By Tommy Coca
Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle
With the Dodgers’ departure in 1957, coupled with flocks of Brooklynites fleeing to suburbia and beyond, the borough for many years fell into somewhat of a slide. More recently, though, this situation has been thoroughly reversed. Professional baseball is back, albeit on the minor league level, but we now also have an NBA team and in the very near future the Islanders will represent us in the NHL. Hotels have been built or refurbished, neighborhoods revitalized, and the Queen Mary II now even docks here in Red Hook.
Just a short while ago, concertgoers who live in Brooklyn had to leave the borough to see major acts. For the larger shows they could visit Madison Square Garden, Newark’s Prudential Center, and Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. In warm weather, they might choose to head to Jones Beach or the PNC Bank Arts Center in New Jersey. But today, a car is no longer needed to get Brooklynites to shows, as multiple subway lines can easily get one to the Barclay’s Center on Flatbush Avenue, and for outdoor events to the Cyclones’ home in Coney Island.
Prior to the opening of Brooklyn’s new venues, Manhattan provided settings for smaller shows. Among the most notable of these venues are the Beacon Theater and, in the East Village, Bill Graham’s legendary Fillmore East, which closed in 1971. Brooklyn’s early rock venues, the Fox and Paramount, are also long gone. There was one short-lived and notable exception to this state of affairs, however: there was a concert space in Brooklyn known as the 46th Street Rock Palace, which later was called Bananafish Garden.
This Brooklyn theater was originally known as the Universal Theater, but shortly after it opened in 1927 it was acquired by the Loew’s Corporation and was renamed the Loew’s 46th Street. Older citizens of New York may remember the pronunciation “Low Ease.” At any rate, the venue was quite ornate, as were so many of the movie-houses built in the era, and it provided seating for more than 2,500 moviegoers in its orchestra and balcony.
By the end of the 1960s, the space’s existence as a movie theater had ended and its short-lived reincarnation as a rock venue began. Top bands of the Woodstock era took the stage, including Jefferson Airplane, Iron Butterfly, and Country Joe McDonald. Most notable of all the guests were Jerry Garcia, Pigpen, and the rest of the Grateful Dead, who performed for four incredible nights in November of 1970. While the band’s career came to boast 2,300 shows worldwide during its thirty-year run, at this time, the Dead was just five years into its existence.
The Dead originated in the hippie capital of Haight-Asbury, San Francisco, and emerged as the longest lasting band from the psychedelic sixties. Their fan base, known as the Deadheads, was (and still is) perhaps the most devoted – and in many ways, the most eccentric – of that of any rock group in history. Drugs, particularly in the early years, were very prevalent; as such, barefoot, long-haired, shirtless acid-freaks were a part of the scene. Violence was not – a peaceful, mellow vibe permeated their shows, and the phrase “There is nothing like a Grateful Dead Concert” became part of the band’s lore.
Unlike other groups, the Grateful Dead encouraged their audience to bring tape players to the concerts and freely exchange the bootleg recordings. Today, a treasure trove of such tapes exists, although the tapes from the Brooklyn shows are of very poor quality. The third night’s show, which took place on Saturday, Nov. 11, 1970, included an appearance by Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Cassady and Papa John Creach, as well as the New Riders of the Purple Sage.
Deadheads who attended the Saturday night concert speak of the extraordinary duration of the show, the clouds of marijuana, and the hashish smoke. Mind-altering drugs were prevalent at the time, and two separate attendees reported that it was light out when the concert ended early Sunday morning. Both also recall band member Pigpen cooking bacon onstage. A strange trip, indeed!
The theater on 46th street and New Utrecht Avenue is now a furniture store. The heart of the Grateful Dead – singer and guitarist Jerry Garcia – died in 1995. The soul of the group, singer/harmonica/keyboard player Ron ‘Pigpen’ Mckernan, passed on in 1973. Although the Grateful Dead is gone, many cover bands such as The Electrix keep the band’s unique style of music alive in local bars, while the remaining members of the Dead continue to tour under names such as Phil and Friends, Further, and Ratdog, even appearing in Brooklyn’s newest venues. It isn’t the same, say the old-timers…but the music carries on.