crasher was a cop, Pete Townshend knocked him off the stage with a well-aimed kick to the nads. Graham eventually got to the mike and organized a peaceful exit as the Who slunk out the side door. The next day Townshend and Roger Daltrey, who had also shown some tasty brawling skills, gave themselves up to the police. [Eventually] Graham--frustrated by bands who found they could make as much money by playing one night at Madison Square Garden as from several shows [at the Fillmore]--surprised the rock world by closing the Fillmore East on June 2, 1971, a few days before he also closed the Fillmore West. For the final show, the Allmans were back, accompanied by the J.Geils Band, the Beach Boys, and Albert King.
[An interesting factoid that I didn't know until I was researching the Electric Circus post--for a while the East Village Other had its offices in a loft at the Fillmore, provided gratis by Graham. This sweet deal didn't last forever, though. After the Circus was bombed, an EVO article implied that this act was in protest of the club's high admission fees, and further suggested that someone should do the same at the Fillmore East since its ticket prices were just as expensive. Graham promptly told the paper's editors to get the hell out of his building.]
[UPDATE 9/28/2007: A while back, Ben Barenholtz himself left a comment setting a few things straight--including the fact that it was he who had donated the office space to the EVO. Read it!]
Apparently there were sporadic attempts to keep the theater going as a live music venue called the Village East in the early '70s, but none were successful. The building was vacant for most of the decade, but on September 20, 1980, it was reopened as the Saint, owned by Bruce Mailman--perhaps thee most highly esteemed gay dance club of all time. Gone were the old theater's seats, stage, LSD, and freak-out rock; in their place were high-tech astronomical fantasy decor (check out these pics), poppers/coke/ecstasy, and throbbing '80s disco. From Brewster and Broughton's Last Night A D.J. Saved My Life (New York: Grove, 1999):
$4.2 million was spent in transforming what had been the revered rock venue the Fillmore East into a huge club, purpose-built for its newly liberated gay constituency. Within three weeks of its opening, 3,000 men had paid $250 to become members...The Saint was the most spectacular club anyone in New York had seen. You walked through a pair of gleaming stainless steel doors through to a massive area with bars, banquettes and cushioned chairs. Upstairs was the vast 5,000 square foot dancefloor, and above this the club's famous dome. Imagine a hemisphere seventy-six feet across made of aluminum and theatrical scrim. Lit from inside it appeared solid, but when illuminated from above it became formless clouds of psychedelic light. In the center of the dancefloor was a planetarium projector, and when the moment was right this would cast the image of the night sky onto the darkened dome.
It was the hottest dance club in town for a few years, and an important focal point for the gay community. From Terry Miller's Greenwich Village and How It Got That Way (New York: Crown, 1990):
As the AIDS epidemic began its relentless decimation...the Saint made its facilities available for benefits for organizations intent on providing help that the government would not offer. "The Saint reflected what was happening to the gay community," Mailman recalled. "Here's a group that had no established social consciousness, and it organized itself instantly to deal with a nightmare. Like that community, the Saint began with one purpose, but shifted to another. I thought it had to be done." Though large amounts of money were raised, attendance began to decline. In October 1985 the club opened to nonmembers, and about a year later to its first non-gay crowd. "In the end, we stopped because I was just burned out," Mailman commented," and there was no one else to do it." News of the Saint's impending closing [spread] like word of a death in the family...[At the final fifty-hour party] songwriter Paul Jabara came to say good-bye and to sing his hit tune, "Last Dance." Disco diva Thelma Houston came by as well to belt out her torchy hit, "Don't Leave Me This Way." But they did leave, and in the early morning of May 2, 1988, the Saint closed its doors. Within days, those doors were spray-painted with words of memory, words of hope for a dark night: "Hold on to my love--J. Ruffin."
Attempts were made to turn the Saint into a live venue but they never quite panned out (ISTR announcements for a Public Enemy show ca. late '89 or early '90 that was either cancelled or moved to another club, possibly the World). After it finally closed for good, the building stood dormant for several years. There was talk of turning it into a multiplex, and supposedly one local businessman-on-a-mission attempted to get funding to restore it as Fillmore-like auditorium--but neither scenario came to pass. The theater portion of the building was demolished in the mid-'90s; in its place now stands the Hudson East, a luxury rental apartment building with a plaque near its 225 E. 6th St. entrance explaining what had previously been there. The lobby section and its facade still exist, however, and currently house a branch of the Emigrant Savings Bank. There's supposed to be a display of Fillmore East memorabilia inside the bank, including photos by "unofficial house photographer" Amalie Rothschild--I'll have to scope it out on my next visit this coming August.
UPDATE 5/6/2010: A couple months ago EV Grieve did a nice post on the Loew's Commodore, including pics of the tribute collages that now hang in the Emigrant Bank branch. There is a Fillmore East Archives group on facebook. And here are some Village Theater ads recently unearthed by a long-time Internet pal of mine, the eagle-eyed Rob B.
UPDATE 5/23/2010: Why I failed to learn about or mention the important role that Gary Kurfirst played in all of this until just now is a mystery for the ages. And oh my, were there actually Wilson Pickett and Carla Thomas/Otis Redding shows here, and when did they happen?
UPDATE 5/31/2010: I've found a few items pertaining to the Village Theater in the Billboard Google archives.
- From the November 5, 1965 issue: "Donovan will make his first concert appearance in the U.S. on November 19 at the Village Theater. Harold Leventhal is presenting."
- The March 17, 1967 issue has a review for a concert with the Ornette Coleman Trio and the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet.
- From the May 20, 1967 issue: "The Herbie Mann Orchestra will do excerpts from its Atlantic album, 'Impressions of the Middle East,' at the Village Theater on June 3."
- From the June 10, 1967 issue: "[The Doors] will perform at a June 11 concert at the Village Theater with Janis Ian and will work the Scene for three weeks following the concert."
- From the September 16, 1967 issue: "The Glories played the Village Theater on Wednesday (6), with the Vibrations and Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs."
- From the October 7, 1967 issue: "Lastest showcase for pop talent will be the Village Theater. Starting October 11, and continuing each Wednesday evening, the theater will hold a 'Weekly Freakly,' featuring local Lower East Side talent and some top recording acts. Admission charge will be $1. The acts will not be announced in advance.
- From the November 13, 1967 issue: "Chuck Berry will make his New York concert debut Nov. 24 at the Village Theater." The following week's issue clarified that this wasn't his debut in the area, but rather his first full-length concert in town. This makes me wonder if I've got the correct date for the Berry concert mentioned above, even with the existence of that ad.
- From the November 25, 1967 issue: "Buck Owens is not a hippie, though obviously some hippies are country music fans, but he is a trouper and he performed a quality show November 12 at the Village Theater, a site that has been featuring rock acts on a weekly basis. It was undoubtedly an experience for both entertainer and the entertained, as well as an experiment by the promoters to see how well country would go in the Village. It didn't go all that well; only 800 showed up...also on the show included Bobby Austin, Wynn Stewart and Tommy Collins."
- The January 27, 1968 issue has an ad for the lightshow services of Pablo, who listed "rock shows at the Village Theater" among his credits.
- From the February 10, 1968 issue: "Pearls Before Swine, ESP-DISK recording artists, play the Village Theater Feb. 23 and 24."
- The April 6, 1968 issue has an ad for Herbie Mann's "The Wailing Dervishes" album, recorded live at the Village Theater, presumably at the June 3, 1967 show.]
[UPDATE 6/4/2010: I posted a whole bunch of '67 Village Theater ads here.]
[UPDATE 6/25/2010: Here are some 1969 Fillmore East ads.]
[UPDATE 12/19/2010: I revisited cinematreasures.org's page on Loew's Commodore today, and found that much more information has been added since I was last there. Of particular note: lots of gaps are filled in about the dates when the building's various transitions occurred; some light is shed on the "New Fillmore East" and "Village East" phases in the early '70s; and several brave urban explorers discuss the times they ventured into the building during its pre- and post-Saint periods of abandonment. Also, here are some late '60s and early '70s Fillmore East ads from the Village Voice.
UPDATE 11/14/2011: Please see the improved and revised 1967 Village Theater ads post here.
UPDATE 3/16/2012: Please see the improved and revised 1969 Fillmore East ads post here.
UPDATE 1/24/2013: It sat on my "to read" pile for over a year but I finally got around to Ed Sander's fantastic Fug You (New York: Da Capo, 2011). He mentions playing at the Bread for Heads benefit on June 28, 1967, and included a small reproduction of the poster. I found a photo of the ad not too long ago on eBay, taken from the July 1-15, 1967 issue of the East Village Other.
A few pages later, Sanders wrote about another event which I hadn't heard about before: "The Community Breast concert at the Village Theater on Second Avenue on August 16 raised $1,000 for a Lower East Side version of the Digger's San Francisco Free Store. The Fugs performed, as did Tiny Tim, Judy Collins, Ritchie Havens, Paul Krassner, Hugh Romney (soon to become Wavy Gravy), and Timothy Leary's sitarist, Peter Walker." Again, a small repro of the poster is included in the book, but here's a photo of it from the Oakland Museum's website.