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Exhibiting the Bill Graham Revolution: Alex and David Graham on their Father’s Immense Legacy

by Dean Budnick on January 30, 2017
“Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution” is a true labor of love. The exhibition tracks the extraordinary life and legacy of the renowned rock impresario—from his arrival in the United States as a 10-year-old Jewish immigrant fleeing the Nazis through his work with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the founding of his Fillmore venues, his charitable endeavors and his close relationships with artists such as the Grateful Dead,The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Carlos Santana and The Who. The show incorporates concert posters and rock memorabilia, along with photos, films and other archival items that assist in telling the captivating story of the fabled concert promoter. While the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles originally organized the exhibit—in January, it will complete a run at Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History. The impetus came from Graham’s two sons, David and Alex, who had been thinking about the proper way to memorialize their father, who passed away at age 60 in 1991 in a helicopter crash.

What are the origins of the exhibition?

ALEX GRAHAM: My brother and I have been working on this project for about four or five years. After our dad died, his office in an Francisco was like a museum, in the sense that it reflected the 2-year history of Bill Graham Presents. He also had his own archive that he kept at his home in Mill Valley, but there was a lot of stuff a the company. So, although the company changed hands over the years, my brother and I had a long-standing agreement with the company that everything on the walls of the office could remain there unless they were to vacate the building, which is what happened at the end of 2008.

So I went out there and spent several days basically working with my dad’s archivist, James Olness, and we packed up a museum’s worth of archival items such as photos, memorabilia and posters. I set up a warehouse in San Francisco and started flying out there regularly for the next couple of years, building a database and restoring a lot of things. Having James help me was invaluable because he’s sort of an encyclopedia of what everything is, where it came from, who the photographer was, etc.

James, my brother David and I eventually decided that we didn’t want to just keep it to ourselves. Dad never viewed these materials as a commodity; it’s not something he ever thought to sell. So, along with some other people in the foundation, which we set up after Dad’s death—the Bill Graham Foundation—we came up with the idea to put together a small sort of retrospective on his life.

There was someone on the board who had a relationship with a place called the Lush Life Gallery. It’s this gallery that’s only about 1,000 feet, but it’s right around the corner from the Fillmore and it’s also a part of the Jazz Heritage Center. So, along with my brother, James and some of the people in the foundation, we took all these items, along with some other things that David and I had at our homes, and created a story about our dad’s life called “Presenting Bill Graham.”
We had this really cool idea to use Bob Greenfield's book [Graham’s autobiography, co-written with Greenfield Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out], so that the captioning, whenever possible, would be in the first person. So if you were looking at a picture of Dad up in the Catskills, working as a waiter shortly after the Korean War, there would be a passage in the book where he might talk about an experience, such as running dice games late at night, after dinner had been served, which made it so much more intimate.

It was very successful in terms of the emotional connection we wanted it to have, and a lot of people came out of the woodwork to see it. One of those people was a guy named Bob Kirschner, who is the director of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. He said, “This is a phenomenal show. I assume that you have a lot more content than you were able to put on the walls?” We told him: “Yes, of course.” And he basically said, “I’d love to talk to you about bringing it to Los Angeles and creating a full-blown museum exhibition.” We just thought that sounded great.

How is your father’s life organized and presented?

ALEX: It’s a timeline; it’s constructed in a linear way. It begins in 1931 when Dad was born in Berlin as a Russian Jew. A few years later when it was really not a good time to be a Jewish kid in Berlin, he fled, and the exhibition sort of goes from there, tracking his path across Europe and how he got to America, and then everything that he did here after.

What’s been fascinating is how some people who knew Dad most of their lives learned a few new things—I’ve learned a lot of things myself just from doing the research behind what went into this show. I’d say the most moving experience I had while working on this was meeting a guy named Ralph Moratz, who sadly just passed away within the last year. He was a companion of my dad’s when they were young boys, walking across Europe by foot escaping the Nazis, roughly between 1939 and 1941. They were both orphans and they both wound up in New York together and, eventually, lost touch. I had never met anyone who was with my dad at that stage in his life, not even close. I think the earliest first-person stories somebody told me were probably from the Catskill years. So Ralph is in the show and there are some video testimonials of him talking about their journey. That’s probably my favorite part of this show.

I think a lot of people will go primarily for rock-and-roll—most people probably don’t even know who Bill Graham is unless they are fans of rock history. But I keep hearing not only that the numbers are off the charts, but also that the demographic diversity is unlike anything people have ever seen. I think that’s indicative of the fact that a lot of people are coming for one thing, but what is resonating with them is much broader than what they may have originally intended. For example, a lot of people come and they just want to see poster art, or they come for the photography, or because they just love The Doors, but then they end up being confronted with this story that covers the first 30 years of his life—even before he got into the rock-and-roll business, which is pretty intriguing, quite frankly. I think that it is such a profound thing for someone to go through what he did and then go on and basically create an entire industry.

Speaking of that journey, one of the items in the exhibit is an early 1950s Bronx phone book. Can you talk about its significance?

ALEX: It’s a fascinating part of his story and it’s emblematic of the fact that you could not come up with a more self-made man in every sense of the word. He came here with nothing, he was 10 years old—he weighed 40 pounds, he had rickets. He had nothing but the shirt on his back and a prayer book and a yarmulke. He had no idea what happened to his family.

So, after spending nine weeks in an orphanage upstate, he was adopted by Alfred and Pearl Ehrenreich in the South Bronx. He grew up on Montgomery Ave. He barely spoke any English—actually, he did not speak any English. He spoke German and a bit of French, and he had a German accent because he was German. The kids in school used to kick his ass and call him a Nazi, and obviously the irony of that is off the charts. So he was desperate to assimilate into American life and culture, and forge a new identity for himself. He used to go to the movies all the time. Bob Greenfield told me that my dad used to go to John Garfield s movies and mimic his lines, and that’s one of the things that helped him drop his accent.

So, in furtherance of this forging of a new identity for himself, he took his birth name, Wolfgang Grajonica, which is WG, and he opened up a Bronx phone book and decided he was going to change his name to William Graham. And that’s where Bill Graham comes from; he literally picked it out of a Bronx phone book.
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