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Bill Graham’s vivid back story told in ‘Revolution’ at the CJM

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The retrospective at the Contemporary Jewish Museum includes photos from many phases of Bill Graham’s career, including a 1971 shot of him onstage before the final concert at Fillmore East in New York. (John Olson/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
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There are the cool, familiar Fillmore posters, photos of Jimi Hendrix and other music icons, stories about the San Francisco Mime Troupe and plentiful audio of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin in the exhibit “Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

But the most fascinating object in the show, billed as “the first comprehensive retrospective about the life and career of [the] legendary San Francisco rock impresario” and running through July, is an ID card from Nazi Germany in 1939, with a small swastika on it and a photo of young boy.

It pictures Berlin-born Wolodia “Wolfgang” Grajonca, who, about a decade later in New York, changed his hard-to-pronounce last name to “Graham” when he saw it in a phone book.

Formerly little-known details in the show about Graham’s early life – he was born in 1931 and later said he didn’t remember his first nine years — are illuminating and mind-blowing.

The exhibit covers: how his mother put him on a child transport to France (before she went to Auschwitz); his time in an orphanage in Paris; his passage on a ship to U.S. at age 11 (he arrived malnourished); the foster family in the Bronx that gave him a home; and his connection to show biz via work as a waiter in the Catskills.

Adding to the emotion is narration about Graham’s childhood told recently on video by a long-lost childhood friend Ralph Moratz, who, according to Bay Area radio personality Bonnie Simmons, was slated to be at the exhibit’s opening, but died March 10 at 84.

For young people who know Graham only as the name on the Civic Auditorium where they attend EDM concerts, the exhibition offers — via photos, objects, documents, playlists and commentary (including colorful audio of Graham himself) — a complete history of the groundbreaking entrepreneur.

When, as its business manager, he organized a San Francisco Mime Troupe fundraiser for legal defense in 1965, it marked the beginning of his promoting career. He took over the Fillmore Auditorium, and then, for the 27 years, added bigger and bigger seminal rock, blues and pop shows and venues, and prominent benefit concerts featuring major artists of the day.

One fun item in the show is a letter from Elvis Presley’s manager Col. Tom Parker, congratulating him for promoting Bob Dylan’s 1974 tour with The Band.

The exhibition also covers Graham’s helicopter-crash death in October 1991, the huge memorial concert that followed, and his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Visitors are greeted with the original tub that held apples at the Fillmore. Erin Clancey, curator at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles (where the exhibit originated last year), said Graham’s tradition for giving away apples at concerts stemmed from when he was a boy in the quasi-orphanage in France, and he would sneak out into the orchard and collect red apples to share with other kids, so they wouldn’t starve.

Graham’s friend Simmons, who worked on a photography show that was a precursor to this exhibit, nicely sums up the all-encompassing display: “It’s overwhelming, it’s pretty damn big … His life was big.”


IF YOU GO

Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution
Where: Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F.
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except closed Wednesdays and to 8 p.m. Thursdays; through July 5
Admission: $10 to $12
Contact: (415) 655-7800, www.thecjm.org

Quickly upcoming related programs

6 p.m. March 31: Bonnie Simmons and Bob Barsotti reminisce about what went on behind the scenes at a Bill Graham concert.
12:30 p.m. April 1: Velina Brown shares the history of the San Francisco Mime Troupe.

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