Grateful Dead

Documenting The Dead: The Venues Subseries

By Nicholas Meriwether

The Venues Subseries

In 1992, longtime New York Beat photographer Fred McDarrah published his Greenwich Village Guide. One of the entries described a former landmark, sacred to Deadheads:

“The building shell at 105 Second Avenue was Bill Graham's Fillmore East, the quintessential New York rock 'n' roll palace of the 1960s. The entrance to the old Fillmore East is now sealed with cinder blocks and the marquee has disappeared, but anyone who ever went there will not easily forget the extraordinary music, the excitement, the scene, and the community spirit. Going to the Fillmore East was a political statement, a cultural event, an expression of brotherhood and togetherness.”

McDarrah's eulogy has echoes throughout the Deadhead literature, paeans to nationally known venues like Radio City Music Hall or Red Rocks, as well as elegies to smaller regional halls like Winterland or the Fox Theatre. All beloved, all celebrated- -and many documented in one of the less obvious but quietly evocative sections of the band's archive at UC Santa Cruz.

The previous entry focused on how a theme connected several disparate collections in the larger Grateful Dead Archive. This entry carries that analysis into the band's papers, showing how one kind of information in the Archive- -the venues that the band researched- -has emerged as an important part of a section, or subseries, within the band's business papers. That subseries is one of the Archive's surprising strengths, showing how the band's approach to their work created a documentary record of remarkable breadth and explanatory power.

The subseries documents a majority of the approximately 600 venues the Dead played, with dozens more that they considered. Like most of the Archive, there are no records before 1970, when the band leased their headquarters at 5th and Lincoln in San Rafael. The first files begin shortly after that, and they most often trace the first exploratory overtures from the band, promoters, and facilities. These first forays sketch the negotiations between the major stakeholders of a nascent industry as it tried to assert control over a sprawling network of venues, even as those facilities worked to adapt to the demands of rock theater. Some of the most interesting files document the creativity, hard work, and sheer ingenuity required to take a space- -a warehouse, a racetrack, a field- -and convert it into a safe and sonically effective concert forum.

The band began to acquire venue and facility information early in their career, but not until 1973 did they systematically retain and file those documents. Necessity was the driver: with the Wall of Sound, the band needed aspiring promoters and hopeful facility managers to complete a thorough checklist that would let the band know whether a venue was feasible, and allow the crew to plan production. For the first few years, the files are not clearly delineated: show files might contain facility specifications, or business correspondence might include photographs of a potential venue. This organization made sense, given that compiling venue information was the necessary first step in assessing production logistics and calculating venue feasibility. Although inconsistent, these files are emblematic of the state of the band's records at the time, which had to be maintained by staffers charged with far more pressing responsibilities. By the early 1980s, however, some prospective venue files were being sequestered, and by 1986, venues and facilities had emerged as a distinct category of the band's record keeping.

By then, the venue files were increasingly complex as well, an indication of rock promotion's growing sophistication as an industry. They also document the band's increasing expertise. New Orleans' Saenger Theatre provided detailed descriptions of its facilities in 1980, documenting its refurbishment; the band played there that year, but sent a four-person crew to document it even more thoroughly six years later, generating a meticulous typed report along with careful drawings so that the Theatre could accommodate the Dead. For historians, the venues subseries not only documents how the industry grew with the band, but how the band also, on occasion, forced the industry to grow.

Fig. 1. Interior, Saenger Theatre, New Orleans, LA.

The venue subseries contains a range of materials, and even in the early files, the wealth of information could be noteworthy. The young promoters hoping to book the Dead at Wichita State University in 1973 provided a carefully compiled list of the average rainfall and temperature for the area from 1968 to 1972. The promoter of a Bowling Green, Kentucky, facility provided a hand-drawn floor plan.

Fig. 2. Floorplan, Brannen's Tobacco Warehouse No. 6, Bowling Green, KY.

In time, the band would require architectural plans and engineering specifications in order to plan the placement of every light and speaker and tailor each environment.

Information about venues and facilities arrived in several ways. Much of it the Dead solicited directly, using a detailed five-page questionnaire they developed. Many would-be promoters and hopeful venue managers sought out the band, however, sending elaborate packets of materials. While this could be purely promotional- -glossy brochures and chamber of commerce-style marketing materials- -some of it was thoroughly professional: detailed photographs, specifications, even venue maps so that the crew could plan load-in. Soon the more enterprising facilities provided bound booklets with maps, schematics, drawings, and every detail needed to plan and mount a show- -one even included a hopeful Dead sticker, prominently placed on the front.

Fig. 3. Photobook and Fact File, International Amphitheatre, Chicago, IL.

Sometimes venue information arrived from the most unlikely would-be promoters. That's one of the insights provided by this subseries: the range of promoters the band dealt with ranged from amateurs to professionals, especially in the late 1960s and early '70s. “We are a 12 being commune,” one hopeful group wrote in 1972. “We run a coffeehouse in the community, teach guitar lessons, and show films.” Staging a Dead show, they explained, was their next step up the ladder.

In general, the files chart the increasing sophistication of rock concert promotion and its development as an industry. The Dead could still take chances on venues, however, even fairly late in their career: in 1980, the band played three shows in a high school auditorium in Anchorage, Alaska. As their popularity mushroomed in the 1980s, however, it weeded out unusual venues and untested promoters, a function of the higher stakes that large-scale public assemblage represented. In 1985, the owner of a small business wrote to ask whether the band might consider a benefit performance at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. His pitch was good: he photographed the venue professionally, and a note in the file indicates that the band considered the offer, with standard questions about dressing rooms, load-in, and whether the field was grass or Astro-Turf. By then, however, concert promotion was no longer the province of amateurs. The concert did not happen.

In later years, the band even did their own scouting: one small folder in the subseries consists of only a couple of pages of notes, on official band letterhead, and a packet of snapshots, showing every aspect of a potential facility called the Ballpark, in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. Cameron Sears and two other crew members walked the site and photographed it from every angle, building a detailed file.

Figs. 4. The Ballpark. Fig. 5. Notes on The Ballpark. Fig. 6. Electrical capacity, detail.

In the end, the Ballpark did not host the Dead, though it did have a successful run as a concert venue, hosting everyone from Bob Dylan to Celine Dion to Aerosmith.

The band also monitored news of venues being planned or developed: long before the Great Woods Center for Performing Arts opened in Mansfield, MA, the Dead's office collected articles on the plans for the facility. Some files even have shots of venues under construction-there's a great photograph of the Springfield Civic Center being built.

Fig. 7. Springfield Civic Center, Springfield, MA.

That image is unusual: most of the photographs in the subseries are purely functional, not artistic, but there are superb examples fusing both. Those tend to be the work of professionals: some venues contracted with professional photographers, providing sample prints with instructions on how to contact the photographers and the negatives to be referenced. The range and extent of the images in the subseries are vital dimensions of its documentary significance.

Only a few photos have Dead-specific content, but that ghostly absence adds a touch of poignancy to those that do appear: The easy camaraderie between the crewmembers photographing a snowy outdoor facility in the Northeast; a shot of Merriweather-Post Pavilion that shows the band's road cases on stage, with Rick Griffin's backdrop for the “Twenty Years So Far” 1985 tour soaring overhead.

Fig. 8. The stage, Merriweather-Post Pavilion, Columbia, MD.

The details in the venue files are telling, but the subseries also speaks to broader historical themes and issues. The places the Dead played, and the challenges they faced in doing so, are the greatest insights conveyed by the venue files, but in some ways the files documenting failed or rejected venues are just as revealing. Some reasons are obvious: irremediable acoustics, an impossible load-in, but some are more elliptical- -a note from a telephone call with cryptic references to a union conflict or a promoter turf battle. Some facilities were simply untenable, so unsuited the only response was a scrawled summary on the file folder: “Yuck.”

Fig.9. Original file folder for Hansen Stadium, Chicago.

There are ghosts as well. Files on dozens of theaters, arenas, and stadiums that once hosted the Dead, now demolished, make the venues subseries a window into American cultural geography, documents of vanished landmarks that once defined gathering spaces for shared experience and community. It is another indication of how the Dead and their achievement- -and their archive- -can help scholars in a wide array of disciplines address other issues and questions, often far removed from the band's most central contexts.

In A Long Strange Trip, Dennis McNally used the interior of a show's production as interlude chapters to anchor his history of the band. The venues subseries highlights that archetypal narrative, framing the staging of a modern concert in all of the knotty logistics that could make a show triumphant, fraught, or an outright failure. When fans and critics wrote about the transformative power of a Dead show, much of that rested on the venue's capacity to harness and amplify that energy. In the diagrams and photos, the hopeful notes and gloomy assessments that comprise the venue subseries, we can see the creativity and sweat that made the Dead's magic possible.

Early reference works classified folklore under geography. How appropriate that a band whose name was a folklore motif would have created such a remarkable geographic record, in the places they played, and considered playing. Those places map one of the most critical dimensions of the cultural geography of the Dead, as one master's thesis in geography has explored, but geography remains a fertile approach to the Dead phenomenon, as the venue subseries reveals.

The struggle over public space is a defining aspect of the San Francisco rock scene in the 1960s and of the counterculture in general. What the venues files show is how that struggle changed and continued, but in ways that were often surprising, always fundamental, and sometimes profound. That is the power of archives, and part of the significance and appeal of the unique collection that charts the Dead's journey through that vast and variegated landscape.

All images courtesy Grateful Dead Archive, Special Collections, University Library, UC Santa Cruz.


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Joined: May 14 2016

I remember that the Deadhead newsletter from 1972 asked 'Deadheads' to send in info regarding local Theatres, 'movie Palaces' etc that might be suitable venues.

Joined: Oct 27 2015

I remember that the Deadhead newsletter from 1972 asked 'Deadheads' to send in info regarding local Theatres, 'movie Palaces' etc that might be suitable venues.

Joined: Dec 3 2007
A remarkable resource

When the venue material comes online, it will indeed be a remarkable resource, not least for indications of why certain venues where rejected at one time or another. Sometimes it is easier to see the demands of a successful concert from what was found wanting.

I am pretty much alone in the view that the Grateful Dead's business practices were not so unique. There was a lot of similarities to regular touring bands back in the day (The Byrds, Ten Years After, etc) that go unnoticed now. The Dead do stand out with respect to being first in a lot of areas that are now taken for granted: self-funding touring with t-shirts, focusing on repeat concertgoers rather than new fans, and so on. The Dead were one of the first "name" rock bands to go this road, and all of them do it now, so they deserve credit for that, but the band were innovators rather than outliers.

I realize I am in the minority here but I am patient in making my argument.The venue file will be amazing no matter what it contains.


Joined: Oct 1 2007
Agreed, Nicholas...

....many interesting subjects that this sub-archive can help us study, and as you say, not just those focusing on the Dead. Venue choice, from a fan's perspective, is often a central element in opinions they may form about progressions of a band's aesthetic, politics, and economics. To have the sort of insight this collection will enable concerning the range of factors that went into venue decision is invaluable. It will also be of great use to those interested in the development of rock promotion, and its "professionalization", so to speak, and, of course, the inner workings of the Dead "family" as a unique business model. Hope to get to check it out someday!

Joined: Mar 4 2011
Good Question

So far, I haven't found evidence of that, but I have not seen all of the gig files for the Wall of Sound era (the business records are not arranged chronologically, so processing happens on a box by box basis - - that means one box might be 1974 and the next might be part of 1987 and part of 1990). I would have to imagine the answer is yes, however - - we know the requirements for the Wall were considerable.

mbarilla's picture
Joined: Aug 8 2013
Venue question and Wall of Sound

Were there specific venues the Dead wanted to feature the Wall of Sound at and was not able ?

Joined: Mar 4 2011

Thanks so much for the kind words, Grateful Prof ... the Venues are a subseries of the Business Series, which is still being processed (and will be for some time ...) The convention I'm following for archival arrangement and description is derived from how the office ultimately organized the venue files, which is by facility name and location, eg "Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View, CA". I'll add information in the finding aid to indicate if a venue's name changed, for example, and anything else pertinent, like whether the Dead opted not to play there or how many times they did. It's hard to say how extensive the subseries will be, because of the degree of overlap between venues and show files - - as I process, I disentangle those and indicate that for researchers. In terms of conservation, about the only major issue I've encountered are old architecture drawings that have faded or blackened into illegibility. Once the subseries is finished, it will be interesting to see how extensive it is - - my suspicion is that it may end up being a section of the Archive that has great utility for researchers who otherwise may have no interest in the Dead ... and for Dead scholars, it will be a goldmine.

Joined: Oct 1 2007
Fascinating post...

how are the venues catalogued in the archive? What meta-data has been extracted that one could perhaps search or sort by? Thanks!


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