Live at the Fillmore East: A History of 105 2nd Avenue

Posted on: March 15th, 2012 at 12:13 pm by

Our star urban historian Allison B. Siegel is back with another post epic post. This one’s about the legendary Fillmore East. Dig it!

On June 27, 1971, after arguably the most influential three years in the history of rock n roll, the Fillmore East took its last bow. This comparably small concert hall at 105 Second Avenue left proverbial footprints large enough to rival those of Radio City and the Beacon; after you read this, you’ll know why.

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Photo Credit: Amelie Rothschild

Let’s do how we do, folks, and take it back – this time to 105 Second Avenue’s beginning… New York City: the Roaring 20s.

Second Avenue in the 1920s was New York’s Yiddish Broadway or “The Yiddish Rialto.”  Me and my mishpocha would’ve fit right in. Farstesht?

Right smack in the middle of what was the Yiddish Rialto (which spanned Second Ave. from 14th Street to East Houston) stands 105.

Built in 1925 as a Yiddish American vaudeville theater and film space called the Commodore Theatre, the building was designed by Harrison G. Wiseman. The inside housed Corinthian columns, painted murals, and proscenium arch. I’ve got some interior pictures a little further down.  Pretty fancy stuff and typical of Wiseman’s style. He is the same architect who designed The Louis N. Jaffe Art Theatre Building, a City landmark also on Second Ave.

With 2,830 seats and a single screen, The Commodore became part of the famed Loew’s chain (never designated a Loew’s Wonder Theatre though that may have been a mistake) as the Loews Commodore, and later, the Village Theater.

Marcus Loew was a bad-ass entrepreneur. You can quote me on that. From nickelodeons to the most “prestigious chain of movies theaters in the United States” (thank you, Wiki) he made himself a household name to date.

The Commodore looked like this in 1936:

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Photo Credit: NYPL

Its tenure continued through the Depression, 40s, 50s and much of the 60s.  Who can say what would have happened had Bill Graham not arrived in New York on a mission? I, personally, am so glad he did. This man, a visionary frustrated with the lack of music venues, created two of the most iconic concert halls in American history; one in San Francisco and the other right here on the Lower East Side.

On March 7, 1968, Loew’s Commodore Theatre became the Fillmore East.

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Its stage saw legends alive and legends born.

I’m standing here (I have a stand-up desk, sitting kills) trying to imagine what it would have been like: the music, the company, the Joshua Light show

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I’ve just decided that without finding someone to tell me their firsthand experience, I won’t be doing the Fillmore justice because, let’s be honest, are you fully grasping the musical history made in this one venue?!!  For a gal who loves her some rock n roll (ABB GROUPIE BIGGEST FAN! RIGHT HERE!) try picturing this: The Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, The Band, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Ike and Tina Turner, The Doors, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix just to name a few.

Not to worry, I’ve got it under control. My head isn’t exploding this time and with good reason because unlike trying to comprehend Mae West and Peter Doelger, I think I can find someone who was  actually there.  Meantime, please enjoy this short intermission while I make some calls.

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Alright now! Guess who I found? He’s someone who, just when you thought you knew all his tales, continues to enchant with previously unknown, captivating chapters of growing up New York City style.

Peeps –  allow me to introduce a Vietnam veteran, South Bronx native, and all around awesome fella – my dad:

Hanging out in the East Village before I got drafted was worlds apart from the West [Village]. The vibe changed. The scene had become ratty, dark, threatening. After Nam, I ended up in San Francisco for the second time. It was 1969 and I saw B. B. King at the Fillmore West. I felt at home, but it wasn’t New York. For some reason I was reluctant to go back to the Bronx, but The Fillmore East brought me home again. The Doors, Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, so many artists, it’s hard to remember all. The streets were alive with love and protests against the war, the air had revolution flowing everywhere. Then things began to change again. The Fillmore no longer offered big arena shows which brought more fans. The neighborhood died hard: drugs, thugs, murders and so did the Fillmore. It will live forever in my memory.
(No, these aren’t tears. My eyes just water, I have allergies, okay? Just because a defunct place is partially responsible for bringing my father home  does not mean I believe I would not be here (as in born) were it not for said place. In fact, that didn’t even cross my very reasonable and logical mind. Hmph.)

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Graham closed the Fillmore East on June 27, 1971. There was a month-long celebration with each concert lasting into the wee hours of dawn. You can listen to the Fillmore’s final month on this playlist from Wolfgang’s Vault:

With Albert King, the J. Geils Band, Edgar Winter, Mountain, the Beach Boys, Country Joe McDonald, and the Allman Brothers Band all featured on the bill, it was an appropriately epic and genre-spanning line-up. Admission into the venue was invite-only, but it was broadcast in New York over WNEW-FM and WPLJ-FM; fittingly, Don McLean’s “American Pie” received its first radio airplay during those broadcasts, as a bit of music history died in the early morning hours of June 28, 1971 when the Fillmore East finally shut its doors.

Okay, now that I’m sufficiently melancholy, I feel it best to change our focus to an”Other.”

Being a Bowery Boogie reader, you may feel a kindred bond to these folks. They are the East Village Other(s) (EVO) “blowing your mind” by writing that underground, counterculture news.

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Why the bond? Because  EVO was technically the first East Village/LES blog without the interwebs. A bona fide ink-and-paper news source held in your hands. Yes, that’s right, and don’t get your underthings in a bunch. I know The Village Voice was alive and well in the ’60s, but compared to EVO (now brace yourself) the Voice was conservative (gasp!).

EVO was the pulse and the beat of the Lower East Side/ East Village.  They let the 60s rock, roll and f*ck their way through the decade by writing about what people in the Village wanted to read about; the same things they were involved in: protests, movements, free love, and drugs. They were the only paper to represent the East Village in the words of its residents.

The paper was founded in ’65 and moved its office to the 3rd floor of 105 Second Avenue in 1967.

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Together, concert goers and EVO readers and contributors  were “against the draft, the war in Vietnam, censorship, hated President Lyndon Johnson, supported free love, and encouraged the use of marijuana and LSD.”  Unfortunately, Bill Graham wasn’t a fan after an article about his venue ruffled his feathers.  Graham kicked EVO out of the building.

The original Slum Goddess, Coco Crystal recalls the EVO office in 105:

The office was located on the third floor of the Fillmore East building on Second Avenue and Sixth Street. The place was a wreck. It was freezing, the garbage cans were overflowing, cigarette butts were everywhere, and the walls were covered in fabulous cartoons by the best in underground comix: R. Crumb, Kim Deitch, Spain Rodriguez, Yossarian, Shelton, Art Spiegelman, just to name a few. It was chaos, but a kind of cool chaos.

After being evicted, EVO moved to 20 East 12th, but it seems their fate was to be short-lived. The psychedelic paper closed in 1972, just one year after the Fillmore and while they may be gone, their legacy lives on in any offbeat news source including Bowery Boogie truly.

(Check out an exhibit (hosted by our East Vill. colleague, The East Village Local) on EVO happening now at NYU.)

Just what did fate (or real estate brokers) have in mind for the Fillmore next? This next incarnation was pretty far-fetched. I don’t know why, just the name sounds strange and off putting; doesn’t really fit…

Sike! (I’m totally bringing that expression back by the way).

1973: The New Fillmore East/NFE Theater.

Here’s a bit from Jon Barone, one of NFE’s employees written in the Cinema Treasures’ comment section:

I was a carpenter for the NFE Theater (New Fillmore East) during its renovation in 1973 and later went on to work there as an usher. It was opened by a guy named Barry Stein who made his money selling large quantities of marijuana. He hired the old Fillmore security crew to run security for him (Kim was the head of security – do not recall his last name). Later that year, I lost my apt & lived in the NFE in a 1 room apt (no kitchen) with a shower on the 2nd level to the right of the stage with my dog Rufus. We would roam the theater at night… it was incredible. One New Years Eve show (approximately 1973-74), featured Ike & Tina Turner.The early show ran over into the late show. So, those who had tickets for the late show were left standing in the rain at midnight… it was terrible organization. Also, the promotor, Barry Stein did not have all the cash to pay Ike & Tina & wound up gving them a huge bag of coke as payment. Finally, after Barry had taken proceeds from drug deals he was doing and using the cash to keep the NFE Theater business afloat, he skipped town and died of a drug overdose 2 years later.I remember the final days after Barry had gone and I was still there waiting to relocate, walking through the theater and being totally amazed at its beauty. A sad ending for an incredible building that helped define a generation.

Hey,  at least they tried.  NFE may have been foredoomed, but 105  was far from finished!  Once again, someone reinvented the theatre space to help define another generation.

This time, 105 Second Avenue became a Saint.

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Well, THE Saint actually. Taking it’s name from the New St. Mark’s Baths, a gay bathhouse nearby, The Saint opened on September 20, 1980 after a $4.2 million makeover which included a planetarium dome which you can check out in the pics below.

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This venue was the brainchild of Bruce Mailman.

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From the New York Times:

…the Saint was the zenith of gay life in New York City in the early 1980’s, at least for that high-profile stratum that was mostly young, mostly white, mostly middle-class…Within months, many of them began to die. Although the term “acquired immune deficiency syndrome” was not yet coined, their illness had a name…Saint’s Disease.

The Saint closed down in 1988. Here is the farewell letter from Mr. Mailman.

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It would reopen in November of 1989 and close again for good four months later. Sadly, Mr. Mailman died of AIDS in June of 1994.

Was every venue in 105 destined for historic success ending in epic failure? (I’m sorry, I really could not drum up another word as fitting as “epic”.)

Perhaps, the business there now will fare better.

What was once the entrance to a whimsical place of drama and comedy, laughter and light shows, music and camaraderie, sex, drugs, disco and rock n roll is now:

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The theatre/club portion of 105 was demo’ed in the mid 90’s. There is apartment building in its stead where ghosts of 105’s past surely linger.

People walk by it every single day without so much as a glance and while the bank lobby displays some posters from the building’s history- the magic is gone.

So, as we come to a close, I have a request. Next time you’re rushing past 105 to catch that train, grab that coffee, meet that person, do me a favor will ya? Slow down.

Jim Power’s tribute to the golden age of rock n roll is worth being a few minutes late. You just might find whimsy again amongst the Fillmore’s legacy in mosaics. Maybe you’ll ponder how much how your life is better because of memories and music made there.  Mine surely is.

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(BTdubs- Jim recently completed his tribute to East Village/Lower East Side blogs and guess who got a tile shout out!?)

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Bowery Boogie baby!

As for me?

In a couple weeks, I’ll be attending The Allman Brothers [Peakin’] at The Beacon for the 18th year in a row with my dad.  ABB’s most successful album to date and the one that launched their career was ‘The Allman Brothers Band At Fillmore East“.

See? What’d I tell ya? Music made there continues to act as the soundtrack to my life… When there’s No One Left to Run With Anymore untie yourself from the Whipping Post, use your One Way Out and go Back to Where It all Began.

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Ah, New York. My stunning and gritty, sparkling and filthy, tremendous, transcendent metropolis – you were forged by the keepers of secrets and those secrets I plan to find and reveal, one brick at a time. Bless up.

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