I am an architect, light show artist and musician. This is a chronicle of my journey to reconstruct the Fillmore East. The Fillmore East was a transcendent concert venue in the history of Rock and Roll. Unfortunately, the theater building was demolished in 1997. The loft building that housed the Second Avenue lobby still exists, but it is now a bank. To date this has been a digital reconstruction in the form of drawings, computer models and videos. I don't have a simple answer for why I think this is a worthwhile thing to do. Certainly, such a revered venue deserves proper documentation, or perhaps the information gained could inform the design of future performance halls. Or maybe it will play a role in preserving existing historical theaters that face a similar fate. I'm sure it will lead to a reconstruction of memories for many. Field of Dreams is one of my favorite movies, recently I've been hearing a voice in my head saying "if you draw it they will build it". There are no plans to actually demolish the apartment building that stands where the theater once was or force the bank to move out. The manifestations of whatever reconstructions take place, whether they be physical, imaginary or spiritual, remain to be seen. I plan to update this website as long as I can though. Check back once in a while, I think we'll both be amazed at where this road takes us.
Architecture, light shows, and music combined in a very special way at the Fillmore East from 1968 to 1971. Being born in 1963 I was a little too young to have experienced it myself. It opened just before the era of arena and stadium concerts and top bill artists would play a venue like the Fillmore East (which seated 2632) regularly. The Fillmore East was a departure from Bill Graham’s west coast counterparts in that it was a performance/movie theater constructed in the 1920’s with fixed seats instead of an open ballroom. As Matthew Greene so eloquently stated, “The theater lent gravitas to the then semi-illegitimate rock ‘n roll idea, and it was also clear that the musicians and bands also felt its specialness, which resulted in historically acknowledged live show masterpieces like The Allman Bros, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jeff Beck Group and too many others to name here”. So that definitely lit up the architect part of my brain.
But it was my passion for psychedelic light shows that really drove the quest to learn more about what happened in this building at that time. I’d seen photos of the Joshua Light Show (the original house light show at the Fillmore East) in the Psychedelic Light Show Preservation Society Facebook group. In the photos the light show artists are shown standing behind a row of projectors in what looked like the back wall of a balcony somewhere in front of the stage. It was months later that I learned that the light show was actually BEHIND the stage and would light up a rear projection screen that became a dynamic, fluid and multicolored visual back drop for the bands.
The light show setup at the Fillmore East was unique in that it was a permanent equipment setup that didn’t need to be broken down after each performance. I thought they were on the backstage floor. But that was incorrect also. Steve Pavlovsky from Liquid Light Lab told me that elevated platforms were hung off the back wall of the stage to allow for band equipment staging below the platforms. But how far behind the screen? How high above the stage? How big was the screen? How did they get to the platforms?
To really understand how the lightshow was set up in space and how it appeared to the audience I needed architectural drawings of the building. Shouldn’t be hard to find floor plans of a famous theater like the Fillmore East, right? After hours of online research, I found…. virtually nothing. Pretty much all I found were some very blurry floor plan and section drawings of the building from when it was radically transformed into The Saint Nightclub in 1980. I’d also found a 1940 site plan that gave me pretty solid dimensions for the perimeter of the building.
Between the rough drawings I had found, historical photos and comments by people in the Facebook light show group I felt like I could start blocking out at least the backstage floor plans and sections. Posting the drawings in the Facebook light show group drew further helpful comments.
Steve Pavlovsky and Chris Samardizch (Brotherhood of Light) have a video series called The Psychedelic Light Show Review. In a two part episode that focused on The Joshua Light Show they had Joshua White (namesake of the light show) as a guest and used my drawings at one point to talk about how the light show at the Fillmore East was set up. You can view that episode here.
With this information in hand what could I do with it? Joshua White and Marc Rubinstein are still very active in the light show community. Marc’s Pig Lightshow was one of the light shows that performed on a repeated basis at the Fillmore East after Joshua left in 1970. I contacted both of them and explained that I had an idea to create what I would call The Fillmore East Light Show Playbook. I’d send them each a few light show photos from the era, and they could send me detailed information about the techniques, equipment and personnel that went into creating the image. I would then use my drawings to illustrate the idea. They are both very generous people and said they would help so, I sent them some stuff. After a week or so I started having some doubts about the idea and sent emails saying that if they didn’t respond it’s ok.
I didn’t hear from either Joshua or Marc for maybe two months and just assumed that it was a dead idea. But then Marc did respond with super detailed notes and drawings! How he could remember things from 50 years ago was astounding. I was really inspired! I had this great information from a great light show artist that actually performed at the Fillmore East! Instead of just two dimensional drawings the “The Playbook” evolved into two animated videos which included my first attempt at a 3D model of the Fillmore East interior. I'd also modeled the projectors, platforms and rear projection screen.
My heart literally started pounding when I raised the walls in the computer model and first got a sense of what the interior space must have felt like. Many things weren’t right, but I did the best I could with information that I had. I knew that there were a few Fillmore East Facebook fan groups and thought that perhaps they could be a source for better information about the building. I met some really cool people that gave me some great information.
Jerry Pompili (Fillmore East Usher Manager) told me where Bill Graham’s office was and also where his office and The Bummer Palace were. He also gave me great information about how the ticket office was laid out.
Stan Schnier gave me great information about how the loft building was laid out.
Pete Housekeeper shared photos that he had taken of the building after the Fillmore East years depicting views of the building that I have not seen anywhere else.
Lynda Sales (Bill Graham’s weekend receptionist) described to me how Bill Graham’s office and waiting area were arranged.
I’d also been collecting any photos of the Fillmore East that I could find online and studying them for clues as to how the building was designed. Many of these photos came from Amalie R. Rothschild’s book “Live At The Fillmore East”. I bought the book and in it she writes that she took close to 20,000 photos during the time that she worked at the Fillmore East. I thought that perhaps she might have some unpublished photos that would be helpful to me. I sent her an email explaining what I was up to and included some of the drawings I had created at that time. I really didn’t expect a response but was elated when I did hear back from her a few days later. She said she was intrigued by my project and would copy some of her Fillmore East friends that she keeps in touch with and might be able to help.
One of Amalie’s friends was John Chester (Fillmore East Sound Engineer). John said that he had just moved to a new house but remembered seeing floor plans that he had copied from NYC city hall in 1968 when he was packing things up. He said they were still boxed up but that when he got around to unpacking things that he would send them to me. I’ve worked in several architectural offices and have seen how plans can be mistreated so I tried to stay hopeful that 50 year old plans were still legible. When the drawing tube was delivered to my door several weeks later, I had another heart pounding moment just before opening the tube. John had sent me 3 sheets of pristine vellum prints from the original 1925 construction drawings! They included the main and balcony level floor plans as well as building sections that showed the proscenium arch and dimensioned levels of the balcony seating. I felt like I had found another copy of The Declaration of Independence!
I made digital copies of the drawings and shared them with everyone that I thought might be interested. Early in my research I learned about The Saint Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving memories and artifacts from the years when the building was used as The Saint Nightclub. I sent them copies of the 1925 construction drawings, explained what I was doing and asked that if they had photos or drawings that would be helpful to me. They reciprocated with photos that were taken during selective demolition just prior the remodel. The photos were disturbing to some people that had strong emotional connections to the Fillmore East, but they were incredibly helpful to me. Because most of the Fillmore East interior photos that I found were taken during performances the room was very dark with the exception of the stage lighting and therefore didn’t provide a lot of detail. The selective demolition photos were lit to show the space. They are also the only photos that I’ve found that showed the proscenium arch in its entirety. I am extremely appreciative to The Saint Foundation for sharing them with me.
The drawings that John Chester had sent me were numbered Sheets 12, 14 and 18. So I knew that there were at least 15 remaining sheets in the original construction set. So maybe the city still has them on file? I’d made several calls to city offices trying to determine if they might have them. I was told that if they did that they would be on microfiche and that the only way to find out was to actually come to the office and look for myself. I live in Kansas City and my Fillmore East obsession had not yet reached the stage of justifying a trip to New York City to visit the Manhattan Buildings Office. I returned to the Fillmore East Facebook groups and asked if anyone living in or near Manhattan would be willing to stop by the Manhattan Buildings Office. I am very grateful to Tim Goosens for taking the train into the city to see what they might have. He copied everything he could find onto a flash drive and sent it to me. They did not have drawings from the 1920’s construction set, which unfortunately means that I may have the only surviving copies. I hope that I am wrong. But Tim did find 1988 drawings from when the building was being considered for a cinema multi plex which included exterior elevations and longitudinal sections thru the building that were very helpful!
As part of my light show work, I’d really been putting a lot of time and energy into using slide projectors and color wheels to produce color, texture and movement. One Joshua Light Show photo taken from a Janis Joplin concert during the Fillmore East years became an obsession with me. This is my version of it.
Joshua White is very open and generous with advice and happy to share what he knows. He explained how he produced this effect on The Psychedelic Light Show Review, so I decided to recreate it for myself. We actually talked on the phone (there is no one in the light show world that I hold in higher regard, so this was an absolute thrill for me!) about the slide technique during which he mentioned the videos for The Pig Light Show at the Fillmore East that I had created. The Joshua Light Show was the pioneering light show and the most famous of the light shows that worked there so I’d always felt uneasy about not having done a video focusing on JLS at the FE. I certainly wanted to but just hadn’t yet and I wasn’t totally sure that Joshua would want that. I took his mention of the Pig Light Show videos as a yes, he would like me to make a JLS/FE video. I very enthusiastically offered to do it!
Having the original construction drawings was a game changer. It also meant that I pretty much had to start over with everything before I began work on the Joshua Light Show video. I had much better information about the floor plans, vertical heights, and seating layout. Some changes were made to the building during the Fillmore East years, and I wanted to show those modifications as accurately as possible. As Amalie had written in her book, the stage had been enlarged to create more space for performers. In the following photos you can see how I projected the front edge of the stage to the side walls to determine where the front of the expanded stage was.
I redrew the floor plans to reflect the configuration of the theater during the Fillmore East years which included enlarged stage and seating layout per confirmed charts. Bill Graham's office was actually the ladies' restroom when the building was constructed. That space must have been converted before Bill Graham took over because I have found no mention of that remodel. Between Lynda Sale's account and looking at photo's I believe I have that area drawn pretty accurately.