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Remembering the Fillmore East

The Fillmore East before it closed in 1971 (left) and the building today (right).
The Fillmore East before it closed in 1971 (left) and the building today (right).

Forty-four years ago today, music promoter Bill Graham opened the Fillmore East at 105 Second Avenue. This 2,600 seat venue hosted concerts from 1968 to 1971, including performances by the Allman Brothers Band, the Who, and the Doors. The venue was known for launching many seminal bands of the era, and because of its excellent acoustics, many albums were recorded there as well.  The former lobby of the Fillmore East remains as a branch of Emigrant Bank, and reminders of the music venue exist in and around the building in the form of an exhibit in the lobby of the bank, the street name Bill Grahams Way, and a tile mosaic on the lamppost outside the building.

2nd Avenue at 6th Street is named for Fillmore East owner Bill Graham.
2nd Avenue at 6th Street is named for Fillmore East owner Bill Graham.

The site was originally home to the Commodore Theater, along the strip of theaters on 2nd Avenue that produced Yiddish Theater and was known as the Jewish Rialto. With earlier incarnations as a movie house, by the 1930s, live Yiddish drama and vaudeville appeared onstage and the theater was rented out for meetings and benefits to left-wing groups. The restaurant Ratner’s Second Avenue, located next door, was a favorite of theatergoers and Yiddish stage stars alike. As the Yiddish Rialto declined, the building once again became a home for movies and other performances and was home to performances by Lenny Bruce, Timothy Leary, and Allen Ginsberg. GVSHP is working on an architectural resource study of the East Village, and has been exploring the history of the Yiddish Theater through this project. You can learn about the Cafe Royal, the Saul Birns building, and the Yiddish Walk of Fame from these past OFF THE GRID posts.

The band the Doors is immortalized on a mosiac lamppost outside the former Fillmore East by the Mosaic Man, Jim Powers.
The band the Doors is immortalized on a mosiac lamppost outside the former Fillmore East by the Mosaic Man, Jim Power.

Bill Graham’s Fillmore East was a spin-off venture from his concert venue the Fillmore in San Francisco, named for its original location at the intersection of Fillmore Street and Geary Boulevard. He ran two-show concerts, several times a week that attracted enthusiastic audiences. Among those performing at the Fillmore East were Elton John, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Grace Slick, the Allman Brothers Band, John Lennon and Frank Zappa. Graham staged occasional benefits as well, notably one for Eldridge Cleaver called, “Black Theater for the Black Panthers.” The venue was also famous for its state of the art light shows, led by Joshua White. Graham closed the Fillmore East in 1971 and went on to stage mega rock concerts in arenas, outdoor stadiums and parks.

In 1980, the building was converted into a private gay nightclub called the Saint, known for its brilliantly appointed dance floor and parties. In 1996, the theater portion of the building located on 6th Street was torn down to build a residential building, but the lobby portion of the building still exists. Its current tenant, a branch of Emigrant Bank, has an interesting mini-exhibit of the building’s history in its lobby.

8 responses to “Remembering the Fillmore East

  1. As with so many of our, or your, generation, we bow down and venerate anything to do with the great God, “Rock and Roll,” and dismiss anything that came before it. The Filmore East was “The Filmore East for about three years. And not too many residents of the neighborhood were happy about it, for reasons I won’t go into.

    Nevertheless the theater was a beautiful grand movie palace (the Commodore) of the 20’s, ornate and traditional in it’s architecture and was such for close to 40 years. Imagine, for 40 years families, lovers, children (like myself) enjoyed popular entertainment there, not to mention news reels, cartoons and short subjects. Yes, it housed live theater intermittently. And it was also one of the last venues at which that the immortal Al Jolson performed live, during a promotional tour of the bio-pic “Jolson Sings Again,” in 1950.

    As the Commodore the history of the building is far richer and much more meaningful than that of the Filmore.

    In my opinion.

  2. The first time I was at the ‘Filthmore,’ as it was irreverently termed in those days, it was not for music but politics. It was in October of 1968 and it was the venue for a ‘power to the people’ kind of program, featuring Eldredge Cleaver as a guest speaker. There was no music, just a lot of speeches by scowling panther-types. Cameras were not allowed, but I had my Leica with a telephoto lens and shot off a roll of Tri-X, no flash. I, a white guy, was not confident enough to reload the camera, so that was all I got.

    I have never seen any reference to this event. I think I may have a few bits of ephemera from that time, but so much water has gone over my own dam there’s probably little of it left. I don’t think even Krassner covered it.

    I did get to see the Airplane and the Mothers, a few months later. RIP Bill Graham.

  3. Interesting history, I guess I had thought the theater was renovated not demolished.
    Back around 1977 when the theater was basically closed/abandoned I remember finding one of the rear doors was open and going inside to explore, if I remember right, there was some vandalism and stripping that happened by then, thus the open door in the back I guess.

    I removed one of the large- about 5 foot tall brass and iron lantern lamps that was attached to the wall near the stage, there were several of them all having large spikes on the top and several glass panels, supported by a cast iron scrolled acanthus leaf bracket that was bolted to the wall.
    I guess the rest were scrapped since the building was later remodelled and then demolished.

  4. The Fillmore East differed from both the Fillmore Auditorium and the Fillmore West (formerly the Carousel Ballroom) in San francisco as the were ballroom and the Fillmore East was a theatre. Though Bill Graham originally had the intention of taking out the seats in the orchestra and leveling the floor it in the summer of 1968 to increase the capacity of the theatre….It didn’t happen and it luckily this beautiful theatre remained intact with a who’s who in music performing there.

    What I respected about Bill most was how much he catered to the audience, the Fillmore had the best sound system (Hanley in the early days) and the spectacular Joshua Light Show, who provided mesmerizing visuals…No expense was spared. Going to the Fillmore was an experience, not just musically….We were one and the audience played a major role in the magic that occured there and who knew that most….Than the artists that played there, of which many are now legends.

    You can hear it when you listen to Humble Pie’s Rockin’ The Fillmore (recorded at the Fillmore East)…The band is feeding off the audience as are the Allman Brothers Band on their infamous Live At Fillmore East….That album couldn’t of been recorded anywhere else and they knew it. Most of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Youngs (who played the Fillmore for 6 consecutive nights) Four Way Street was recorded at the Fillmore East and all of the Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen as well as Jimi Hendrix’s Band Of Gypsys and so many more.

    This post/article lists Otis Redding as playing the Fillmore East, he did not….Believe me I would of been there! And it also mentions that the lobby portion of the theatre “still exists”…it doesn’t, it was torn down as it was part of the theatre….I believe what Sheryl meant or thought was that the box office foyer (where you bought tickets) which did lead to the doors, that when opened you entered into the theatre.The entire theatre was demolished in 1995 and all that is left is the small 4 story office building on 2nd Avenue where the bank is now.

    1. Thank You Bob.
      For trying to preserve the Fillmore , as it existed, you should be commended for your efforts.
      As time rolls on , we have less and less of the time period , sometimes called the “Renaissance of Rock.”
      The Marquee in London had a similar fate , although I was fortunate enough to have actually visited that venue. It was dark , dank, and
      Imperfect. A great venue that was the stuff of legend.
      Name a great band , and they were there. From Hendrix & Cream to the Stones. Just like the Fillmore.
      As the last of our aging rockers fade out, pass on, and just stop touring, musics greatest era (my opinion), is passing as a fond and heartfelt memory.
      History will remember it as legend. And much like the jazz era, it will be increasingly difficult to hear the real deal.
      Rock on , my friends, if you can find great live rock & roll , that is.😎

  5. My mother grew up directly across the street in the 1930s-50s with her big Italian family. She loved the excitement of the area and talked fondly of the “Jewish Broadway” and Ratners. A special time and place indeed.

    1. That’s super interesting and I can picture your mom. Thank you so much for an exciting memory that somehow now feels like it happened to my mom…blessings.

  6. Whenever we could scrape up the 5 bucks, almost every weekend I would drive my friends to the Fillmore. We saw all the big names and “suffered” through the opening acts, although I can only remember the bands when prodded, we were so crushed. Amazing that we made it back to Levittown in one piece.

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