Friday, December 30, 2022

April 14-15, 17, 1967 The Banana Grove, Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, CA: Jefferson Airplane/Grateful Dead/Canned Heat (Might Have Been)

 

The signature of The Kaleidoscope was its circular posters, eminently collectable today. The venue was supposed to debut on the weekend of April 14-15, 1967, with Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and Canned Heat. The venue was a former movie theater on 1228 Vine Street in Hollywood.
Soon after their first album was released in March, 1967 the Grateful Dead were booked for the debut of a hip new psychedelic ballroom in Los Angeles on the weekend of April 14-15, 1967. On April 17, the Monday following that weekend, the Dead were also booked for what was apparently a record company sponsored party at a ballroom in a prominent Los Angeles hotel. The show at the new venue got canceled, however, and instead the bands all played the hotel ballroom that weekend. It went well, and the idea was floated for the hotel to have a regular psychedelic ballroom of its own, this time, in a true hotel ballroom.

Los Angeles rock history might have been different. As usual, it's not what happened. But it's worthy of thinking about, however briefly.

April 14-15, 1967 The Kaleidoscope, Los Angeles, CA: Jefferson Airplane/Grateful Dead/Canned Heat Blues Band
After the Grateful Dead's first album was released on Warner Brothers in March, 1967, the Dead made some effort to "make it" in Los Angeles. Their first Los Angeles booking was at a nascent underground venue called The Kaleidoscope. The obscure venue is known today mainly for its unique, round posters (well, and my detailed history, too). The Kaleidoscope was a venture by Canned Heat's managers (Skip Taylor and John Hartmann) to open a Fillmore-style venue in Los Angeles.

With the Fillmore and Avalon providing the template, groovy little psychedelic venues popped up in all sorts of cities in 1967. One would have thought that fashion-conscious LA would have been on top of that trend. Taylor and Hartmann were both former talent agents at William Morris, and clearly knew a good idea when they saw one. With a new band to promote, they thought big and decided to create a venue, too. They leased a building at 1228 Vine Street in Hollywood (at La Mirada near Fountain), but still in the city of Los Angeles, and planned to have Jefferson Airplane and the Dead for their debut weekend. The actual venue had opened as the La Mirada Theatre in March 1926. On May 9, 1928 it was taken over by West Cloast Theatres and renamed Filmarte Theatre. Later it was operated by Fox West Coast Theatres.

For 1967, this was quite an inspired booking. Jefferson Airplane had just released Surrealistic Pillow and "Somebody To Love" was climbing the charts, while the Grateful Dead were underground legends who had just released their first album. Canned Heat were unknown to all but a few Los Angeles club goers, but they were an excellent live band.  A last second injunction stopped the event. The story in the Los Angeles Times was that the building was sublet without the knowledge of the owners (National General Corporation). Still, there was every reason to believe that the city of Los Angeles was looking to keep hippies out, using any excuse.This sort of meddling was exactly why all the cool 60s rock clubs were in then-unincorporated West Hollywood, out of range of the Los Angeles police.

Digby Diehl's review of Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead and Canned Heat at the Embassy Ballroom in Los Angeles, on April 14, 1967 (full text in Appendix 1 below)
April 14-15, 1967 Embassy Ballroom, Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, CA: Jefferson Airplane/Grateful Dead/Canned Heat
For the weekend, the show was moved to the Embassy Ballroom in the Ambassador Hotel, at 3400 Wilshire Boulevard. The Ambassador, one of LA's pre-eminent luxury hotels, also housed the legendary Cocoanut Grove Ballroom. Performers at the Cocoanut Grove were at the apex of the Los Angeles celebrity pyramid, so the history of performers at Cocoanut Grove is a Who's Who of 20th century American entertainment. Per the LA Times article, the Embassy Ballroom was nicknamed "The Banana Grove" for the shows. 
 
Digby Diehl's review (see Appendix 1 below for the transcript) is somewhat patronizing, but it's notable that he has a sensible appreciation of what a live psychedelic rock show has to offer. The Embassy apparently fit in 1,300 patrons, pretty close to the capacity of San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium. The audience at the show is young and hip, and in an entertainment town like Los Angeles, they are always on the lookout for the next big thing. Diehl, while no musical expert, compliments the singing of Marty Balin and Pigpen. He also describes the light show accurately, makes it seem like an enjoyable evening. He may have been patronizing, but like any good entertainment writer, he knows something is happening.

April 17 1967 Embassy Ballroom, Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, CA: Grateful Dead
The Monday night event (April 17) appears to have been a sort of LA event for the release of the first Dead album, and that likely accounts for the hotel picking up the weekend shows. We don't know anything about the Monday night show. The previous month, however, Warner Brothers had held a record release in tiny Fugazi Hall in San Francisco. Ralph Gleason described the March 20 event (see Appendix 3 below) in the SF Chronicle.

Fugazi Hall, at 678 Green Street, was too small for a real Grateful Dead concert even in early 1967. More recent SF residents may recognize it as the home for many decades of the show Beach Blanket Babylon. Following the record company protocol at the time, the invited guests would have been record company promotional staff, some disc jockeys and radio station employees, and a few band friends and lucky hippies. The Dead had played a set, in this case cut short when the power cut out unexpectedly. There's every reason to presume that the Embassy Ballroom event was the same, a shortish set for industry people and a few lucky folks. We have no eyewitnesses, however, because in LA, those sort of events happened every week, and good or not, there wouldn't have been anything memorable about it to the local record company and radio staff.

The empty Embassy Ballroom, in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles

What Might Have Been?
Los Angeles was one of the world entertainment capitals, and home to many record companies, both major and independent. It was a peculiar dynamic that the psychedelic rock explosion took place in San Francisco and other cities, and that Los Angeles was more of a consumer than a creator. The ultimate reason for this was that live rock bands playing original music couldn't really make a living in LA from 1966-68. Now, sure, many great bands from Southern California got signed by record companies, and many of them made great music, both live and studio. But the fact was, bands in LA were performing for record companies, hoping to get signed just so they could afford to eat. This was the opposite of the San Francisco model, where bands could make a living playing live--while living hand-to-mouth, sure--and figure out recording later.
 
Jefferson Airplane would have been fine if they had been living in Los Angeles, and Buffalo Springfield would have killed it at the Avalon if they had ended up in San Francisco. But The Byrds needed LA, just as the Grateful Dead needed San Francisco. So the absence of a viable LA ballroom skewed the history of live bands in Southern California, even if we don't know how. Were there gigs, for the likes of Kaleidoscope or Canned Heat? Sure. But they couldn't just tell the record companies to come back later.
 
The Magic Mushroom, out in the Valley at 11345 Ventura Boulevard in Studio City was a "teens only" nightclub. It had replaced the Cinnamon Cinder, a teen club run by KRLA-dj Bob Eubanks (also host of The Dating Game). The club was managed by Chesley Millikin at one point. This ad is from 1968.

There was a club called The Magic Mushroom out in Studio City, (formerly the Cinnamon Cinder) too small to make any money, and a place called The Blue Law in Torrance (which evolved into The Bank), which was backed by an enterprising dentist and never really viable. If there had been a downtown Los Angeles Fillmore, where bands could actually make a buck playing live, the locus of 60s music might have  shifted south from SF to LA.

The Ambassador, thanks to the Cocoanut Grove Ballroom, was locked in to the highest levels of the Los Angeles entertainment elite. Sure, the film and TV people looked down on rock music as "kid stuff," but the fact was that all the big studios--Columbia, Warners, MGM, ABC-Paramount--each had record labels. If the Ambassador Ballroom would have been a pipeline to the Next Big Thing, the Majors would have all accommodated it with ease. Cool bands could have played "The Banana Grove," made a few dollars, and their managers could have negotiated favorable deals with anyone in town. 

Why didn't it happen? All these things come down to money. Canned Heat's managers, John Hartmann and Skip Taylor, were both former William Morris agents, so they knew what was what. According to the LA Times article (below), "Kaleidoscope owners are considering continued use of the Embassy Room as a "total environment" until the use of the Vine St. location is resolved."
 
It's a great idea. The real issue, however, would have been who would have controlled the bar receipts. I am certain that the Ambassador would have happily hosted the Kaleidoscope, long-haired hippies and all, as long as they controlled the bar and any food income. Hartmann and Taylor would have taken the opposite position, so it was never going to happen.

The Kaleidoscope Theater at 6230 Sunset Boulevard, ca. 1968 (formerly the Earl Carroll Theater, then The Hullabaloo, and later The Aquarius)

Aftermath

  • Taylor and Hartmann continued to work on the Kaleidoscope concept, eventually taking over the Earl Carroll Theater at 6230 Sunset (I have written about that venue at length). The building  has a remarkable history in its own right, like a metaphor for Hollywood, and of course Alison Martino and VintageLA have the complete breakdown.
  • The Kaleidoscope, on Sunset, opened in Summer '68. It was inspired, but a year late. Canned Heat were influential, and sold a lot of records, but thanks to bad luck (and an unfortunate trip to Denver) never made the money they deserved. One of their road crew, Phil Hartmann—the younger brother of their manager--is now widely beloved for his entertainment career, and rightly so.
  • The Ambassador Hotel, central to the Los Angeles entertainment ecology, is now recalled as the site of Bobby Kennedy's tragic assassination on June 5, 1968. The hotel was sold in 1971, and closed to guests for safety reasons in 1989. The site was demolished in 2004. So it goes.
 
Appendix 1

Kaleidoscope Opens at Embassy Room by Digby Diehl (Los Angeles Times, April 18, 1967)
As the shaggy-haired boy in a checkered mod suit and his equally hirsute miniskirted companion approached the entrance to the Ambassador last weekend, you could almost imagine the doorman saying, 'Excuse me, I think you're in the wrong place." But he didn't.

The couple continued into the hotel lobby, mixing with the expensively attired guests from the the Cocoanut Grove, strolled under the elegant chandeliers and and turned in at the ornate doorway of the Embassy Room. There, amidst a whirl of colored spots, strobe light, far-out films and floor shaking rock bands, 1,300 other teeny-hippies gyrated joyously in the celebration of International Kaleidoscope's opening.

More than just a stipples victory in social integration, the Kaleidoscope's presence in the Embassy Room foiled an injunction against the club's intended residence at 1228 Vine St. by the building owner, National General Corp. A supoena served last Thursday before the announced opening, prevented all persons from entering Los Angeles' second psychedelic ballroom. 

Electronic Vibrations
By setting up the psychedelia in the Ambassador, Kaleidoscope managers Skip Taylor, John Hartmann, Gary Essert and Walter Williams were able to provide a sample of the latest in the art of the freak-out dancehall. 

The Ambassador's new Banana Grove, as some dubbed the room, featured the electronic vibrations of Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and the Canned Heat Blues Band. All three rock groups were happily received.

Particularly effective was Airplane leader Marty Balin's version of "This Is My Life," which seemed to voice a popular existential stance in the audience. Pigpen, of the Grareful Dead, who looks like Jerry Colonna in drag, was a vocal success with his modern interpretation of screaming' blues.

In, Out of Focus
Inventive use of the baroque Embassy Room's crystal lighting fixtures and mirrored walls was made by lighting director Bill Kerby. In back of the bandstand, a series of multi-color pattern backgrounds flashed in and out of the focus while the silhouette of a girl dancing was superimposed over the projection.

On the sides of the room, film clips of the love-ins, psychedelic body paintings, Gov. Reagan's speeches and sundry other materials were bounced off mirrors, and mixed in bizarre juxtaposition with pattern slides. Phosphorescent and stroboscopic lights played over the bobbing heads on the dance floor. 

Representatives of the Ambassador claimed to be satisfied with the behavior of the clientele. Kaleidoscope owners are considering continued use of the Embassy Room as a "total environment" until the use of the Vine St. location is resolved. 

Appendix 2

March 20, 1967 Fugazi Hall, San Francisco, CA: Warner Brothers Record Release Party for The Grateful Dead Debut Album


Ralph Gleason's SF Chronicle column from March 22, 1967

It had been established for some time that Warner Brothers Records had an album release party for the Grateful Dead's first album at a North Beach venue called Fugazi Hall, at 678 Green Street. Up until this time, I had been unable to uncover any other information about it. However, Ralph Gleason of the San Francisco Chronicle attended the Monday night party, and wrote about it in his March 22, 1967 column:
In Antonioni's Blow-Up there's a wonderful moment in a rock club scene when guitarist Jeff Beck first belts the amplifier and then wrecks his guitar at the frustration at the problems of electronics. 
Monday night's part [sic] for the Grateful Dead was aborted when the power failed and the set was chopped short. So everything you see in the movies isn't fantasy.
Whatever the cultural dynamics of the 1967 Grateful Dead playing in a tiny hall for a weird mixture of record company promotional staff and a few lucky hippies might have been, it seems to have been cut short.

Appendix 3
The Cocoanut Ballroom in The Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, CA
Formerly located at 3400 Wilshire Boulevard, between Catalina Street and Mariposa Avenue in present-day Koreatown, the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles was built as part of the Ambassador Hotels System. At the time the hotel opened in January 1921, the chain consisted of the Ambassador Los Angeles, the Hotel Alexandria in Los Angeles, the Ambassador Santa Barbara, the Ambassador Atlantic City and the Ambassador New York. The Santa Barbara property burned down soon after on April 13, 1921, and the Alexandria left the chain in 1925, while the Ambassador Palm Beach joined in 1929. The Schine Family owned the Ambassador from its opening in 1921 until 1971; it was set back from Wilshire Boulevard on 24 acres, which included the main hotel, a garage and several detached bungalows.

The Ambassador Hotel was frequented by celebrities, some of whom, such as Pola Negri, resided there. From 1930 to 1943, six Academy Awards ceremonies were hosted at the hotel. Perhaps as many as seven U.S. presidents stayed at the Ambassador, from Hoover to Nixon, along with chiefs of state from around the world. For decades, the hotel's famed Cocoanut Grove nightclub hosted well-known entertainers, such as Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Nancy Wilson, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Liza Minnelli, Martin and Lewis, The Supremes, Merv Griffin, Dorothy Dandridge, Vikki Carr, Evelyn Knight, Vivian Vance, Dick Haymes, Sergio Franchi, Perry Como, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Sammy Davis Jr., Little Richard, Liberace, Natalie Cole, Richard Pryor and Shirley Bassey. 
Sadly, the Ambassador Hotel is most famous for being the site of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination on June 5, 1968. For safety reasons, the hotel was closed to guests in 1989. The building was demolished in 2004.


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