Before the Neoclassical brownstone building that is The Fillmore was built in 1912, the lot on the corner of Fillmore and Geary streets housed a Jewish temple called Beth Israel Synagogue. The 1906 earthquake destroyed it, and it was replaced with a sparkly new edifice designed by Reid & Reid, the same fraternal architecture firm that built the Cliff House and Fairmont Hotel.
Dubbed The Majestic Ballroom, it was intended to be a society club with ballroom dancing and lessons for upper-crust denizens of San Francisco. Tickets cost 35 cents, but you could get 10 cents knocked off if you brought an extra lady, says Tony Biancalana, The Fillmore’s longest-working employee, who has found old relics from the Majestic era in the attic.
The building remained a dance hall until 1939, when it was turned into a roller rink called the Ambassador. You can still see vestiges of that time in the main ballroom’s curved walls (which helped reduce injuries) and the metal railings lining the entryways to the space adjacent to the ballroom.
The Ambassador was converted into a music venue in 1954, when concert promoter Charles Sullivan purchased it and renamed it The Fillmore Auditorium. At the time, Sullivan was one of the most successful Black businessmen in San Francisco and booked acts like Ike and Tina Turner, Little Richard, and young Jimi Hendrix.
In 1965, Bill Graham rented out The Fillmore to throw a party for the San Francisco Mime Troupe. The event was more successful than Graham imagined, Biancalana says, and earned the promoter a whopping $4,000.
For the next three years, Graham continued to rent the venue from Sullivan, slowly replacing the venue’s earlier rhythm-and-blues acts with more rock ’n’ roll. During that short period, many of the biggest musicians from the ’60s made tour stops at the Fillmore, including The Velvet Underground, Nico, The Doors, Santana, The Byrds, Janis Joplin, and Jefferson Airplane.
Graham was also inventive with his parties — which might be why Hunter S. Thompson included a mention of The Fillmore in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Graham paired differing acts on the same bill, like The Who with jazz clarinetist Woody Herman or the Grateful Dead with Miles Davis. He also introduced ambiance enhancers, like strobe lights, film projections, and freewheeling offstage dancers.
“This was the test model for the way that people now see rock ’n’ roll shows,” Biancalana says. “It was just this place you could go and hang out at, smoke weed, and not be messed with.”
In 1968, Graham opened his own location, Fillmore West, at the corner of South Van Ness Avenue near Market Street, and ceased throwing shows at the venue until 1985. During his absence, The Fillmore, yet again, was used for more than a few different purposes. For a while it was a mosque, which Biancalana says the building still gets mail for. In the early ’80s, it was turned into The Elite Club, a punk-rock venue that booked acts like Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, Gang of Four, and Bad Religion.
Bert and Regina Kortz purchased the building in the mid-’80s and continued running the venue as a music space. They occasionally rented the space out to Graham, who threw sporadic shows there until his death in 1991.
After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, the building was so damaged that it wasn’t functional. It remained closed until 1994, when The Smashing Pumpkins played an unannounced surprise show, and Primus played the next night for The Fillmore’s official reopening.
Since then many of the biggest acts to roll through San Francisco have made tour stops at The Fillmore, like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, No Doubt, Beach House, Radiohead, The Cure, and Prince.
For the last few years, Live Nation, which currently manages the venue, has been steadily renaming established clubs in cities like Detroit, Denver, Philadelphia, and Miami Beach to match The Fillmore’s name. So if you start noticing more and more venues around the country named The Fillmore, you’re not crazy.
Check out more of San Francisco’s storied venues:
Bottom of the Hill
‘Gigging alone at the Bottom of the Hill.’
The Regency Ballroom
Thrones, trap doors, and double-headed phoenixes.
Bullet holes, Anna Nicole’s lips, and (allegedly) a tunnel built by Al Capone.
The Great American Music Hall
Prostitutes, tax evasions, and the dotcom boom.