The background A synopsis revised 5/26/97
The "Straight on the Haight" by Reg E. Williams is the true story of the people who renovated a vaudeville movie theater in the middle of the Haight Ashbury during the Psychedelic 60's. The multimedia environmental theater of light became known as the Straight Theater. Here at the crossroads of Haight and Cole the Grateful Dead, Janis , Big Brother, Country Joe , Santana and many other famous and infamous characters made history looking for the Aquarian Age.
The following brief autobiography shows how Reg, the Theater's founder, became a central character in the Haight Ashbury story and the counterculture movement. In 1963 I was a concerned, and by some people's standards, radical student, rebelling against my fifth generation California family by marching against the war and for the civil rights of all second rate citizens especially Black and laboring people.
I had met Bill & Tom, sons of an attorney who although winning large judgments and setting legal precedent had been branded a Communist by public gossip. Their dad had set his children up in one apartment after another after young Bill had found his mother dead in their Pacific Heights mansion. On weekends through out high school I spent many hours with the brothers at the current "Dad's Pad ", undisturbed by adult supervision.
Bill, although the younger brother, became well aware of the material world and learned quickly how to deal with it, teaching us how to get through life with the least hassle by "shucking on thru" . He chose Seacliff society as his peer group throughout Lowell High while his brother Tom headed out on the vagabond trail following the beat poets and holy seers who had gone On the Road" a generation before.
Splitting the difference between them, I worked my way toward San Francisco State College recouping from previous scholastic disaster by garnering good grades and a minor stardom as College of San Mateo student body Chief Justice while secretly discovering the mind manifesting world of pot and intrepidly exploring the universe deep within by seeking my Vision.
For seven years, I used psychedelics as part of this quest, and they are an unavoidable part of the story. The first altered state I remember was seemingly God induced. As a child praying I was filled with a clear light and upon returning to the hay field saw the lost basketball needle gleaming in the sunshine. At San Francisco State pot and psychedelics made former wildness and teenage alcohol abuse irrelevant through heightened awareness, physical at -one-ment and a spirituality which reinforced my Sunday School metaphysics through direct experience.
By the time I entered SF State, my quest for the eternal truths had led to group experiences with fellow explorers . Eating Peyote with Joel Storss, the closest thing to a Native American Roadman around was the largest gathering of "heads" until a public lecture held in the small auditorium of SF States' Experimental Grammar School.
I sat in the aisle while Dick Alpert and Tim Leary lectured to the crammed auditorium. The pair described the nuts and bolts of brain functions like the synapse and their relationship with association then went on to describe levels of consciousness using the hierarchal Bardos from the "Tibetan Book of the Dead". At the top level of consciousness was a clear white light, a merging with the godhead, below after reentering individual consciousness was the swimming paisley retinal circus, below that was the mental and psychological everyday mind set. Then the Harvard revolutionaries spawned the idea of a Sensorium, a facility to go to when taking the still legal LSD. The idea was to create the proper set and setting for optimum individual consciousness expansion. The combination of music, lights, and environment would create a Trip Center. My friends and I were excited to find so many like-minded people and something positive to believe and work toward.
One friend, Justin, the son of a New York artist and heir to an interest in a railroad had grown up near me in a mansion in Arquello terrace under the Salvador Dali portrait of his green face mother. Ever since the first grade, when I retrieved a fifty cent piece he had taken it from my younger brother, we were friends and rivals. Tom always said it was the result of a gene pool war among our Scottish ancestors.
Justin was a talented artist and soul searching intellectual who dropped out of high school and used his stipend to take up residence in the ghetto to pursue his art. These succession of pads became home base for all of us when he was home from his world wide journeys. His interest in performing art led him to Europe on a Ann Halprin Dance Co tour as Lighting Director then discovering magic mushrooms in Juatla, Mexico then returning to report his findings to the Botany Department at UCLA later he assisted Harvard PhD Thadus Ashby in the LSD Creativity Study at Lake Ahihic.
After JFK was shot, it was a signal to many of America's youth that respect for petty authority, material values, and trying to live by other peoples expectation was obsolete. The gap between generations fissured into a crevasse as the war spewed molten-red, coloring the landscape. By 1964 North Beach folk singers and Beat poets had garnered high school pilgrims every weekend. Lines of conga drummers were playing far into the night under the Maritime museum at Aquatic Beach. The late night radio broadcasts of Sly Stone on KSO(u)L were reaching and influencing the growing unseen army of HEADS. They also listened to KJAZ and went out walking in the foggy night.
The Hub Pharmacy, at the bend in Market St ran late night specials like for Romalar. "Rollos" were useful for mystical very transcendental highs that mimicked the sacred peyote and magic mushroom. You could walk across the city like you had on roller skates. Also advertised were cans of ther for the less intrepid. Some sought "Sacred Visions" others the Big O, oblivion. The explosion of internal exploration had led from isolated experiences to a city-wide happening. The student body of SF State was less well know than that of nearby Berkeley during the Free Speech Era, but the same concerns about racial equality and the ever widening war in Southeast Asia were a strong common bond. The radical State students would march in Oakland and rally in Berkeley with our brothers and sisters from the East Bay.
After the San Francisco Auto row sit -ins, we marched to the Oakland Army Terminal, and faced a fascinating alliance of the riot police and a legion of Hells Angles. That night at the rally we met for the first time Ken Kesey and the Pranksters in Further on the greens of UC. Bill and I had been organizing rallies and all night teach-ins at SF State. We inherited the reins of the Committee to Abolish HUAC and then rode that black mark against Liberty to its extinction. In State's giant cafeteria, eventually the site of an acid test made famous in the "Electric Kool-aid Acid Test", the heady brew was already fomenting.
Habitually gathered around a large round table to the left of the door were Rock Scully who would later manage the Dead, Luria, would form the Family Dog and be the first to present psychedelic music, Steward Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalogue, and the blond Susan Pepper in her matching polo coat stimulating the mix. Goldfinger, the Dealer, and Gaskin the prophet, were teaching assistants.
The group would not only help start the San Francisco dance hall scene, but pioneer the first underground radio station, KMPX, and launch a peaceful social and sexual worldwide revolution. I commuted to State in Bill's VW from "Dad's other pad number 96", on Buchanan Street. Half a block up the hill, a psychedelic army outpost was blossoming on the flat block of Pine St.. An army in the "I Ching" sense of the word, is a like minded group organically springing from the earth like water around a common purpose.
Among the artists and artisans Tim Cha was creating fine harpsichords from discarded doors and cutting the clappers from recycled raw materials, George Hunter and his band of Charlatans rehearsed in the basement of a gargoyle-guarded Victorian flat, next to the basement where Bill Ham was developing the light show . The adjoining vacant yard, made famous by Herb Greene's' Family Dog group picture, pushed up against a multi-storied red Victorian which housed artists, genius and scalawags, a modern renascence community.
Bill by this time had joined the ranks of Heads and taken up his role as activist leader. One night on Buchanan Street, dosed on acid, I could see far into the molecular structure of the floor and walls. The connective consciousness communicated on a molecular level, allowed perception through what seemed like a very porous material. I could see patterns on the atomic level and connect abstract symbols, experience the true now, where the secrets of Colors and Cycles of life seemed to be revealed.
Across town at 1090 Page, Rod Alben then, later Chet Helms, ran the tall Victorian mansion- turned-rooming house, and held dances in the gilded-age basement ballroom, starring Big Brother and the Holding Company long before Janis. Down the block, on Divisidaro, the Tape Music Center was spawning light shows with Tony Martin, electronic music with Don Bukla, modern dance, and Ann Halpren's public "Happenings". This social upheaval seemed to replace the anticipated earthquake, or the revolution everyone had been fearing for so long. A concurrent Sexual Revolution had begun much earlier.
By high school, most Bay Area students had had sex. Now, it was talked about openly. Beside the growing number of long haired ladies who were returning to nature by shedding their bras, most relationships quickly led to sex. The black leotard openness of the beatniks passed to a new generation. Groups of luscious young adult women and virile men formed the Sexual Freedom League and began organizing what they called orgies. Group sex in Victorian flats seemed natural way to "Make Love Not War".
The Mime Troupe was presenting bawdy comedy which soon turned overtly political and anti-war. The Troupe went from City sponsored, to arrested, for the same free performances in the park. After the Mime Troupe's arrest and the first benefit for it overflowed around the warehouse where it was held, Bill Graham, the troupe's manager, found the Fillmore Auditorium, a 30's dance hall in the middle of the black ghetto, then resigned from the Mime Troupe's in favor of running the hall. The first Mime Troupe benefit in the Fillmore with liquid projections, slides, movies, on the wall behind the bands, ushered out 1965.
1966's new baby, the Acid Tests, morphed into a large scale Trips Festival at the Longshoreman's Hall. On Friday night, the event combined Steward Brand's "America Needs Indians" slide show, with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, the Grateful Dead, and was complete with plenty of the still legal LSD, creating the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Dressed in my blue pea coat, I sat in the balcony, high on an operational dose, unimpressed by Steward's slide show.
The next night, many of my State friends stayed away, but I went, this time stepping up the dose. The hall's octagon walls and ceiling were perfect for the giant light show projected on all the walls by Ken and the Pranksters from a scaffold tower erected in the middle of the floor. Slides zooming in and out, movie clips flying from one place to another over the whole hall. Stretching across many wall surfaces was crude washed out liquid color tumbling here, rushing there. A visible hand , maybe Kesey's, projected by an overhead, appears on the wall writing "sometimes you must come down in order to go up" in ten foot lettering. I have the level of control over my psychedelic to realize I don't need to heed the invitation to go get some electric Kool-Aid from a tub downstairs.
Random slides of urban settings continued with nonsequiter film until a magic moment in multimedia occurred. I hope it wasn't just inside my mind, which at that moment was attempting to encompass the universe. I was enjoying the colors swirling and being in the company of hundreds of people who were playing on the floor below and in the balcony all around me. A film loop taken from a TV ad suddenly shows a baby eating and slopping a mushy ooze down a bib displaying the food company's name. The loop continues to endlessly sell pabulum.
Suddenly on an adjoining screen a bandwagoning parade film of cheering people waving flags appears. Slides reinforce the image. Liquids colors poured over the top weaving in and out of the projected images. The tempo increased as films of another cavalcade of passing cars joins the first. Presidential limos appear, it is clear that this is Dallas and we will soon seen our beloved former president blowing chunks of brain in a rarely shown film. The pitch increases as savage images are everywhere when the fatal moment is shown.
Red liquid flows down the walls onto the floor. Immediately a cartoon of a bull, standing next to a map of the US, singing" the stars are bright, deep in the heart of Texas" clapping his hoofs and noticeably enlarges Texas' place on the map. The action repeats until Texas stretches from California to DC. The ad selling pabulum continued its endless mission. Kennedy is killed while LBJ and Texas take over the sleeping country. I had been taken away on an interior journey, told a historical fable, presented a point of view that couldn't be mentally blocked, short of leaving the room.
Giant images appearing at random or in sequence spurred my thought with the emotional impact of direct bombardment by abstract washes of color . It was a new Era in entertainment! Justin missed the weekend because destiny had led him from the LSD Creativity Study in Mexico to visit his dad in New York. At the Juarez entry point, the Federal border guards found some pot, and threw him into the Spanish speaking side of the jail, just out of the reach of the pay phone. Coincidentally, within days, Tim Leary and his daughter tried to clear the same border check point and encountered similar federal displeasure disrupting his life and altering history.
After Justin cleared the first part of his judicial process, he continued to NYC to see his father and also seek out and meet the famous former Harvard professor thereby linking all of our destinies assuring many future adventures together. Justin returned to San Fran and introduced me to Tony Martin, a well known artist who was extending his art from canvas to screens, providing the Light Show at the newly found Fillmore auditorium run by Bill Graham, but booked by Chet Helms, who was now the only surviving Family Dog. Justin also let me borrow his Bolex 16 mm camera, a big upgrade from Herb's 1950's hand held 16 mm I had been using to document our gang and society.
The Light Show apprentice position gave me an immediate rise in status from people uninterested in war and civil protest, those who had been creating this whole new scene, including the aquiline Susan Pepper. Now we talked and flirted in the small concession area behind the balcony as I washed glass plates for the light show. The Warlocks became the Grateful Dead and along with Jefferson Airplane, The Charlatans, Country Joe and the Fish, and the Quicksilver Messenger Service, they alternated playing every weekend the first months of 1966. Tony's liquids were beautiful arrangements of various size glass dishes with different colors, oils and alcohol blends. He moved them as little as possible preventing cloudiness and the need to change to a new dish. Instead he projected his movies and liquids with little regard to the music's tempo or the band at all, instead surrounding them with gently moving colors while showing his art movies on the side wall. Below in the strobe light people danced in wild abandon.
One night, I synchronized the strobe to the Dead, covering the auditorium with undulating waves of light . The unified environment seemed to link up everyone in waves of undulating ecstatic tribal dance. Bill Graham came rushing out onto the balcony, past Bukla's electronic tape guys, screaming at Tony to stop the strobe. He was freaked by the total environment synchronicity.
I assisted Bill in the office, watching him talk on what he called "his machine-gun", or in the hall. witnessing the way business is done: bribe those who expect to be bribed and run over the others. One night two plainclothes cops pushed past Brent Seldon backstage and beat it up the circular wooden staircase to the dressing rooms and caught the Quicksilver Messengers smoking a joint. Downstairs in his office over the entry stairs, Bill was counting money as he talked to the pair of cops. As they explained the seriousness of the situation, Bill counted out $350 and placed the pile on the side of his desk nearest the standing cops. The pair left with a confident smile ,the 350 was gone. The shaky band was still able to perform.
After many shows, Bill would drive me in his Kerman Gia out of the Black ghetto to the Zims in the Avenues, and buy me a burger and fries and tell me what was up in the world. Later I realized that I was a cheaper escort than the paid guards and giant dogs he soon began using. We always remained friends and later he made the Chronicle testifying during the theaters headline creating controversial Summer of dance permit hearings. In the Fillmore I had worked my way down front center in the light show. Bill had cut the part of the budget Tony used to develop new film basically leaving him on hourly wage. Tony responded by bringing a bag lunch and allowed me to take a more active role. I could turn the flowing liquids into a dancing fire in time to the music or turn a bubble into a head tight spot for Pigpen to croon a solo, then wipe the whole band in a flood of paisleys.
By March, '66, when Chet booked the Butterfield Blues Band out of Chicago from Bobby Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, it was the end of two partnerships, the hall's and the band. Bill's brash 6am Monday call to Albert to gain sole booking rights went unknown to Chet until he was forced out. The band's break up was plain for all to see. Paul Butterfield had to jump in the air, grab the highest note on his harp, play it for what seemed like minutes, just to get the lead back from the fry guitar war combatants Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop . I created distinctive colored lights for everyone in the band and the small taste of acid I consumed blended space and time, so I raced ahead of the band creating one environment. Light is faster than sound. The colors vivid and primordial washing the psyche with emotion with every run down the wall, created one unified environment for the dancers again that night. 'Saturday night, after the dance at a Quicksilver party at Bob and Jamies, I received a new recognition of my ability to play with bands; Ron Poulty Quick's manager began to book me for road shows with the Quick then the Dead, Janis and Big Bro, Country Joe. I also recognized that I had a vision to find a Sensorium trip Center free from social suppression.
Spring of 1966, my last semester before graduation, I was on acid and cosmically led to the Haight Theater, a long abandoned vaudeville movie theater at the corner of Haight and Cole . The Haight, which reached from just across Masonic, where I went to the Christian Science Sunday School, to Schrader, where the street was swallowed by Golden Gate Park, was a neighborhood in transition. The previous waves of immigrants had each pushed out the former inhabitants. Only a fraction of the storefronts were occupied, vacancy signs and boarded businesses were everywhere. To this low rent area, came a tide of renaissance newcomers, Artist, artisan, Digger and dealer, grabbing up vacant rooms, flats, houses and storefronts. Bill, Tom, and I moved to a flat at 101 Downey in the upper Haight, a few blocks above the theater complex. I had told Tom and Bill that I was wary of Justin coming in and taking over the project, but soon Justin came forward with the missing ingredient; a chunk of money. It came from a plumbing heir, but came attached to a Buffalo transplant, poet- executive, who soon was chairing meetings as president, and we were Jim Wilson and associates, DBA Straight Theater Enterprises. Bill and I were always the Business Managers, inventing a hip new style we continued to raise money and have dozens of partners from dealers like Goldfinger , to the famous like Buwinkles' Fred Ward and Bob Dylan's Albert Grossman, run the day today business dealing with the public and government and always shucking on thru.
These highlights from the original Manuscript "The Straight on the Haight" cover the background that led to the establishment of the Straight Theater. A brief summary of the "Straight on the Haight" covering the life and times from March of 1966 to the summer of 1969, is available. Also available is a reprint of my OFF THE WALL article covering the Straight's posters & artists. The Straight Theater Graphics booklet , and 10/666, the booklet of my Haight Ashbury movie and stills reprints from the era. My films of Haight Street, the Diggers, the Human Be-in, 10/666 the Day they made Acid illegal celebration in the Panhandle, the riots, the Congress of Wonders at Sky River Rock and others are transferred onto VHS Video.
Also available soon on video is the "30 Year Celebration of the Psychedelic 60's Series" of multimedia shows held last year in San Francisco staring Neil Cassidy at the Straight -A Live Tribute by Reg E, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Melissa Etherige as Janis (Not available on Video) Ram Das/ Dick Alpert, Nicky Scully & Tribal Alchemy, Its a Beautiful Day, Gene Anthony's Summer of Love, The Farm's Steve Gaskin on Monday Night Class, films and audio of Neil Cassidy, Ken Kesey and the Pranksters, Lisa Laws "Flashing on the 60's", Snooky Flower's Kosmic Flashback Band, the Vagabond poet Tony Selden, and Moby Grape all with giant light shows.Reg E Williams Director of All Media Service, provides production management and promotion to the entertainment trade has worked on stage, screen and television for over 25 years.. He wrote a comprehensive technical manual for stage hands, the script for "Dance Probe", a seven part series shown on PBS, a magazine article on posters of the Straight Theater for "Off the Wall", and several screen plays. He has an enormous collection of memorabilia from his Haight Ashbury days, which he used to reconstruct a computer based calendar to provide a historical portrait of the times. Reg knows more people than anyone else I know" says Hillel Resner of Mix Magazine.
A picture of the interior of the Straight Theater
Copyright © Reg E Williams