Florida Holocaust Museum takes rock 'n' roll detour in Bill Graham exhibit

The exhibit brings together hundreds of Graham family artifacts — including photographs, documents, memorabilia, multimedia clips and a psychedelic light installation.

Concert promoter Bill Graham (photo credit: TONY MORELLI/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Concert promoter Bill Graham
ST. PETERSBURG, FLA (TNS) - The apples in the barrel aren’t real. Even if they were, you couldn’t just grab one and munch it, like Jimi and Jerry and Janis likely did decades ago.
But rest assured, it is the very same wood and tin barrel that sat by the door of San Francisco’s famed Fillmore Auditorium, ground zero for the rise of legendary concert promoter Bill Graham. It now greets patrons at "Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution," an expansive exhibit opening today at the Florida Holocaust Museum.
The exhibit is a very different kind for the Holocaust Museum, almost certainly its most pop-culture-focused. Spanning an entire floor, it brings together hundreds of Graham family artifacts — including photographs, documents, memorabilia, multimedia clips and a psychedelic light installation — to pay tribute to Graham, who from the 1960s until his death in 1991 changed the live music industry as much as anyone.
Why is the Holocaust Museum hosting an exhibit that looks like a wing at the Hard Rock and will next visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019?
Start with this: Graham, born Wolfgang Wolodia Grajonca to Russian Jews living in Berlin, was a Holocaust survivor. He was a refugee sent to an orphanage in France, then via ship to the Bronx, N.Y., all alone, at age 10. His father died when he was an infant; his mother and a sister died at Auschwitz. The first room of the exhibit, just past the apple barrel, details his difficult upbringing and young adulthood, from his swastika-stamped ID card to the Bronze Star he earned in Korea.
"This is great to lay the foundation for who he was and his connection to our cause and our mission," said Michael Igel, chairman of the Holocaust Museum’s board and a Bill Graham fanatic, who loaned two posters to the exhibit. It’s important to tell survivors’ stories, he said, but also highlight "the things they got to do after. It’s hard to find ways to tell that story because there’s so much sadness and depression in what we want to tell. This is a rarer opportunity."
Viewed through that lens — of all Graham accomplished after fleeing the Holocaust — his life becomes all the more extraordinary. He actively shaped San Francisco’s late-’60s radical hippie movement; vintage posters and photographs detail his involvement with countercultural forces such as Dr. Timothy Leary and the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Some of it you can hear Graham himself talk about on the audio tour.
The bulk of the exhibit is dedicated to Graham’s career as a promoter and operator of the Fillmore Auditorium, Fillmore West, Fillmore East, Winterland Ballroom and other venues. Such spots were holy ground for fans of the Grateful Dead, Santana, Jefferson Airplane and other bands that came out of San Francisco, as well as almost any other major band that passed through. The museum doesn’t entirely take you back there, but by tacking up letters from the original Fillmore East marquee or recreating the venue’s iconic Joshua Light Show liquid light display, it does the time-trip job well enough.
The history presented is profound for anyone with an interest in ’60s and ’70s rock, and not just in the striking photographs (many by famed photographer Jim Marshall) and the trippy, bulbous-lettered vintage posters. Below a photo of Graham playing cowbell with Santana at Woodstock is that actual cowbell. By a beautiful print of Janis Joplin sipping Southern Comfort is her microphone and tambourine; nearby is Duane Allman’s 1959 cherry sunburst Les Paul from At Fillmore East. There are Keith Richards’ old boots, personally taped up by Graham on the Tattoo You Tour, and over there is Peter Frampton’s white suit from Frampton Comes Alive!
By the ’80s, Graham had become more than a promoter, though he still put together some epic events, including a string of Grateful Dead New Year’s Eve shows and the Band’s famous farewell concert, dubbed the "Last Waltz." He shifted a lot of his time and attention to humanitarian festivals and tours, including Live Aid, SF Snack, Human Rights Now! and A Conspiracy of Hope. Of all the incredible photos from this era — and there are many — the best might be a print of Mick Jagger and Tina Turner nearly intertwined, screaming into a microphone at Live Aid, with Graham just offstage in the background, a single finger raised in the air.
Just offstage and in the background: That’s one way to think of Graham, described by one placard as "a man who played no instrument, could not really sing, and had not written a word to any song." But the exhibit brings the totality of his life into more meaningful focus, perhaps more so than if it were at another museum.
Toward the end, a section is dedicated to the 1985 firebombing of Graham’s office by neo-Nazis in response to his criticism of Ronald Reagan’s visit to a German cemetery where SS soldiers were buried. Included are singed posters, personal effects, the remains of a model of a menorah and the charred proof of the full-page San Francisco Chronicle ad that prompted the attack in the first place.
So yes, with its posters and costumes and photos of Bono and Madonna, "Bill Graham" is not your everyday Holocaust Museum exhibit. But it also doesn’t feel out of place. And it may bring more people through the doors; collections of rock memorabilia this electric and enlightening don’t come to this town every day.
All they need is a real apple barrel by the exit. You know Bill Graham would approve.
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