Thursday, February 23, 2017

December 17, 1966 Christmas Dance, Ladera School Multipurpose Room, Ladera, CA: Grateful Dead/Rhythm Method Blues Band

The old "Multi-Purpose Room" at the former Ladera Elementary School, at 360 La Cuesta Drive in Ladera, CA, above Menlo Park (photo February 2017). The Grateful Dead performed here at a Community Association Christmas Dance on December 17, 1966.
For all the decades of scholarship on Grateful Dead concert history, some dates from the early days remain elusive. When the Dead were just a working band, documenting each appearance, even for their fans, hardly seemed important. Thus scholars are left with little more than vague rumors and some triangulation to wonder what might be missing. My own best guess is that there are a few dozen missing Grateful Dead concert dates from 1966-67, and perhaps a similar number for The Warlocks. Since it has been 50 or more years, we are largely resigned to some pieces of the Grateful Dead's past being irretrievably lost.

Thus it was both delightful and astonishing when a blog about Menlo Park, CA, a critical town in Grateful Dead history, reported the definitive discovery of a hitherto unknown Grateful Dead concert on Saturday, December 17, 1966 in the tiny community of Ladera, in the hills just above Menlo Park. As if this wasn't enough, local Deadhead scholar Susan Suesser not only found two newspaper articles about the event, one of them even had photos. And if even that wasn't sufficient, Suesser, a longtime Ladera resident, even found some eyewitnesses.

Up until this time, the Ladera event had only faintly been recalled on a Facebook page for old Menlo Park residents, and only in the vaguest terms. Now, abruptly, we have a date and absolutely confirming evidence. This post will build on Suesser's great research, and help flesh out the context of the Grateful Dead's performance at the Christmas Dance at the Ladera School on Saturday, December 17, 1966.

A news item from the December 1966 Ladera Town Crier newsletter, entitled "Teens Go Top Drawer", reporting that the Grateful Dead had been hired to play at the Ladera School (thanks Susan Suesser for the clip)
Ladera Community Association Dances, 1966
Ladera was a small, unincorporated community in the hills just above Menlo Park and the Stanford University golf course. There were probably about 1400 residents. Ladera School was the local public elementary school (K-5). The Ladera Community Association apparently had put on a series of dances for the local teenagers at the school throughout 1966. There was no High School in Ladera (the kids probably went to Woodside High), and there was certainly nothing to do for teenagers, as Ladera had no movie theater or "downtown." So I suspect that the dances were to keep the local teenagers entertained.

It seems that there had been a series of dances, perhaps monthly, and they had been somewhat profitable. Ladera was the kind of place where parents didn't disapprove of rock music, particularly, but they weren't going to let their kids drive off to some place called "The Fillmore" in San Francisco, either. The dances must have been well-attended, since apparently the Community Association had turned a profit. So the kids asked for a "name" band for their season ending "Christmas Dance," and as it happened, one of those bands had an open date. The local weekly newsletter, the Ladera Town Crier, reported on it  under the heading "Teens Go Top Drawer" (thank you Susan Suesser for extracting this from the Menlo Park Library):
A little short of a miracle, the "Grateful Dead" has signed to play at the Ladera Christmas dance. What has brought this about, is that the kids themselves have been saving the profits that they have made from past dances so that now they can afford to pay for this important (and expensive) group. 
They will be well worth hearing. To quote from Ralph Gleason's article (Dec 8 Chronicle) "The Grateful Dead is a contemporary rock band, a good deal of whose music is blues based. They have evolved a magnificent playing style that features some of the most exciting instrumental rock music anywhere. 
Included in their group is Ron "Pig Pen" McKernan who plays organ and harmonica and sings. Many young white performers in folk and rock music seem to be little but imitations of negro singers. Pig Pen, on the other hand, does not do this and he is tremendously effective. He sings like himself; the music and style is blues, but he is not imitation." 
That sounds good. And the sounds next Saturday night (December 17th at 8:00 o'clock) will be an exciting experience for everyone who can hear them. This will be a real Christmas present for those who attend.

A sign on the building photographed above that says "multi-use room." Most California elementary schools of the era had a combination gym/auditorium called a multi-purpose room (photo February 2017)
Ladera and The Ladera School, ca. 1966
Ladera is a "Census Designated Place," which essentially means it is an identifiable community that has not been incorporated into a town or city. The community has an interesting history. In 1944, prominent families in Stanford and Palo Alto formed a Public Housing Association, with the idea of forming a Housing Cooperative. Structurally, this would have been legally similar to co-ops in Manhattan and elsewhere, except that this Co-op was for a few hundred single-family homes on a California hillside. Money was raised, land was purchased, and construction was begun after 1946.

However, financing for the construction of the Ladera housing co-op was soon stalled because of the unwillingness of the founders to agree to restrictive housing covenants. According to Peninsula legend, these had to do with restricting African Americans.  This is not inconsistent with the history of Menlo Park. A teacher who was hired to work at Peninsula School in the early 1950s--not coincidentally my Mother--recalled big signs for housing developments in Menlo Park (on Middlefield near Willow) that cheerily advertised "Caucasian Only," "No Orientals" and other restrictions. Although perfectly legal at the time, that wasn't acceptable in Palo Alto, where she lived. We Palo Altans are pretty smug, I admit it, but we have our reasons.

In the end, a local real estate firm (Hare, Brewer and Kelly) took over the lease and finished Ladera in the late 40s, superseding the well-intentioned co-operative.Thus while Ladera was nearest to Menlo Park, it wasn't necessarily so close to it, and they probably had little desire to incorporate into the town, as they were probably a lot more simpatico with Palo Alto. Ladera had enough population, however, that they also had their own elementary school, right off Alpine Road, at 360 La Cuesta. Like all of the California elementary schools of that era, designed in the 1950s, the Ladera School had a "Multi-Purpose Room," which was a combination gym/auditorium. The dances were held in the Multi-Purpose Room. Although it's hard to be certain after 50 years, it looks like the original Multi-Purpose Room is still intact. A long-range view is at the top of the post. A sign on the door (above) that says "Multi-Use Room" is a pretty good clue that it's the same (if any old Laderans can confirm or dispute this, please Comment).

The first page of the County Almanac from January 3, 1967, describing the Grateful Dead at the Ladera School on December 17, 1966. The local ads give a good feel for the community at the time.
December 17, 1966 Christmas Dance, Ladera School Multipurpose Room, Ladera, CA: Grateful Dead/Rhythm Method Blues Band
Often shows from Back In The Day were advertised, but did not actually occur. But this one did. Thanks to Susan Suesser's heroic research in the Menlo Park Library, we actually have the newspaper report of the concert. The local County Almanac reported in its January 3, 1967 issue
The "Grateful Dead" came from San Francisco in full tonsorial and electronic splendor to play, with the Rhythm Method Blues Band donating their services to fill in any chinks of silence that might threaten the evening. A troupe headed by George Kelly put on a show of colored light, swirling dyes, movies and slides, also donated services.
(you can see a transcription of the entire article, including photo captions, on the indispensable Deadsources blog)
It may seem strange from our distant remove that the Grateful Dead, revered and reviled for being underground psychedelic outlaws, just a few months removed from playing Acid Tests, would play a teen Christmas dance in the suburbs. Yet the Dead were a working band, living hand to mouth and supporting at least a dozen people, plus a few dependents. They were trying to work every weekend, and the weekend of December 16/17 was open. Here's their known schedule during that period:

December 9-11, 1966: Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, CA: Grateful Dead/Tim Rose/Big Mama Thornton (Fri-Sun)
December 14, 1966: Gym, City College of Marin, San Rafael, CA: Grateful Dead (Wed)
December 17, 1966: Ladera School Multipurpose Room, Ladera, CA: Grateful Dead/Rhythm Method Blues Band (Sat)
December 20, 1966: Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, CA: Otis Redding/Grateful Dead (Tues)
December 21, 1966: Continental Ballroom, Santa Clara, CA: Grateful Dead/Elgin Marble/Yellow Pages (Wed)
December 23-24, 1966: Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco, CA: Grateful Dead/Moby Grape/Steve Miller Blues Band (Fri-Sat)

There were a lot of high school and college dances in December, so there's a reasonable chance that the Grateful Dead played some school dance on Friday, December 16. The Ladera date was a mystery for decades, so I wouldn't rule out another such find.

One unknown footnote was the opening act mentioned in the Country Almanac article, no doubt a local band, namely The Rhythm Method Blues Band. If anyone recalls anything about the Rhythm Method Blues Band or its members, or has any flyers or artifacts, I would be delighted to post them here. Naturally, this blog will guarantee anonymity to any Rhythm Method members who want to make sure that their grandchildren never find out about such a thing.

Additional photos from the January 3, 1967 County Almanac, including the inimitable Mr Pen
The story of the Ladera dance was resurrected by Susan Suesser on Linda Gulker's excellent Menlo Park blog, InMenlo. Some remarkable memories were still fresh:
Barbara Rusmore, formerly of Ladera, recalls being involved in preparations with the neighborhood art group. The team created window covers from long rolls of newsprint and dye, with a wax resist (sort of a one-time glass window effect) that appear in the photo printed in the Country Almanac. She also recalled police providing security, very loud music and a dancing but orderly crowd. 
Ann Wilsnack, another former Laderan, recalls, “Yeah, I brag about helping to organize a Grateful Dead Dance when I was in high school. The Ladera Community had put on a lot of dances for the teenagers and had actually made money on them. Someone found out that the Grateful Dead would do a dance for $2,000. We had money in the coffers and decided to spring for it. I may have been the one making arrangements with their manager, which is probably why I found myself in a circle hanging out with the Dead and their manager. Months after the dance, we hadn’t had another dance. My mom said that it was predictable, that after the blowout with the Grateful Dead, we wouldn’t go back to the local bands.”
After the blog was posted, Suesser heard some flashback memories from old Laderans. Suesser said in a private email (to scholar and blogfriend LightIntoAshes) that apparently tickets were $1.00 and locals could bring one friend. Another person wrote her to say that he didn't like Pigpen, so he left.

[update]: thanks to some journalistic sleuthing by reader and scholar Blair, another piece of the puzzle has been unraveled. The cost was only $1000, not $2000. And the connection to the band was Ladera teenager Joe Bonner (now Dwarka Bonner of New Mexico), whose stepsister was Grateful Dead First Fan Connie Bonner. He comments
Yes, I think it was my (step) sister Connie who gave me the name and phone number for contacting the Grateful Dead and arranging the event. We paid one (not 2) thousand dollars for the performance, which funds were indeed remaining in a community organization account, profits from a previous dance or dances. We used a potato (or potatoes?) to make block printed tickets. I no longer recall the design but my mother - who attended - may possibly still have a reject, lost in some file to be discovered one of these years.
Is the internet great or what?
A 1967 ad for the Alpine Valley Country Club, at 4139 Alpine Valley Road in Portola Valley, about a mile from Ladera. Kingfish played a wedding reception at the Club in 1974.
Ladera Encore, 1974
Ladera is a tiny place, unknown even to many people who live in the Peninsula or South Bay. It is remarkable that the Grateful Dead played there. Strangely, there was a sort of encore. The Alpine Hills Country Club, at 4139 Alpine Valley Road, is just a mile down the road from Ladera, in the nearby town of Portola Valley. An ad for the Alpine Valley Country Club can be seen on the same page of the County Almanac that reported on the Grateful Dead concert.

On Thanksgiving weekend of 1974, a wedding reception was held at the Alpine Valley Country Club. Since the groom was an old friend of the Grateful Dead from the 60s, he hired Kingfish. Bob Weir had just joined the group, and this was perhaps his third or fourth gig with the band. So Bob Weir played a mile from the Ladera School, just eight years later. Ladera and Portola Valley are so small, there were probably people who attended both.

Oh yeah, I should add, according to his Facebook post, the groom said that his bride resented the fact that Weir wore a brown suit to her wedding, and pushed him into the swimming pool. So a good time was had by all.

The Woodland School, 360 La Cuesta Drive, Ladera, CA in February 2017

In the 1950s and 60s, housing had sprung about in suburbs throughout the Peninsula and South Bay, and schools were built to accommodate all the students. By the mid-70s, however, the region had changed. There were fewer children, wealthier residents and a changing economy, so there was kind of an oversupply of public schools. In Palo Alto, for example, the High School that Robert Hunter had attended in the 1950s (Cubberley) had closed in 1979, and became a Community Center. The elementary school I had attended in the 1960s (Crescent Park) was razed for a housing development.

In the case of Ladera School, declining enrollment meant that it made more sense to close the school and lease the property. Since the 1980s, the Ladera School has been home to a private K-8 school called The Woodland School, which is well-regarded in the Peninsula. Nonetheless, while the property is still bright and well kept, it has the distinctive architecture of late 1950s California Public Schools, which is why I think the original Multi-Purpose Room is basically intact.

If you grew up on the Peninsula, like I did you always heard all these stories--"Jerry went to my high school," or  "my sister said that the Dead played a dance at her school," or "my Dad knew Bob Weir's Mom." Most of them were either exaggerations or completely incorrect. But all those people who recalled on Facebook that the Dead played Ladera School? All true, every word of it, and it was in the local paper, waiting to be found. So thank you Susan Suesser, Deadhead and Scholar, for tracking this one down and making it flesh.

A clip from Ralph Gleason's column in the SF Chronicle from December 9, 1966
Appendix : Full Gleason Quote, SF Chronicle December 9, 1966
The Ladera Town Crier (above) included a quote from SF Chronicle critic Ralph Gleason about the Grateful Dead. The quote was edited, probably due to space reasons. Here is the entire, far more interesting quote. Incidentally, the Crier lists the quote as from December 8, but actually it was from Friday, December 9.
Then at the Fillmore Auditorium, who is of the great line of women blues singers, going all the way back to Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, is featured along with the contemporary rock band The Grateful Dead, a good deal of whose music is blues based.
Big Mama is unique in her time and an extraordinary singer, as has been pointed out here before. 
The Grateful Dead are a group of young Caucasian musicians who have evolved a magnificent playing style that features some of the most exciting instrumental rock music anywhere.  Included in their group is Ron "Pig Pen" McKernan (whose father Phil McKernan used to have that morning blues progran on KRE in Berkeley) who plays organ and harmonica and sings.  
Many young white performers in folk and rock music seem to be little but imitations of negro singers. John Hammond Jr, when he was at the Jabberwock last weekend, sounded as if he was trying to be an 80 year old Delta Negro. Pig Pen, on the other hand, does not do this and he is tremendously effective. He sings like himself; the music and style is blues, but he is not imitation.