Bill Graham, famed rock promoter behind Fillmore and Live Aid Philly, focus of new local exhibit

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Music promoter Bill Graham in Butano Canyon, Calif., in 1972 in a photograph by Graham Nash. The exhibit "Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution" opens at the National Museum of American Jewish History on Friday.

Bill Graham was a flamboyant showman who became the most famous music promoter in the world, a key figure in the 1960s San Francisco psychedelic scene known for hobnobbing with the luminaries he gathered for mammoth awareness-raising events like Live Aid, the star-studded 1985 Philadelphia concert for African-famine relief.

Graham - whose Fillmore brand of clubs in San Francisco and New York has been replicated by Live Nation in venues all over the U.S., including the Fillmore that opened last year in Fishtown - even died like a rock star. The always-on-the-go promoter, 60, perished in 1991 in a fiery helicopter crash on his way home from a Huey Lewis & the News concert.

But less familiar than Graham's larger-than-life persona or the details of his tragic death is the harrowing story of his early life. He was born Wulf Walodia Grajonca in 1931 in Berlin. After Kristallnacht, the Nov. 9, 1938, pogrom in which Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues all over Germany were vandalized, his mother placed him in a children's home. When that proved unsafe, he moved to an orphanage in France before setting sail July 4, 1939, from Portugal to America.

That's why "Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution" - the multimedia exhibit that tells Graham's life story in the context of the countercultural 1960s and the societal changes it wrought - is opening this week not at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame museum in Cleveland, but at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

"In the exhibition, we tell the story of rock and roll through Bill, an individual who had a strong impact on that cultural phenomenon," Joshua Perelman, the museum's chief curator and director of exhibitions, said this week.

He was walking among still-being-assembled exhibits that displayed Janis Joplin's feather boa; Keith Richards' boots; and classic, tripped-out posters created by noted artists such as Graham's first wife, Philadelphia native Bonnie MacLean.

"But what people may not know," Perelman said, "is that Bill was born in Berlin and came to the United States as an unaccompanied minor in flight from Nazi Germany."

"Bill Graham" was a name that - in a classic act of reinvention on the way to fulfilling his American dream - he picked out of a New York City telephone book, part of the compelling exhibit that opens Friday and runs to Jan. 16.

Also on display: The cowbell that Graham (a nonmusician) banged on during Santana's set at Woodstock, a photo of Graham with a Jewish star around his neck taken by Graham Nash in 1972, and the charred remains of a menorah saved from Graham's San Francisco office in 1985. The office was firebombed after he organized an event in protest of Ronald Reagan's visit to the cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where many Nazi leaders were buried.

In addition to Live Aid, on which he collaborated with Philadelphia promoter Larry Magid of Electric Factory Concerts, Graham promoted the Amnesty International Human Rights Now tour that played JFK Stadium in 1988 with Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Tracy Chapman, Youssou N'Dour, and Peter Gabriel. The Philadelphia flavor of the exhibit, which originated in Los Angeles at the Skirball Cultural Center, includes Live Aid paraphernalia, such as items signed by Mick Jagger and David Bowie.

"Bill didn't go to synagogue, and he wasn't someone who practiced religion," Perelman said. "What he brought was the values of someone who began his life in flight, who could not live in the place he was born."

Graham was sensitive to that from the very beginning of his concert career, Perelman said. That enterprise began in 1965, when he organized a benefit for the San Francisco Mime Troupe in the new hometown he had moved to - to be closer to a sister who also escaped the Holocaust - after serving in the Korean War and failing to make it as an actor while living in the Catskills in Upstate New York.

Graham was working as office manager for a company that manufactured heavy machinery - where he met MacLean, whom he hired as his secretary - when the Mime Troupe's leader, Ronnie David, was arrested on obscenity charges. Fired up by free-speech issues, Graham put on benefits that were wildly successful.

"That's when the lightbulb went off," says MacLean, 76, who was married to Graham from 1967 to 1972 and who now lives in Buckingham, Bucks County.

"What Bill really wanted to be in life was an actor," she says. The impresario had roles in Apocalypse Now and The Cotton Club, and the farewell concert for The Band he put on at Winterland in 1976 was made into The Last Waltz by Martin Scorsese, which will be screened Nov. 30 at the museum. Go to NMAJH.org/PublicPrograms for details on additional synergistic activities.

"He was a showman," McClean says. "That flair that he had got channeled into putting on a show." The "Rock & Roll Revolution" show includes a presentation of the psychedelic "Joshua Light Show" created by Joshua White, which Graham would give equal billing to along with acts like the Jefferson Airplane, B.B. King, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and The Doors. It also displays outrageous Butterfly and Father Time outfits Graham wore at New Year's Eve shows.

Graham was not the only promoter in San Francisco in those halcyon days. The Family Dog promotional collective also put on noteworthy shows, mostly at the competing Avalon Ballroom. The difference was "that the Family Dog shows were just about the music," says MacLean.

If not for Graham, she says, the scene "wouldn't have had the same style. His shows were so much more interesting, so much bigger."

Perelman puts it this way: "Bill believed that rock and roll is not something that should be passively watched. It should be something you're an active participant in. Rock and roll is all about extravagance, and Bill Graham was extravagant."

MacLean found it fitting that the tribute to Graham would be at the Jewish Museum.

"One of the things about Bill is, no matter what he did - and he was known for carrying on and yelling, and he yelled at me sometimes, which I didn't like much - is that I forgave him everything. His father died when he was two days old. His mother died in the camps. When he came to America, he was put in an orphanage where the children were put on display and had to hope to be chosen. I knew what he had gone through in life."

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