The Great American Music Hall has a long history of being what sound engineer Lee Brenkman calls “a fairly disreputable place.”
A crooked politician named Chris “Blind Boss” Buckley, who also owned the hotel next door, opened the venue in 1907. He named it Blanco’s after a notorious Barbary Coast bordello, and operated it as a gathering space for men looking to gamble, drink, hear live jazz, and hire prostitutes.
“It was a cafe for gentleman, which pretty much means the same thing as a gentleman’s club does now,” says Brenkman, who has worked at Great American since 1972. “If young gentlemen of means came in without a date, one could be provided and added to the check.”
In fact, in recent years, during a heavy-duty cleaning, wallpaper etchings of ancient women of Pompeii doing what Brenkman calls “the nasty” were found on the ceiling of an old smoking room.
The Hall’s next owner, Sally Rand, was as ribald as Buckley. A burlesque dancer made famous by her erotic feather and bubble routines, Rand renamed it the Music Box and performed her lascivious dances at the venue. Back then, the dance floor was recessed and there was a small platform elevated above the main stage with curved staircases on either end connecting to the floor. Rand would dance on top, the band would play on the main stage below her, and the chorus girls would fan out along the stairwells. There was also a secret lounge upstairs called the Blue Room, where you had to know someone to get in.
After World War II, the Hall changed hands a few times. For a while, it was a jazz venue called the Cotton Club that made what was then a groundbreaking decision to have a mixed-race house band. In the ’50s, it was a meeting house for the Loyal Order of Moose.
Things started to spice up in the ’60s, when a French restaurateur named Charles Robert bought the space. Already the owner of a restaurant near the Embarcadero that was named Charles, Robert had high ambitions for his second eatery, installing a wine cellar below ground and expanding the size of the kitchen to include a stove top big enough to make 50 gallons of soup stock at a time.
Robert was also intent on making his new restaurant as exclusive as possible. The business had an unlisted phone number, and you either had to personally know Robert or the head barman to make a reservation. Lamb, another focal point for Robert, was the only red meat on the menu.
“He believed that Americans didn’t eat enough lamb, and that they overcooked it when they did,” Brenkman says. “If you ordered it any other way than medium-rare, he’d throw you out.”
Robert’s reign ended when the government began investigating him for tax evasion, and he simply disappeared one day, never to return. The venue was shuttered, and eventually new owners bought it through an IRS auction. Years later, Brenkman says, the Feds finally caught up with Robert, who, at the time, was working as a dishwasher at a casino in Tahoe.
Like its previous owners, the Hall’s new owners wanted to run it as a jazz club, but the dwindling number of attendees who came soon forced them to broaden their musical scope. Folk singers and rock bands were added to the bill, and the venue was able to nab acts like Journey, B.B. King, and Van Morrison. Dozens of live albums were recorded there during that time, including the Grateful Dead’s One From the Vault. A young Robin Williams also made some of his earliest stand-up comedy appearances there. Brenkman recalls seeing a cheetah on a leash during a private party in the ’80s, and rabid concertgoers scaling fire escapes and breaking through the building’s skylight to get into what they believed was a secret Grateful Dead show. (It was not.)
After a lengthy divorce and roughly three decades of running the place, the owners sold the venue in 2000 to a music startup called Riffage.com for a purported seven-figure sum. Thanks to the dotcom boom and Riffage’s grandiose plans — which included starting a website, producing and streaming live shows, and forming a record label — the company ran through its money in a matter of months and went bankrupt.
Great American Music Hall wasn’t on the market for long. Although House of Blues came and looked at the property, it was Slim’s who eventually purchased it in 2002.
Today, its nefarious past is all but forgotten, and it is now a hub for indie outfits and singer-songwriters. Bands like The Black Lips, Arcade Fire, Bastille, and The Soft White Sixties have played there, as well as solo acts like FKA Twigs, Dev Hynes (of Blood Orange), and St. Vincent.
Other than that, little else has changed. The Blue Room is still there, although now it houses Slim’s offices, and the murals on the ceiling and the outdoor marquee are still in their original condition. In fact, if you look closely enough, you can even still see the blue Cs that Charles Robert painted in the corners of the ballroom, way back when.
Check out more of San Francisco’s storied venues:
Bottom of the Hill
‘Gigging alone at the Bottom of the Hill.’
From roller rink to psych-rock mecca.
The Regency Ballroom
Thrones, trap doors, and double-headed phoenixes.
Bullet holes, Anna Nicole’s lips, and (allegedly) a tunnel built by Al Capone.