San Francisco’s renowned Fillmore Auditorium is on the verge of winning city approval to install a highly visible vertical marquee sign.
It’s unclear the impact the sign — which some have likened to the prominent Castro Theater sign — will have for a neighborhood struggling to revitalize itself and reclaim a distinct identity following redevelopment’s displacement of the black community decades ago.
The sign would read The Fillmore and include an image of an apple at the bottom, according to the design by Oakland-based Golden Gate Sign Company, Inc., submitted to the Planning Department earlier last year. Current rules prohibit the sign, but the Planning Commission unanimously approved an amendment to the law to allow for such signs in the area.
The apple refers to the tub of apples the venue’s famed concert promoter Bill Graham offered concert goers as part of his overall effort to make everyone feel welcomed. He focused on the concert-goer experience when he took over the venue in the 1960s and refurbished it, helping to usher in the era of the psychedelic counterculture by booking LSD-
fueled acts like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.
To this day, a tub of apples awaits concert goers at the venue, which is now operated by Live Nation.
Local merchants and Board of Supervisors President London Breed, who represents the Fillmore neighborhood, say the sign, which will hang off the corner facade of the venue building at Geary Boulevard and Fillmore Street, will help define the neighborhood, celebrate the culture and history, and draw tourists.
Amie Bailey Knobler, Live Nation’s general manager of the venue, said the sign idea originated when she worked on a Fillmore business community board and “the community came to me and said they would really like to clean up that corner and have some sort of photo opportunity for tourists.”
Current rules do not allow signs in excess of 24 square feet and no higher than 24 feet, which could change to allow signs up to 125 square feet and up to 60 feet in height, depending on the building size.
The once “Harlem of the West” has attempted to again become San Francisco’s jazz epicenter by bringing in Yoshi’s to the Fillmore Heritage Center at 1330 Fillmore St. But the music venue shut down in 2014, and a rebranded Yoshi’s effort shut down earlier last year. The large space it occupied remains vacant.
Conor Johnston, Breed’s legislative aide, told the commission that the “Fillmore Auditorium is a real critical component of that neighborhood, a landmark that tells you that you have arrived in the Fillmore neighborhood.”
City planner Aaron Starr’s report on the proposal said “the Fillmore is one of the more historic music venues in San Francisco.” It was originally named the Majestic Hall but became the Fillmore Auditorium in 1954 when Charles Sullivan bought the place and renamed it for the neighborhood, according to the report. “From the 1930s through the ’60s, before redevelopment, this location was considered the heart of the San Francisco Fillmore District,” the report said. Among other musical facts, the report noted, “The Grateful Dead were regulars at The Fillmore, having played a total of 51 concerts from 1965 through 1969.”
Some have suggested Graham provided the apples in connection to his days when a boy living in Paris in an orphanage after fleeing from the Nazi Germany and he would sneak out to a nearby orchard and return with apples for the other children. Others posit the apples were there to help concert goers come down from a bad LSD experience.
In his autobiography “Bill Graham Presents” he wrote, “I was always looking for ways to make the place more haimish. … When you got to the top of the steps, we’d take your ticket. There was a barrel filled with apples that said, ‘Take One or Two.’ Bite into an apple, read the things on the wall, a balloon may come your way, music may start, it’s okay,” he said in the book.
The Board of Supervisors is expected to approve the sign law change early this year. For those who dislike the check cashing sign on the building, the good news is it would come down with the new sign.