Sunday, August 06, 2017

Presenting Bill Graham: Impressive Exhibit Chronicles Rock Impresario, Holocaust Survivor -- Museum Exhibition Review

Exhibit Review

Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution
Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center
Skokie, IL
Thru November 12

Though not for lack of trying, I am not the marketing director for the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, nor ever employed there in any capacity. (I once interviewed for the role and was told I would continue to, but it didn't happen.)

So questions about the propriety of showcasing rock 'n roll memorabilia within a museum devoted to chronicling the genocide of 6 million Jews and millions of other victims in hopes of preventing such horrors from happening again aren't really mine to answer.

I live 5 minutes from the Skokie museum and have viewed its permanent collection multiple times, and in availing myself of Bank of America's generous Museums on Us program to cover the $12 general admission fee I was able to dedicate a visit strictly to Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution, a special exhibit costing $5.

As I will detail, the exhibition was superb, as it reflects on the late rock promoter fleeing Nazi Germany--unlike less fortunate members of his Jewish family--while also exhibiting an impressive array of artifacts tied to his career and the rock legends he booked into his San Francisco and New York City venues.

I'm not sure that I could have mentally digested the exhibition--in which the premature deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Duane Allman, Jerry Garcia and Graham himself unavoidably factor in--right after experiencing the harrowing permanent exhibit.

And as a thorough viewing of the Graham exhibit can take up to 2 hours, seeing it first may well create museum fatigue not allowing for proper intake of the main collection.

So although it's not really my concern, I'd advise those drawn to Skokie by the rock show yet required to pay $17 for a one-day-only visit arrive as the museum opens around 10:00am, view Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution, head to the nearby Old Orchard Mall (or Portillo's, Culver's, etc.) for some lunch, and then return to give the Holocaust exposition proper attention. (I've been told it's permissible to leave & come back within the same day.)

With an extravagant butterfly costume Bill Graham wore to one of the Grateful Dead New Year's Eve shows he promoted displayed just outside the actual exhibit, the well-curated show--organized and circulated by the Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, in association with the Bill Graham Memorial Foundation--occupies the entirety the museum's downstairs exhibition hall.

The first several panels--though I would have welcomed even a few more--chronicle Graham's early life, beset by considerable trauma and tragedy.

He was born Wolfgang Grajonca in Berlin in January 1931, and his father died that same year. After members of the Hitler Youth Movement came looking to recruit him, his mom first put Bill--not yet his name--in a home for Jewish children, which the Nazis shut down. She then put him on a transport to France, and with other refugee children--including this man I wrote about in 2015--he eventually sailed to America on the Serpo Pinto.

Graham's mom Frieda died on a train headed to Auschwitz, and one of his sisters perished there at just 13. Four other sisters survived the Holocaust, either within concentration camps or by escaping the Nazis.

The early part of the exhibit features a trio of compelling video accounts by Graham's childhood friend, Ralph Moratz, with whom he escaped and later met up with in New York.

There are few video clips of Graham himself, who died in a helicopter crash in 1991 at the age of 60, but several of the placards accompanying photos and memorabilia feature quotes from him.

I was struck by this one, pertaining to his early experiences in the United States after fleeing Nazi Germany:

After noting that the name "Bill Graham" was picked out of a Bronx phone book, the focus of the exhibit rather abruptly--and quite predominantly--shifts to his career as a rock concert promoter, initially in San Francisco in the mid-1960s.

After having gotten into the entertainment world as the manager of a mime troupe, for whom he organized a benefit upon a member's arrest, Graham first promoted concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium, a Frisco venue that already existed by that name--and still does.

Displayed in the exhibition is a basket of apples that greeted patrons at the auditorium's entrance. (One presumes the apples aren't originals;)

By 1968, Graham was more heavily utilizing a different space in the city, which he dubbed the Fillmore West. He also famously ran the Fillmore East in New York, and the larger Winterland in Frisco, all of which have long since closed.

But they hosted some phenomenally gifted and influential artists, and along with several beautiful psychedelic posters promoting Fillmore shows, the exhibition showcases some prime artifacts, including:

- A guitar belonging to Carlos Santana, whom Graham had seen at a jam session and encouraged to form a band
- A cowbell Graham played with Santana at Woodstock
- A microphone and tambourine Janis Joplin played at the Fillmore West
- A guitar belonging to The Who's Pete Townshend
- An amplifier belonging to the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia
- A Les Paul guitar Duane Allman played at the Fillmore East in 1971, as recorded for the famed Allman Brothers' live album.
- An outfit worn onstage by Jimi Hendrix
- An outfit worn by Peter Frampton at Winterland, which is depicted on the Frampton Comes Alive album cover
- A wizard costume worn by Graham at another New Year's Eve party/concert by the Grateful Dead
- Boots worn by Keith Richards

See below for photos of most of these objects. (The exhibition allows and encourages photography.)

Although the exhibit only briefly mentions Graham's notoriously fiery temper, it conveys how his personal tempestuousness belied not only the horrors he had lived through, but a rather charitable man who organized many benefit concerts.

Bill Graham coordinated the slate of Live Aid acts who performed in Philadelphia--on hand is a guitar plate signed by Mick Jagger and David Bowie, and a microphone autographed by Ozzy Osbourne, although I don't recall the latter performing at Live Aid--and put together shows for numerous causes, including raising money for San Francisco after-school programs. 

Notably, as a Holocaust survivor, Graham took out an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1985 to address an open letter to President Ronald Reagan, asking him not to visit the Bitburg concentration camp. 

To no avail.

Shortly thereafter, the San Francisco offices of what had become "Bill Graham Presents" were firebombed.

Charred remnants of the Chronicle ad and office equipment are also on display.

Sadly, after attending a concert by Huey Lewis & the News on October 25, 1991, Bill Graham, his girlfriend and the pilot were killed when their helicopter crashed into a high voltage tower.

As the exhibition had begun with a collection of photos showing Graham with family & friends prior to the Holocaust, it ends with a nice wall of pictures depicting him interacting with his kids and other loved ones.

And while the musical instruments played by rock immortals made for the biggest "oohs" and "ahs" and likely the best photos, the exhibit's merits are amplified for the way it depicts how a Holocaust survivor not only came to thrive, but to quite frequently give back.

As noted above, you'll do well to figure out how Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution best meshes with a more holistic visit to the Illinois Holocaust Museum, but on a variety of levels it is very much worth your time and attention.


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