Opened in 1922 as a vaudeville theater called the Loews Warfield, the Warfield was for a long time cluttered with rows of seating that made contemporary concert necessities like moshing and dancing nearly impossible.
This wasn’t a problem during its first five decades of operation, when the goal was to fit as many people as possible into the gold-and-red theater on Market Street. Old movie stars like Buster Keaton and Clara Bow graced the stage, along with dancers, comedians, magicians, and — in 1931 — a guy dressed in a Mickey Mouse costume.
But though the venue has cycled through various names and promoters over the years, no change was as pivotal as when the seats were removed from the front of the stage. Rumor has it that Joe Strummer of The Clash once refused to play at the venue unless the first two rows were removed, but it’s unclear whether that was actually Strummer’s request or the dawning popularity of the venue as a concert space that led to the seats’ eventual removal.
One of the first musical acts to book a show at the Warfield was Bob Dylan, who played 14 shows in 1979 at the start of his first Gospel Tour, and another 12 in 1980. Because it can house more than 2,000 people, the venue became a popular hub for rock acts, and the Grateful Dead — as well as Jerry Garcia when he went solo — played dozens of shows there for a number of years.
Rock dominated the Warfield’s lineup for another decade or two — and continues to today, with acts like Stone Temple Pilots, Korn, The Killers, and Jane’s Addiction stopping by the Warfield when they’re on tour. Thrash-metal band Slayer recorded a music video there in 2001, and Green Day performed the entirety of American Idiot in October 2005.
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Goldenvoice took over management of the theater in 2008, and since then, the venue’s lineup has become more diverse. Acts like Erykah Badu, Young Thug, Duke Dumont, and B.B. King have all made the bill, and Kanye West once played a medley of old and new hits at a DNC fundraiser for President Barack Obama in 2015.
Aside from the chairs and the acts, though, little else has changed about the Warfield. The celestial angel paintings are still on the ceiling, and the Greco-Roman busts still line the upper walls. The wooden telephone closets still exist, although they’re now empty, and you can still see tracings of the ironwork that lifted elephants from below the stage.
The venue’s most interesting gems, however, can be found underground. That’s where the green rooms, dressing rooms, and offices are, and there’s even a six-story spiral staircase that extends to the roof. Al Capone was believed to have run a speakeasy in an area of the basement that now houses debris, generators, and odds-and-ends. You can still see paintings from that era depicting exotic women, palm trees, and camels, but the tunnel that purportedly connected Capone’s speakeasy to others throughout the city has yet to be found.
When BART was constructed in the 1960s, the venue’s subterranean space was diminished to make way for tracks and planters for trees, and neon paintings from the era when Bill Graham himself ran the venue can still be found on the walls. There are also bullet holes in one wall that date from a party in the ’80s when a guard let attendees fire his gun for fun.
But by the far coolest attraction at the Warfield is the autograph room. A narrow space located next door to the green room that used to be Jerry Garcia’s, it is covered entirely with signatures and drawings by the hundreds of artists who have played at the Warfield. Obama’s signature is close to Kanye’s, which also includes the numbers “#46 2020,” a nod to his presidential ambitions. Nirvana, The Ramones, Mac DeMarco, and Kesha have signed it, too, and you can find a bevy of smeared lipstick kisses from the likes of Carmen Electra and Anna Nicole Smith.
Unfortunately, space is now at a premium on the room’s cluttered walls, but Goldenvoice says it is committed to keeping this tradition alive, even if that means taking out all of the furniture in the room.
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.
The Great American Music Hall
Prostitutes, tax evasions, and the dotcom boom.