We’d usually think that a venue billing itself as The Great American Music Hall was setting itself up for a fall, in this city above all; there’s no shortage of music history and great venues in San Francisco. But it’s not for nothing that the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco turned up at the sixth spot on the Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the Best Clubs in America in 2013. This venue, with its lavish balconies, sky-high marble columns, and extravagant ceiling frescoes, does a wonderful job of taking you back in time to an elegant era, with a cutting-edge soundtrack. The hall, with an impressive seating capacity of 600, is on O’Farrell Street in the Tenderloin neighborhood and is situated in the same block as the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theatre.
The Great American Music Hall’s rich history dates back – along with much of historic San Francisco – to 1907 when the venue was constructed as part of the rebuilding scheme that followed the massive earthquake in 1906. The interiors were designed by an American political mover and shaker and a French architect who brought a sense of awe to the place. Back then, it was originally called Blanco’s. The name stuck until 1936 when Sally Rand acquired the place and renamed it the Music Box, before the hall closed during the Second World War.
Post-war was a good time for California but a bad time for the Great American Music Hall; as the 1950s rolled around, the hall spiraled down into a long decline that nearly led to its demolition. But in 1972, along came Tom Bradshaw, who purchased the venue and renamed it the Great American Music Hall as we know it today, featuring the Stuart Little Band as the house band.
The venue has been home to some of the most breathtaking performances across genres including burlesque, jazz, folk music, and rock and roll concerts. More specifically, after it was christened the Great American Music Hall, the venue has seen memorable acts by legends like Cal Tjader, Sarah Vaughn, Carmen McRae, Marcel Marceau, Stan Getz, Mongo Santamaria, Dizzy Gillespie, Jerry Garcia & Merl Saunders, Joe Pass, Cleo Laine, Herbie Mann, Buddy Rich, and The Tubes, among others.
The Great American Music Hall has also seen some historical debuts. Among these were the new line-up of American rock band Journey and Jerry Garcia’s debut and recording of a live album with Legion of Mary. In 1982, the venue also played host to the much-missed Robin Williams, who recorded his HBO special, An Evening with Robin Williams at the hall. And in the early 2000s, after a rollercoaster ride in the twentieth century, the venue once again opened its doors to traditional burlesque when the Velvet Hammer Burlesque troupe performed to a captivated audience.
It’s a classic of the sort that San Francisco does so well; eclectic, classic, living history without an ounce of dust to be found anywhere on it. Worth the trip if you get the chance: this month its hosting shows from Wallows (Jan. 24), Anna Meredith (Jan. 25), and the never-to-be-missed Epic Rap Battles of History (Jan. 26).