The Fillmore East music venue opened in 1968, in a building built for cinema and theatre. Built in 1926, the theatre on 105 Second Avenue had a deceptively small front marquee and facade, with its substantial capacity of almost 2,700. It opened as the Commodore Theater, a theater and movie house that frequently hosted Yiddish productions that catered to the Yiddish-speaking audience in the neighborhood. Around 1927 it was taken over by Loew’s Inc. and opened as the Loew’s Commodore Theater, with the main focus now on MGM films rather than theater.
In the beginning of 1968, promoter Bill Graham took over the place, witch would provide him with an East Coast counterpart to his existing Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco.
Opening on March 8, 1968, Graham decided to bring a little bit of the sound of San Francisco out to the East Coast and tapped Big Brother and The Holding Company for the honor. Fronted by a singer from Texas named Janis Joplin, the band received a rapturous standing ovation, and in the course of just one night, the entire city was put on notice: The Fillmore East was the new place to be. The venue quickly became known as “The Church of Rock and Roll”, with two-show, triple-bill concerts several nights a week.
In New York at the Fillmore East, only a few weeks after the opening show, The Doors takes the stage with four sold out shows spread out over two nights (03/22/1968 & 03/23/1968). At the last show at the second night, the band apparently enjoyed themselves so much, that they came back out after their regular set and most of the crowd had thinned out and played again for nearly an hour. The show left a tremendous impression on one audience member in particular; future punk icon Patti Smith. She later explained that watching Jim Morrison, made her feel like that was something she also could do!
Led Zeppelin lands on the East Coast to play their first concert in New York City, at the Fillmore East on January 31, 1969, only four months after their debut concert, at a school in Denmark. They play four shows over two nights at the Fillmore East, sharing the bill with headliners Iron Butterfly. On the second night, the audience are stamping their feet & chanting “Zeppelin! Zeppelin! Zeppelin!”, which didn’t even stop as Iron Butterfly started their headline set.
The band is back in the states again in April, now as headliners, where they close that tour with 4 sold out shows over two nights at the Fillmore East (05/30/1969 & 05/31/1969), before heading back to England to finish their second album.
As a special New Year’s show, Jimi Hendrix played the 60s farewell and the 70s hello, with four shows on two nights (12/31/1969 & 01/01/1970). This would be the first time Jimi played with his new group, consisting of his old Army buddy Billy Cox on bass, and Buddy Miles on drums. The shows were booked so Jimi could record a live album, that was to be used to settle a contract dispute with a former manager. The two sets of music played on January 1st, were distilled into the album ‘Band of Gypsys’. For the album cover, Capitol Records used a grainy photograph of Hendrix taken during the Fillmore East shows illuminated by the multi-colored liquid light show projected by the Joshua Light Show. It would be the last full-length Hendrix album released before his death.
The Grateful Dead played the Fillmore East a whopping 43 times in its three-year span. Bill Graham had a playful relationship with the Grateful Dead, who often pranked the promoter. Once, they even dosed his can of 7-Up with LSD right before they went onstage. Graham later described it as “one of the greatest evenings of my life.” On February 11, 1970, The Dead played four hours that night, but the highlight of the extended three-set performance came when Duane Allman and Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac came out to jam with the band on the song “Dark Star.”
By 1971, Graham was fed up with concert promoting, losing out bookings on bigger name artists to lesser-quality basketball arenas like Madison Square Garden, so he decided to close the doors on both the Fillmore East in New York as well as the Fillmore West in San Francisco, claiming a need to “find himself”. For the final performance, he invited one of his favorite groups, The Allman Brothers Band, to mesmerize the New York audience one last time with their explosive blues rock. The Allman’s played until dawn on June 27th, giving the hallowed venue the fitting sendoff that it deserved.
Today the narrow facade remains and the lobby is now remodeled as a Bank. Apartments/condos called Hudson East were constructed on the site of the auditorium. In the lobby of the bank are pictures of the Fillmore, Village Theater and Loews Commodore Theatre as well as some posters from the Fillmore East days.
Put a part of music history on your wall – buy the Fillmore East poster in our web shop:
by Dennis Mejdal 2021