The original owner of The Fillmore property, Emma Gates Butler, hired James W. and Merritt Reid in 1910 to draw plans for an Italianate-style dance hall at the southwest corner of Fillmore and Geary. The Majestic Hall and Majestic Academy of Dancing opened in 1912 on the second and third stories of the building, where the usual fare was Wednesday night socials and masquerade balls.
The Fillmore was a dance hall operating under various names and managements – The Get Acquainted Society, Ambassador Dance Hall – through the 1930s, and a roller rink through the 1940s. In 1952, local entrepreneur Charles Sullivan began to book some of the biggest names in black music into The Fillmore. Sullivan booked West Coast tours for performers including James Brown, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and Ike & Tina Turner. During the 1950s and 1960s, San Francisco gained a reputation as the preeminent Bohemian community in the United States. This reputation was never more deserved than during the mid-sixties, when the hipster of the Beat movement grew into the hippie of a more mainstream counter-culture. By the 1950s, the literary North Beach scene had given way to the emerging Haight-Ashbury, and radical politics had a niche across the Bay at the University of California at Berkeley. The line between culture and politics is easily blurred by young people in search of adventure. In the search for fun and community, public dances became the craze in 1965. With Ken Kesey leading his band of Merry Pranksters to the outer limits of reality, and the Family Dog putting together dance concerts at Longshoremen’s Hall, San Francisco was on its way to becoming the hip capital of the world.
Bill Graham was a veteran of the artistic community, but his greatest talents were his keen business acumen and his ability to organize events, creating comfortable and safe atmospheres without stifling the creative energies around him. Maintaining high aesthetic standards and calling on limitless personal energy, Bill pulled together a workforce that functioned as a family, and was a prime nurturing force in San Francisco’s burgeoning scene.
The Fillmore represented the pinnacle of creative music making in the late 1960s. From December 10, 1965, when Bill Graham produced a San Francisco Mime troupe benefit (Jefferson Airplane with Great Society and Mystery Trend; the Warlocks, later the Grateful Dead, kicked off the show), until July 4, 1968, The Fillmore audiences experienced a 2 1/2 year musical and cultural Renaissance that produced some of the most innovative, exciting music ever to come out of San Francisco. The careers of the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Moby Grape, the Butterfield Blues Band, and countless others were launched from The Fillmore stage. The most significant musical talent of the day has appeared there: Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Cream, Howlin’ Wolf, Captain Beefheart, Muddy Waters, The Who – well, you get the picture. Or you’ve heard the stories. If you’re lucky, you were there.
The Fillmore became a private neighborhood club for a time in the 1970s, and in the early 1980s, Paul Rat produced shows at the building (dubbed the Elite Club) with Black Flag, Bad Brains, The Dead Kennedys, T.S.O.L., Flipper, Public Image Ltd. and others. Bill Graham Presents produced a few events in the building in the 1980s, including the 20th anniversary party for the company, and filmed an HBO Fillmore music special there. In 1987, owners Bert and Regina Kortz hired Michael Bailey to begin producing shows in The Fillmore. The first show was Husker Du on April 29, 1987. But Bill always had a special place in his heart for the first place he ever did shows. On March 3, 1988, he returned to the original Fillmore with a show featuring African reggae act Alpha Blondy & The Solar System and Little Women.
The Fillmore reopened April 27, 1994 with The Smashing Pumpkins, Ry Cooder & David Lindley and American Music Club. Tickets for the show sold out in less than one minute. Linda Perry, formerly of 4 Non-Blondes, opened the show with a surprise set featuring a cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love.’
The Fillmore’s opening month lineup included Primus, Chris Isaak, Michelle Shocked, The Afghan Whigs & Redd Kross, Queen Latifah and Solsonics, Gin Blossoms, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Marshall Crenshaw, D’Cuckoo and Pele Juju, Sir Douglas Quintet and The Hellecasters, Brian Setzer Orchestra, Mother Hips, Ali Farka Toure and Ben Harper, Huey Lewis and the News, NRBQ, Blues Traveler and Soul Hat, They Might Be Giants and Frente!, Counting Crows, Thinking Fellers Union Local #282, Steel Pole Bathtub and SF Seals, Twister – A Ritual Reality, performed by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters with music by Jambay, Jefferson Starship, and Merl Saunders.
Throughout the decade since the club celebrated its re-opening, the quality, variety and number of shows held there has been staggering. The most appearances award would go to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who have played a total of 27 times at The Fillmore; first a 20-show marathon; the second run a meager 7 nights. Los Lobos brings down the house annually in December; Willie Nelson and Lucinda Williams both appear to have a soft spot for The Fillmore. No Doubt, Radiohead, The Cure, Sonic Youth, Prince, The White Stripes, Dave Chappelle and even Tom Jones have graced the stage multiple times.
May the shows keep coming, and, as Bill Graham always said, ‘Enjoy!’