"What was that Summer of Love thing all about?" the reporter asked.
Helms answered the question the same way he's answered its variants hundreds of times. He talked about the 1967 Council for the Summer of Love, the Diggers, the Oracle, the Family Dog, the Be-In. He fiddled with his beard and tried to keep his straw hat from blowing away.
Helms, 55, gestured to the field behind him. He told the reporter about the Summer of Love 30-year celebration planned for October, when he expects 40,000 to 50,000 people to blanket the grass for a "consciousness-raising event" -- in more pedestrian terms, a daylong rock concert. For 12 more minutes Helms tried to explain the event's imperative. He talked about the poverty line, the prisons-to-schools ratio in California, and other weighty issues. He wouldn't say who would perform, but he injected big-name endorsements from Paul and Linda McCartney and Steve Miller into the pitch.
When Helms finished, the reporter thanked him for his time and left in a red four-wheel drive, on his way to Half Moon Bay for an interview with the circus. Helms drove the same ailing tan Audi coupe he's driven for 17 years to his modest downtown art gallery for an afternoon of meetings and more interviews.
The television spot, generalized into nostalgia and stripped of news, aired five days later on CNN Showbiz Today, between a piece about a Times Square Disney parade for the animated movie Hercules and a report that Speed 2 reaped the most money at the nation's box offices on its opening weekend. The producers gave Chet Helms' talking head precisely 40 words. Of the "consciousness-raising event" there was no mention.
That the most omnipresent news source in the world ignored nine months of preparation for a celebration of what Helms considers a landmark event in American history might seem like a tough personal blow. But Chet Helms is used to such affront.
Thirty years ago, Helms' carefree style and proclamations of cultural renaissance made him the most charming hippie in San Francisco. He ran the Avalon Ballroom -- one of the twin pinnacles of the Summer of Love -- as if it were his own living room. His taste in music and his open-minded booking policy established him as one of the most connected and inventive players in the San Francisco music scene. Everyone loved Chet Helms.
Back then, everyone thought Helms wanted to be a hippie, not a businessman. To some extent it was true: Helms hoped to build a place to make drama, theater, community, and love; a place to work with and motivate others. To do those things, Helms knew he needed to create a space where people could grow. He did that with the Avalon, but his lack of business experience eventually killed the venue -- and the drama, and theater, and community.
Helms tried to return to the culture business a few more times; each venture failed more pathetically than the first. Today, after 30 years of stupid business moves and incredible financial failure, only the love is left.
Way back in 1966, Chet Helms would dance like an ecstatic preacher in the middle of his Avalon Ballroom. Helms looked like any other stoned hippie in the joint, but he was actually the man desperately trying to make the Avalon work and even expand.
Over in the corner there'd be some lumbering blues band pumping out 126 decibels for Helms' spins and twists. Like all good dancers he exuded confidence. People watched him twirl, his long, blond hair flopping up and down and slapping at his waist. Sometimes they'd begin to dance. If he could get them going the sprung wooden floor would bounce back at them, elevating them, bringing them closer to God. This was important to Helms, a man who once wanted to be a missionary, but who accidentally ended up in rock 'n' roll.
Helms believed in dancing so much that every night he would let in 60 people for free. He expected those people to dance. They would teach the teen-agers who sat on the couches along the wall with $3 matchboxes of pot how to dance. At least that is what Helms thought, but it's not clear that everyone understood. San Francisco Chronicle reporter Philip Elwood once stopped by the ballroom at the corner of Van Ness and Sutter and wrote that there was no one at the top of the stairs to collect tickets -- from anyone. Rich kids from Marin would tell Helms they had no money, and he would let them in for free sometimes.
Across town at the Fillmore auditorium, budding rock impresario Bill Graham didn't think much of the stoned and unscrubbed. He'd actually stand in the middle of a room full of people and scream, "I'm not a hippie." Graham didn't care if anyone danced at his Fillmore. He only wanted to make sure that everyone paid for his -- or her -- ticket.
There is a tendency to simplify the past, to turn history into melodrama. In 1997, 30 years after the Summer of Love, Chet Helms gets the good-guy role and Bill Graham remains the villain. Graham, ever the businessman, got rich selling hippie culture. Helms ended up with hepatitis C, a heart condition, and a stack of hospital bills. It's fashionable, especially in San Francisco, to hate a winner. But melodrama relies on ignoring large sections of truth.
The truth is Helms wanted to succeed. And to some extent, he believes he did. "The reality of it is that I sustained a business that employed 20 to 40 people for six or seven years straight," says Helms of his Avalon years and subsequent tenure at another dance hall out on the Great Highway. "I didn't have the same business background as Graham did. I basically was not so much of a bottom-liner. But there were other things that were as important."