it was fifty years ago today.
Fifty years ago this evening, the S.F. Mime Troupe’s ‘Appeal’ Party took place in San Francisco, hard on the heels of the first Family Dog Dance, “A Tribute to Dr. Strange,” and after a busy summer of psychedelic adventure at the Red Dog Saloon in Nevada City, CA. Bill Graham, then a business manager of the Mime Troupe and aspiring actor, organized the event, which launched his career as a concert promoter. He wasn’t sure if anyone would show up, but people lined up around the block to see Jefferson Airplane, The Fugs, John Handy Quartet, Sandy Bull, The Committee (comedy group), and others. Supposedly, Graham had to lift the money bag from the voluntary admission pouring in up to the Mime Troupe’s loft on a rope over the crowd trying to get into the space.
Space is a crucial part of the story here. One important aspect of the ‘Appeal’ Party was that it was, like the Family Dog dances, about contestations over public space in the Bay Area. It was about the restless urge in San Francisco among young people, students, bohemians was to find places to convene and gather, to “party,” to “get together,” to see and be seen, to interact. And it was about the ways in which city officials and those in power were hesitant to cede this public space to them. The ‘Appeal’ Party was a fundraiser for the legal costs of Mime Troupe leader RG Davis, who had been arrested for performing in San Francisco’s public parks without a permit. Similarly, with the Family Dog dances, as organizer Luria Castell (who, sadly, died earlier this year) told journalist Ralph Gleason, “They’ve got give people a place to dance. That’s what’s wrong with those Cow Palace shows. THE KIDS CAN’T DANCE THERE. There’ll be no trouble when they can dance” (The Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound (New York: Ballantine, 1969), 3). Castell was not quite right, however. There was trouble, even when she and others created spaces for dancing. But this was an interesting kind of trouble, bringing differences of class and race to the surface, out in public. And as The Diggers (who grew out of the Mime Troupe) would later put it in their very first broadsheet (Fall, 1966), the key issue was about who the public was, where they took shape and, as they put it, “Where is PUBLIC at?”
The very same night as the ‘Appeal’ Party, the original Family Dog Collective hosted what I believe was their last dance before Chet Helms, already associated with them, took over the production company name (which had come from a Haight-Ashbury house where many of the members—Alton Kelley, Ellen Harmon, Luria Castell, and others—lived at one point or another). A Tribute to Ming the Merciless featured Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and the Charlatans, once again at Longshoreman’s Hall. Only this time, rowdy teenagers from the Mission showed up, scuffles broke out, and it was a much less positive experience for the organizers. Once again space—who moved through it and how, with what energies and in harmony or dissonance with others—was a key part of the story. Zappa, being Zappa, supposedly narrated the brawling and fighting from the stage during the performance by the Mothers.
Another aspect of the ‘Appeal’ show, as with the Family Dog Dances and the very first Acid Tests organized by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, which took place that same, very busy, very innovative fall of 1965, was the interest in electricity and its possibilities—really, the need, Castell and others felt, to figure out what could be done within the wavelengths of the modern era of electronics communications systems. Castell was among the first to articulate what was going on:
Basically we want to meet people and have a good time and not be dishonest and have a profitable thing going on. I think that rock ‘n’ roll people are just starting to know how to use their instruments. They’re doing new things in electronics, the generation brought up in the insanity…young people today are torn between the insanity and the advances of the electronic age (Gleason, 3).
Suspicious of larger systems of control in America, the freaks were not suspicious of technology itself. As they started to come out from their private corners and find each other in the strobe lights and roar of rock, they were ready not only to dance, but also to appeal: to each other and to the wider world, in search of new possibilities for art and community, individual expression and togetherness, a sense of joy and a confrontation with public difficulties and a hope for figuring out a way forward.
See California Historical Society post on the ‘Appeal’ Party: Exactly 50 years ago today, rock music promoter Bill Graham….