The late Bill Graham’s Fillmore theaters are iconic fixtures in pop music history.
Now the operators of Detroit’s State Theatre are hoping to make them part of the present.
This week, the State becomes part of the concert promotion firm Live Nation’s campaign to open a series of new Fillmores around the country, including the original in San Francisco that Graham opened in 1965 plus outposts in Denver, New York and Philadelphia.
The State officially became the Fillmore when the new marquee went up late last week. Hard rockers deftones were the first band to play under the new moniker, and the 3,000-capacity venue — a C. Howard Crane design built in 1925 — has its grand opening Wednesday (June 13th) with a show by Black Eyed Peas member Fergie and modern rockers Rooney.
“It’s the idea of taking a classic name like the Fillmore and combining the best of the State with the best of the Fillmore and creating a brand new venue, in a sense, for Detroit,” explains Bruce Eskowitz, Live Nation’s chief executive officer for North American music.
“It will be all the things the Fillmore is known for, which is primarily a great place to see live music.”
The State, of course, was already that. It’s long been a haven for the up-and-coming, as well as the site of special shows by superstars such as Metallica, David Bowie, Sting and Prince. Along with the city’s St. Andrew’s Hall and Majestic Theater complex, the State has earned a reputation as one of the key concert venues in the United States.
Eskowitz contends that rechristening it the Fillmore will only enhance that status.
“(The Fillmore) is a great brand,” he explains, “We wanted to expand that brand, and we thought it gave us an opportunity to revitalize the State by putting some great features in it — the best of the Fillmore, and do it in Detroit.”
Supervised by Graham’s personal archivist, James Olness, the theater will now feature stock Fillmore amenities such as chandeliers (seven new ones, in fact), a barrel of apples in the lobby, vintage posters and photos in showcases lining the walls, and commemorative posters as fans leave the concerts.
Mostly, though, Graham’s original Fillmore Auditorium won its fame — and infamy — as “just a great place to be ... an environment to experiment and enjoy,” according to Creedence Clearwater Revival (now Revisited) bassist Stu Cook. There were festive balloons on the floor and psychedelic light shows, along with a staffer who determinedly greeted each fan as they entered the show.
In his 1992 autobiography, Graham — who died in a 1991 plane crash — wrote that he “constantly worked on ... how can we affect the inhibited person who was coming in? ... I wanted to ease people in and back out again so the experience wouldn’t be jarring.”
Cook says Graham also made the bands who played the Fillmore his partners in that mission.
“His ethic,” Cook recalls, “was that ‘Hard work brings great rewards. Yes, I make a lot of money. You guys in the band make good money, too. But the audience has to have a good time. They’re your audience. You better treat ’em well. I make it possible, now it’s up to you — Go do it!’ ”
Graham’s Fillmore philosophy had a profound effect on Detroit school teacher and radio personality Russ Gibb, who was inspired to open the Grande Ballroom after a 1966 visit San Francisco.
“It was such a cool scene,” Gibb remembers. “Everyone was having such a great time and the audience was well taken care of, and the music and the lights and everything were phenomenal. I said, ‘Gee, this is really great. I wouldn’t mind opening something like this is Detroit.’
“And (Graham) said, ‘Detroit? How far is that?’ ‘About 2,300 miles.’ ‘Oh, OK. Whatever you want to know, I’ll help you ...’ ”
Graham wound up closing the original Fillmore Auditorium in June 1968 and moved to another facility, dubbed the Fillmore West, which subsequently closed in 1971. Bill Graham Presents re-opened a Fillmore in the late ’80s, but it was irreparably damaged by the Loma Prieta earthquake in October 1989. After Graham’s death, however, the company, which was purchased by Live Nation predecessor ClearChannel Entertainment in 1998, re-opened in 1994.
Graham also operated the Fillmore East in New York City from 1968-71, where the Allman Brothers Band, the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention and Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies recorded famous live albums. The Denver Fillmore opened in 1999, and this year, the New York and Philadelphia Fillmores have opened.
Whether the Fillmore Detroit can re-create the original Graham vibe remains to be seen. But a performer such as Cook says he’s heartened by moves in that direction.
“If that can make a more intimate environment for people to come and experience music and for artists to play, I think it’s a good idea,” he says. “It’s a more friendly situation. We can really be in touch and have a rapport in those kinds of places. It’s a good trend, I think.”
The Fillmore Detroit’s grand opening takes place at 8 p.m. Wednesday (June 13th) with a concert by Fergie and Rooney at the former State Theatre, 2115 Woodward, Detroit. Tickets are available only through tour sponsor Verizon. Call (313) 961-5450 or visit www.fergieperformances.com.
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