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Rock 'n Roll Survivor: The life and times of Bill Graham come to Illinois Holocaust Museum

While gazing at a Jimi Hendrix suit and Janis Joplin's tambourine, you could be forgiven for thinking you were at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But no, you're in Skokie.

Bill Graham image
Bill Graham at the Fillmore West in 1986 (Ken Friedman)

While gazing at a Jimi Hendrix suit and Janis Joplin's tambourine, you could be forgiven for thinking you were at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But no, you're in Skokie, at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. The music-themed exhibit, Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution , is there until Nov. 12.

The 3,400 square-foot exhibit features more than 400 items, including guitars owned by Jerry Garcia and Pete Townshend, vintage posters, and rare photos-plus concert footage, video interviews, a light show, and an audio tour "by" Graham himself, edited from radio interviews.

Even hardcore rock fans might not know Graham's name, since his main business was promoting others. Establishing the legendary Fillmore theaters in San Francisco and New York, he first showcased psychedelic stars like The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. To keep track of both venues, Graham wore a watch that showed two time zones at once.

He later staged shows for British acts like The Who and The Yardbirds, earlier rock stars like Little Richard and Chuck Berry, and folk and blues greats such as Richie Havens and Bo Diddley. For some blues performers like B.B. King, Lightning Hopkins, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, it was the first time they had played for white audiences.

"We are thrilled to bring the story of Bill Graham's life and legacy to the Chicago area for this special exhibition," said Susan Abrams, Museum CEO. "In the height of music festival season, it offers a truly immersive experience that is a feast for the senses with its costumes, light show, concert footage, and psychedelic posters. At the same time, the exhibition honors the accomplishments of one individual who overcame the trauma of fleeing the Holocaust and used his life to shape popular culture and help humanitarian causes."

The exhibit's items come from Graham's own collection, curated by his sons Alex and David; from Carlos Santana's personal archive; and from the Experience Music Project in Seattle. As Graham is an inductee in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, it will be seen there, but this is the exhibit's only Chicago-area showing. It was taken to San Francisco, of course, and will also visit Philadelphia and Florida.

The exhibit was first created at the Skirball Cultural Center, a Los Angeles Jewish museum. Its director, Robert Kirschner, developed the project and is travelling with it. "It's Bill's story we wanted to tell. It's about his life, not his death," he said. Kirschner is especially excited about the use of Graham's own voice as the audio tour, likening it to "oral Torah." For one last time, he smiles, it's really, truly, a "Bill Graham presents" production.

Eye-popping posters at the exhibit trumpet dozens of Graham-produced shows-by singer-songwriter acts like Crosby Stills & Nash, Donovan, The Doors, and John Sebastian of The Lovin' Spoonful; soulful greats like Big Mama Thornton, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Otis Rush-and the whole alphabet of what is now "classic rock," from the Allmans to Zep. One of Graham's signature moves was having artists from different genres share a double or triple bill, like having Lenny Bruce open for Frank Zappa.

Graham even made sure that his acts were presented in the best possible light-literally. He hired visual artists like to create swirling, glowing, otherworldly shapes behind the performers, as if they were making music inside a lava lamp. Joshua White, who works as "Joshua Light," created such effects for the Fillmore, and also a new one just for this exhibit.

Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution takes you from Graham's 1931 birth in Berlin as Wulf Wolodia Grajonca, through his youth hiding from the Nazis, on to his voyage through France to America at age 11. Arriving in the Bronx, he was fostered by his great uncle and attended high school and college there. He worked at Grossinger's in the Catskills, and then was drafted into the Korean War. He chose his new last name by seeing where it would have landed in the phone book, then picking the one after that.

Discharged when his foster mother died, Graham tried acting- studying with Lee Strasberg-before finding his true calling behind the scenes. When the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which he managed, was fined for obscenity in 1965, Graham staged a fundraiser for their legal fees, featuring beat poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg… and Jefferson Airplane. He was 34.

In the 1970s, Graham shifted from the Fillmore to a Winterland, a larger venue, and continued to showcase acts like The Rolling Stones, The Sex Pistols, Bruce Springsteen, KISS, and Stevie Nicks. He then branched out to become a tour manager, and, inspired by Ken Kesey, staging multi-band festivals featuring the Eagles, Bob Dylan, and George Harrison, where audiences reached 50,000.

Remember the 1978 concert movie The Last Waltz ? Martin Scorsese directed the movie, but Bill Graham produced the concert itself. (The museum will screen the movie on Sept. 10, followed by a discussion.)

Then, in the 1980s, Graham started seeing how concerts could do more than just raise consciousness for worthy causes- they could raise money as well. His Live Aid concert raised millions for African famine relief. Other shows- with U2, The Police, and Peter Gabriel- benefitted Amnesty International. Still others raised funds for natural disaster relief, and even welcomed Nelson Mandela.

In 1985, President Ronald Regan visited a cemetery in Germany where Nazi soldiers were buried. When Graham protested, his own office was firebombed, and many irreplaceable artifacts and archives were destroyed. Some of those burned items are in the exhibit.

Despite spending tremendous amounts of time immersed in the music world, Graham could not play an instrument- other than the cowbell with which he accompanied some acts, which is part of the exhibit.

Aside from that, Graham only emerged from backstage on New Year's Eve. And he did so in spectacular fashion, clad in a flashy costume. Both his Father Time outfit and his butterfly get-up, which delivered him to the stage over the audience on wires, are on display.

Graham died at age 60 in a helicopter crash in 1991. Even his funeral featured a concert starring John Fogerty, and his longstanding friends, The Grateful Dead and Carlos Santana. Graham had ensured Santana a slot at Woodstock before he'd even cut an album.

Graham's work continues to influence music today. "There is no doubt Bill Graham changed the way popular music was presented, and gave artists a stage they might otherwise not have had," said Chicago-based musician Billy Corgan, former frontman for Smashing Pumpkins, explaining that is his "pleasure to lend support for this exhibit…Graham paved the way for so many."  

Although Graham spent his life shining the spotlight on others, he proved that The Wizard of Oz was wrong- we should pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution will be shown at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, at 9603 Woods Dr. in Skokie, through November 12. For more information, call (847) 967-4800 or visit .

Also connected to the exhibit are two upcoming events. On Sept. 24, from 11 a.m.-2 p.m., musician and printmaker Jay Ryan will teach kids how to make "Posters That Rock!" And on Oct. 1, from 2-3:30 p.m., legendary disc jockey Terri Hemmert will discuss musicians who made "Music for Social Change."

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