A rock ‘n’ roll venue opens for the counterculture in Spokane
It was not a headline in the Spokesman-Review, nor was it announced during the nightly news on KXLY, or on any of the other Spokane television or radio stations. But for Spokane’s hip community, that is, the hippies that were a visibly growing sub-culture in town, were aware that a new dance venue was soon to appear in town. The first ad for the new music venue appeared in the May 24, 1968 issue of the Spokane Natural.
The Eagles Ballroom opened the following month featuring for its first show the Seattle rock ‘n’ roll band Easy Chair as the headliner. In addition local bands Tendergreen and United States of Mind played the same night. Two of the members of the United States of Mind were the Eagles Ballroom owner’s, Ron Bodvin and his business partner Joe Felice. The address of the venue was South 174 Howard Street, in a building just north of 2nd Avenue. The small ballroom inside had been vacant since 1961 when the Fraternal Order of Eagles Temple, Aerie #2, that had been there since at least the 1930s, pulled up stakes and headed for a new location. Earlier that year the dynamic commercial duo of Felice and Bodvin had also opened the Flower Pot Downtown Trading Company at North 123 ½ Washington Street selling Incense, posters, jewelry, and beads. The shop’s wares included the stuff the Spokane Police Department did not like to see sold at all, let alone sold openly in a public store in downtown Spokane, the paraphernalia of the pot smoking hippies: hookah pipes, cigarette papers, roach holders (a clip for holding marijuana cigarettes when they burned down too small to hold with fingers). They also sold items the establishment did not want them to be selling: underground counter-culture publications such as the Berkley Barb, The Other, The Spokane Natural, and Seattle’s Helix. These underground, counter-culture, anti-establishment, subversive newspapers featured stories about drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll. About the same time they opened the Eagles Ballroom, Felice and Bodvin moved the Flower Pot to a new location at Browne and Main around the corner from the Vanguard Bookstore, along with another two new hip community commercial enterprises, the EMF Coffeehouse and Head, Joe Wilson’s and Les Clinkenbeard’s record store. Natural Editor Nobbs renamed the hippie enterprises Spokane’s Hip Independent Traders, or S.H.I.T for short.
That summer the local radio stations, KJRB and KGA, the teenagers listened to Top 40 songs because radio still ruled the music media. Heard at home and in the cars cruising on Riverside Avenue on Friday and Saturday nights are Tighten Up by Archie Bell and the Drells, Mrs. Robinson by Simon & Garfunkel. The Rascals are singing It’s A Beautiful Morning and the annoying by Yummy, Yummy Yummy from the Ohio Express. The Beatles are singing Lady Madonna, and Seattle’s Blue Cheer have a hit with Summertime Blues. How this song could possibly be a hit, Richard Harris is muddling his way through MacArther Park, and Sergio Mendes and Brazil ’66 had a hit with The Look Of Love.
Meanwhile, Felice and Bodvin finally secured a lease on the Eagles Ballroom and are able to open a new rock ‘n’ roll venue.
“The ballroom at Second and Howard was the culmination of the United States of Mind’s half year search for a good location for a psychedelic dancehall. Wending their way through the maze of city codes, inspectors and last-minute details, Eagles was found suitable by 3:30 Friday afternoon; by 8:30 the doors were open for business,” Nobbs said in his article in the Natural.
After entering the building there was seating down the right wall. Towards the back a set of double doors led to a ballroom, and in the back of the ballroom, a balcony with seating. In front was a semi-circular stage jutting out from the wall.
The grand opening of the Eagles Ballroom was set for the weekend, Friday, June 14 and Saturday June 15 with the doors opening at 9 p.m., and including a $2 cover charge to get in. Easy Chair were featured in the first full-page Natural ad with a photo, and the local bands were listed as well. A light show was to be provided by Blind Greek. Light shows are what a band needed now in addition to providing music for dancing. Not only that, Felice provided dance staging and lighting for a Go-Go dancer. Later, in August, Nobb’s published a murky photo in his newspaper of a woman by the name of Cathy go-go dancing in a bikini, her bare skin streaked with Day-Glo paint, cavorting under a black light. Here it is a year after the Summer of Love in San Francisco, and Spokane is getting its very own hippie dance, acid-rock, free-love-for-all rock ‘n’ roll venue. However, this all is freedom hippie attitude also proved to be the Eagles’ downfall.
In July the Natural advertised that music was playing every weekend, including future appearances of Magic Fern, the Time Machine, and Wilson McKinley.
But the people of Spokane apparently were having problems responding to the new entertainment scene. It has been said by musicians that appear here that Spokane audiences earned a reputation for being too polite, too laid-back. It was really a matter of musical style in the long run. When Canned Heat came to town during the KGA Summer Festival July 28 at the Spokane Fairgrounds, the audience knew exactly what to do—they boogied. Acid rock was all right, but what this town wanted was boogie blues, as evidenced by the popularity of Elvin Bishop at the El Patio in the 1970s.
In the July Natural an article by Richard Reed was published as he explained the reasons for a light show at the Eagles Ballroom.
Reed admonishes the audience at the Eagle’s Ballroom dance featuring Magic Fern. He explained that bands use the “lite-show” to stimulate the dancing activity. Reed was referring to the experiences created by Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters at San Francisco’s Fillmore West, and Avalon Ballroom concerts, among other locations, and copy-catted by other promoters. At Merry Prankster concerts, also known as “Acid Tests” which were held from 1965 through 1966 in several West Coast cities until the hallucinogen LSD was outlawed for recreational use, free hits of LSD were consumed by the audience, as well as the promoters, and musicians that played. The LSD was consumed in a Kool-Aid punch given out at the door for those who wanted the full experience of the test. Visual artists created light shows with a variety of slide and movie projectors, overhead projectors, stage lighting, strobe and black lights. By 1968 the use of projectors, strobe and black lights copied from the Merry Prankster’s set up were at just about every venue featuring rock and roll bands.
Reed, in his article, said a light show simulates the use of LSD to get people to dance, cavort, act insane and just get out of their heads, and away from their dreary establishment lives once and for all. According to Reed, the Spokane audience did not dance much. It was as if they did not know what to do.
In the same issue of the Natural, in an ad for Wilson McKinley’s appearance at the Eagles Ballroom coming up on July 5 and 6 with Tender Green, in addition there is a mention that on Friday July 12, the ballroom will host the wedding of Bill and Julie.
This appearance of Wilson McKinley at the Eagles Ballroom was said to be the probable final Spokane show for the band since the band was soon to leave for Chicago and New York to become famous.
For the event of their final show in Spokane, the members of Wilson McKinley decided to throw an afternoon going away party at Manito Park to say farewell to their Spokane fans and friends before heading out.
Wilson McKinley set up an area near the Manito Park duck pond in the afternoon before their Saturday show at the Eagle’s Ballroom. As people gathered near the pond, someone collected money in a hat to buy nine watermelons for the crowd. Musician friends from the band County Fair showed up for a set. Also that afternoon members from Tendergreen, Real Mother Goose, and the Howard Fargo Blues Band either were at the watermelon picnic, had loaned their equipment, or jammed with each other next to the duck pond. The watermelon picnic caused a small hassle with a couple of Spokane cops out on patrol who demanded to see their permit. Natural publisher Nobbs intervened and told them that they hadn’t gotten permits for previous concerts at Manito Park the year before in 1967, for the Be-Ins that were organized with music from Rick Mose Blues Band (John Currier) and The Flat Earth Society. The cops evidently let them stay. The party broke up around 7:30 that evening as musicians and the equipment headed back to the Eagle’s Ballroom. Nobbs then went down to the Parks Department the next week to have a talk about permits. This was the first effort to make rock and roll music in the parks legitimate, and would lead to the music in High Bridge Park.
In the the same issue of the Natural, band members of Wilson McKinley placed an ad in the classified pages. It was not unusual for the Natural to have typographical errors, the staff was small, and the equipment a bit primitive by newspaper standards. It read:
“ The Wilson McKinley is leaving Spokane this weekend for New York. We would not have been able to do what we’ve done with out (sic) the consideration, help and good wishes of all the good people here. No matter how long we’re gone or how far away we are, we’ll always remember our people in Spokane.
Jim Christensen, Bill Superak, Mike Messer, Dick Pratt and Randy Wilcock (sic).”
The Natural endeavored to follow the quest for fame of Wilson McKinley as they traveled east. The newspaper printed updates and other news regarding the band. An unnamed staff writer wrote this article following the Eagles Ballroom concert:
“Wilson McKinley performed to about 300 at the Eagles Saturday July 5, after their free concert at Manito. They played two sets and got a standing ovation from the crowd after the second set. The response was a half hour version of (Vanilla Fudge’s) You Keep Me Hanging On. They got a second standing ovation.”
Mike Messer played lead guitar, Randy Wilcox on bass, Dick Pratt on the organ and Bill Superak on drums. The group has been together since the summer of 1967. The writer mentioned the band had won several battle of bands in the Northwest and in Canada since their beginning.
Still, there were some problems. Spokane’s pop music venue in Airway Heights, Sunset West, were not loyal to some of the local rockers, and the writer complained about it.
“Despite their popularity locally, Wilson McKinley have played their major dates away from Spokane. A tour with Paul Revere and gigs at The Happening in Seattle did little to increase the possibility of the group’s playing such places as Sunset West.”
Later that summer a Natural article said Wilson McKinley was in Salt Lake City playing a venue called the Crow’s Nest. They were heading to Chicago to see some people at Chess Records, and If that didn’t pan out, they were going to move on to New York.
Julie Davis and Billy Oliver got married at the Eagles Ballroom the following Friday with the Natural’s contributing columnist Mrs. Bette Chambers officiating. Blind Greek provided a liquid projector light show. Keith Coolidge of Susila Gallery came by for the opening remarks from Kahlil Gibran. George Maloney, one of the editors at the Natural, also had some words to say before the ceremony. After the wedding, the band County Fair played “Fire” while the wedding party danced.
The end of Eagles Ballroom
Suddenly, in mid-September, the Eagle’s Ballroom shut down. The Natural published a story after talking to Felice. The story was triggered by rumors and a letter to the editor.
“‘Whatever happened to the Eagles Ballroom?’ wrote an out-of-town friend. ‘I haven’t seen any of their ads in the NATURAL for quite a while.’ Although stories of the ballroom’s closing have spread through most of Spokane’s hip community, we asked Joe Felice of the United States of Mind to fill in the details.
Joe recounted the hassles of finding a suitable location for the dance hall, signing a lease, and preparing to open. Before signing their one-year lease, the United States of Mind asked Ralph Rosenberry, owner of the property and part-time candidate for mayor, about the tavern that was scheduled to open soon on the first floor. [sic] of the building. Rosenberry assured them that there would be no problem as long as there were separate entrances — he had checked with the State Liquor Control Board.
The Eagles opened on June 14 and closed the first week of September. The United States of Mind was told to get out. According to Rosenberry, the Liquor Board stated that it would not give him a tavern license if there were ‘hippie’ dances in the same building. Rosenberry told the U.S. of Mind partnership that he had received a letter from the Liquor Board to this effect.
Joe told the NATURAL that all the supplies and equipment as well as some light show paraphernalia were locked in the building, and that Rosenberry had on more than one occasion failed to meet with the partners when they went, by appointment, to meet him. The partners are now planning legal action.
During its short lifetime the Eagles Ballroom struggled against a lack of cooperation from all sides. Although hundreds of supposedly hip people came to Eagles, many used every possible means to avoid paying the $1.50 -$2 admission. ‘Now that they’ve helped kill Eagles,’ said Joe, ‘they sit down on Main Street on weekends and say ‘There’s nothing to do in this town.’”
The bands and the booking agent were the other main hassle. Some of the bands who gave a low rate to the Idaho taverns apparently charged the fledging [sic] Eagles their top price. The booking agent, according to Joe, gave as little consideration as possible to the ballroom, while, of course, still taking his percentage. Several times the booking agent refused to confirm a booking until such a late date that no advertising could be done.
One other reason for the closing, whether it was pressure from the Liquor Board or from others, was the crowd that gathered in the parking lot adjacent to the building in which the ballroom was located. ‘The night of our last dance,’ reminisces Joe, ‘there were 150 to 200 people inside. We must have counted 200 outside.’ This crowd littered, and several times Joe picked up much of the trash. The owner of the parking lot complained to Rosenberry, as is understandable.
Joe doesn’t think that the Eagles will reopen. The reason: ‘There would always be complaints from the tavern.’ Alcoholic recreation for over-21s is more important than non-alcoholic recreation for under 21’s — that seems to be the moral.”
That wasn’t the whole story. Felice said in a 2011 interview that there was more to it, that the tavern people, nor the Liquor Control Board really had all that much to do with it.
It was the nude hippies.
The landlord for the building, Ralph Rosenberry, had stopped by the morning after one of the concerts at the ballroom and, as Felice said, “Well, as near as I can figure out, . . . somebody had a key. They didn’t break in. One of the guys I knew I gave a key . . . to clean the place up or something . . . when it closes . . . (He) said ‘hey!’ inviting everyone in. Kids running around naked . . . God it was fun. I guess they had a good time.”
“Rosenberry . . . he didn’t want to talk about it, he just said, “you’re out, that’s it.” But Felice said “wait a minute!, you know, I didn’t know anything about that! Can’t help it. It happened, it shouldn’t have happened . . . I don’t know what they were doing, but he caught ’em. You know, so . . .”
The lease was ended and Felice was thrown out of the ballroom. However, he still had his band, United States of Mind, and he had the Flower Pot at the corner of Browne and Main. In 1968 and 1969, this was Spokane’s hippie central, the vortex of the storm, the center of the anti-establishment, counter-culture, long-haired, pot smoking youngsters of the next generation.
“Grand Opening Eagles Ballroom.” Advertisement. Spokane Natural Vol. 2, No. 12. 7 June 1968.
“Eagles Turns On.” Spokane Natural Vol. 2, No. 13. June 21-July 4, 1968: 1.
Reed, Richard. “On Dancing.” Spokane Natural Vol. 2, No. 14. July 5-18, 1968: 7.
“Wilson McKinley et al at Eagles Ballroom.” Advertisement. Spokane Natural Vol. 2, No. 14. July 5-18, 1968: 12.
“The Wedding of Billy and Julie.” Spokane Natural Vol. 2, No. 15. July 19 – Aug. 1, 1968: 6.
“With A Little Help From Their Friends.” Spokane Natural Vol. 2, No. 15 July 19 – Aug. 1, 1968: 7
“Wilson McKinley.” Advertisement. Spokane Natural Vol. 2, No. 14. July 5-18, 1968.
“McKinley’s Last Stand.” Spokane Natural Vol. 2, No. 15. July 19 – Aug. 1, 1968: 6.
“Eagles Turns On” Spokane Natural Vol. 2, No. 20 Sept. 27 – Oct. 10 1968: 4.
Interview with Joe Felice, October 2011 with Robert Schoenberg.
“Hot 100.” The Billboard. 25 May 1968: 52. http://www.billboard.com/archive#/archive. March 4, 2012.
Copyright © Robert G. Schoenberg 2012