Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Ash Grove (Pitchell (Pitschel) Players Cabaret), 8162 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, CA

 Capacity 250

The Ash Grove
Once upon a time in the late '50s and '60s in the land of West Hollywood, there stood an idyllic folk-music club called the Ash Grove.
Ed Pearl's Ash Grove folk music club at 8162 Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles was named after the song.

An unassuming venue, built in a former furniture warehouse, on Melrose Avenue, the Ash Grove eventually became the epicenter of a California folk music earthquake that radiated shock waves throughout the country, felt by devotees of folk-rock, the blues, psychedelia, country-rock and even explosive punk.

Ed Pearl (an uncle of Spirit's Randy California), a UCLA alumnus who opened the Ash Grove in July 11, 1958, brought in top music figures, mentored up-and-comers and created a place where the broadest range of American folk cultures, from blues to bluegrass, Cajun to comedy, could thrive.

UCLA ethnomusicology student Barry Hansen, later to become Dr. Demento, worked the sound and the lights at the club.

"I met Dylan in New York in 1961," Pearl recalled. "He knew all about the Ash Grove, and he said he dreamed of coming out here more than anything. So, I had him booked, and he called me up and said, 'Ed, I've got a chance to make a record for John Hammond at Columbia Records. What should I do ...?'"

"I knew ... that there was a folk club in Los Angeles called the Ash Grove," reminisced Bob Dylan in his personal history, "Chronicles: Volume One." "I'd seen posters of folk shows at the Ash Grove and used to dream about playing there."

"The Ash Grove brought together people that never, ever would have gotten together before," Pearl recalled. "Every crazy [music-lover] from the '60s walked into the place, whatever their ideology — hillbillies, black people, Latinos, hippies ... ready to learn and live together." Pete Seeger, Taj Mahal, Roger McGuinn, Linda Ronstadt, Johnny Cash, Muddy Waters, Country Joe McDonald and many others pinpointed the Ash Grove as instrumental to their then-fledgling careers.

The club became a microcosm of perhaps the most dynamic era of the century, Pearl said, mixing people of different ages, ethnicities, sexual orientations and political beliefs.

An April 1969 fire left the Ash Grove in ruins. Ed Pearl, the owner,believes it was political arson. Four months later in August 1969, the Ash Grove re-opened.
Stuart Cornfeld managed the Ash Grove rock club in Santa Monica before it mysteriously burned down.
The second fire was in June 1970 but much smaller, and it opened back up in three days.
The people who set the fire in 1971, they all were caught. It turns out that they were Cubans organized by the Nixon White House. (Peter Feldman, oldtimeherald, vol. 5, #8, 1996)
In 1973, after 15 years, the fairytale came to a blazing end when an arson fire reduced the West Hollywood club to little more than ashes. It was the third such fire. After the first suspicious fire in 1970, Canned Heat, the Byrds and Taj Mahal headlined a concert to raise funds to rebuild the club. But not this time. Today, the Improv Comedy Club now occupies the site.
However, the venue's legacy as a pioneering musical and political crossroads lives on.

In 1974 The Improv opened at the same address.
Reincarnated as the Improv, it fell prey to a fire which unfortunately ended the days of the great venue once and for all.  The spirit of the place was brought to life again a quarter of a century later by a new Ash Grove in Santa Monica, but only briefly. (Ed Michel)

The "in" parking place was a dumpy gas station at the end of the block. You collected your instruments, walked down the street to an unassuming storefront entrance, plastered with posters of upcoming acts, then walked through the unpretentious front door to a linoleum covered entrance hall. Roger, the janitor (an identical twin for Fidel Castro), was usually sweeping up, dressed in olive-green fatigues and a well-mouthed cigar clamped between his teeth. To the immediate right, an alcove led to the cramped dressing room, filled with instrument cases, a few working makeup lights and mirrors, and old straight-backed chairs. There was a small office/ticket room, and (sporadically) a tiny built-in store offering strings and records. A long corridor led past the kitchen to the showroom which seated perhaps 150 persons. The raised stage area, backed against the far corner of the room, was almost square in shape, and was surrounded on two sides by a counter serving as a table for drinks, and for the adventurous, meals served before the performances began. Several rows of mismatched theater seats rose in two directions behind a few small tables and chairs underneath the high, dark-raftered ceiling. The daring customers would get seats at the counter to focus themselves within six feet of the performers on stage. There was a distinct smell of the indescribable, accompanied by a luminescent aura from the two-tiered stage, which was covered with carpeting vacuumed about once each year.
Musicians who ventured to stamp their feet while playing there were surrounded by a gradually-rising cloud of dust which would reach their waists by 10 minutes into the set. Even when empty, that stage hummed with power. It was a pleasure and a challenge to perform there. You never knew who was going to be in the audience, and often it was better for the timorous musician not to know. The sound system was surprisingly good, with a booth in a cramped, hot loft up above and behind the audience. Richard Greene remembers the Ash Grove as being the place where he "first discovered the power of a microphone." He got a chance to play there by winning first place at the 1st annual Topanga Canyon Banjo & Fiddle Contest: the prize was a gig at the Ash Grove with the New Lost City Ramblers. There were no monitors (probably one reason the sound was so good), but it seemed to be easy to hear oneself.
John Cohen recalls the time that the New Lost City Ramblers were scheduled to appear there with Maybelle Carter. At the last moment, Maybelle and her daughters were called away to appear on the new TV show Hootenanny! Ed and the Ramblers were upset to say the least, but Maybelle called to say she was sending a solo act replacement: Johnny Cash. ". . . so he came in that first weekend, and he'd make these huge 'moves'. . . he'd just come from playing some big stadiums. Then, he'd just put the autoharp on a little chair, hunch over, and sing like Maybelle. It was astounding. . . ."
The audiences at the Ash Grove could be very demanding. Often the front row of seats would be filled with the area's finest musicians, soaking in every nuance of the performance. Usually, the good performers responded with outstanding shows. Afterwards the late folks and hangers-on headed around the corner down Fairfax Ave. to Canters' Deli for sandwiches and insults from the hard-boiled, late-night waitresses.
But the Ash Grove wasn't just a music club. The variety of the acts there guaranteed that there was going to be tension, since the club bridged the vast deserts between social groups, from collegiate folk types to blue collar workers to country folks to young urban blacks and back again. Ed Pearl's leftist politics often rubbed people the wrong way, but for him, those ideas tied together all the disparate elements of the music business, the performers, the audience, and the roots of the music itself. While Ed may have started the club with an emphasis on commercial folk groups, such as The Limelighters, Barbara Dane, Bud & Travis, etc., he soon broadened his horizons after being exposed to the music and ideas of Mike Seeger, John Cohen, and Tom Paley.
The Ash Grove was a "school" in many forms. Ry Cooder took guitar lessons from Tom Paley there, for example. There were weekly classes in folk instruments, but more important, perhaps, was the fact that traveling groups were invited to play the club for a week or longer, rather than just a night or weekend. That meant that band members were very likely to be hanging out at the club with nothing better to do than trade ideas with the local musicians who were struggling to learn the basics of old time, country, blues, and bluegrass. Friendships were made between artists and audiences that would have been impossible in other circumstances. I remember sharing a bill with Fred McDowell from Mississippi. Fred and I shared accommodations at Ed's old beach house at Malibu. We'd get "home" around 3AM. Fred would insist that I get to bed because I "needed the sleep" while he stayed in the kitchen, easing his homesickness by playing some slide blues on his guitar. (feldman,peter, oldtimehitsthebigtiime, vol5,#6, 1996)
When Clarence [White] played his first solo, "Jimmy Brown the Newsboy," that opened up vistas to young musicians, including Ry [Cooder] and Dave Lindley, etc. . . . all of them. If Doc would play something, that might do it, but Clarence was there every day. Clarence was an Ash Grove employee. He and I together put in all the theater seats, a lot of carpentry and stuff like that. They had no money. . . . I really and truly loved him. Particularly when Roland went into the army, I took over the job of older brother with Clarence. (Ed Pearl)

Closed by fire on Nov.11, 1973.

Ed Pearl launched a second Ash Grove on the Santa Monica Pier in 1996, but sadly, it only lasted a year.

The Pitchell Players Cabaret
Capacity 250
In San Francisco, The Committee Theater was active during the 1960s. There seems to be some confusion about the Pitschel Players' origins (and spelling) as they had been performing for a number of years prior to 1972. They had come up from LA to San Francisco and performed "WC Fields Memorial Orphanage" at 120 Julian Street as early as March 1967. Robin Menken of the Pitschel Players became Joe McDonald's second wife and Joe took time out in May and June 1969 to performat the Intersection in San Francisco with the Pitschel Players and John Fromer.(5)

When The Committee disbanded in 1972, three major companies were formed: The Pitchell Players, The Wing, and Improvisation Inc.
The building at 8162 Melrose Avenue is destined to provide a home for a diverse assemblage of artists, beginning with the July 1958 debut of The Ash Grove folk club (named after the Welsh folk song of the same name), founded by 22-year-old guitar teacher Ed Pearl. For the next 15 years, the club serves as the intersection for folk legends like Mississippi John Hurt and Brownie McGee, intermingling with the surge of young 1960s anti-establishment folkies such as Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez. It is also a nurturing ground for the social dissent that engulfs the nation during the decade, providing a platform for satirists and commentators, such as poets Charles Bukowski and Kenneth Patchen, the satirical Credibility Gap (Michael McKean, David L. Lander, Harry Shearer, Richard Beebe), El Teatro Campesino, Firesign Theater, the Groundlings, Rowan & Martin, Mort Sahl, San Francisco Mime Troupe, Wavy Gravy and others. In the early 70s, the Ash Grove also welcomes political activists returning from Cuba who – through poetry, song, film and rant – provide a view of the Castro regime that foments protests and threats of violence from decidedly anti-Castro Cuban exiles.

Meanwhile, Joe Roth, (the future film industry power broker), was accepted at the Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. It was the 1960s. He became caught up in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury scene and shunned law school. Through a contact at a sports camp where he worked, he landed a job as a production assistant for one of Francis Ford Coppola's line producers.
During the 1970s in San Francisco, Roth worked on any movie or commercial he could. He also managed a street mime, operated lights at the Pitchell Players improvisation club and ran the midnight movies at San Francisco's Balboa Theater.

A series of fires, including what patrons believe to be an arson attack, lead to The Ash Grove (see that page) club’s closing on Nov 11, 1973.
Roth brought the Pitchell Players, led by Ann Bowen (wife of thespian Roger Bowen), to Los Angeles and began producing their shows in 1974. He leased the Ash Grove nightclub on Melrose Avenue, where the Improv is today, and showcased comics such as Chevy Chase and Laraine Newman before they starred on "Saturday Night Live."(3)
Michael McKean became part of the Pitchell Players, he is famous for his role as Lenny on Laverne and Shirley (1976-1982).

Despite achieving laudable artistic success, the Pitchell residency failed to maintain financial viability.(1)

The resulting film was "Tunnelvision", the 1976 comedy anthology film featuring Roger Bowen, Chevy Chase, John Candy, Howard Hesseman, Joe Flaherty, Laraine Newman, Betty Thomas, Phil Proctor, Al Franken, Ron Silver, Tom Davis, Michael Overly. It was directed by Neal Israel and Bradley R. Swirnoff and produced by Joe Roth. He has produced 28 films.

Jerry performed here on
12/63 Black Mountain Boys (opened for Kentucky Colonels) (Ash Grove)
Things went from weird to worse when Sara got a serious breast infection and had to be re-hospitalized for a few days. Still, Jerry went ahead with his plan to go to Los Angeles with the Black Mountain Boys, who were opening for the Kentucky Colonels at the Ash Grove. "It was a big important thing for him," Sara says philosophically, "but I came home from being in the hospital, my parents had gone to Europe, Jerry left for L.A., and I was recovering from this nasty infection alone with this baby and weeping a lot — devastated with the responsibility of motherhood and not having any support."(4)

5/23/73 early and late shows Merl Saunders (Ash Grove)
5/29/73 early and late shows Merl Saunders (Ash Grove)
5/30/73 early and late shows Merl Saunders (Ash Grove)
3/7/75 Legion Of Mary (Pitchell Players Cabaret)
3/8/75 Legion Of Mary (Pitchell Players Cabaret)

1.)^Martinez, Julio, 2012-01-26, http://www.lastagetimes.com/2012/01/la-stage-insider-50/
3.)^Bates, James and Eller, Claudia, The Mouse that Roamed, 2000-03-26, http://articles.latimes.com/2000/mar/26/magazine/tm-12666/2
4.)^Jackson, Blair, Garcia: An American Life, pg. 60
5.)^The Yellow Shark, comments, Ash Grove (Pitchell (Pitschel) Players Cabaret), 8162 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, CA


  1. There seems to be some confusion about the Pitschel Players' origins (and spelling) as they had been performing for a number of years prior to 1972. They had come up from LA to San Francisco and performed "WC Fields Memorial Orphanage" at 120 Julian Street as earl;y as March 1967. Robin Menken of the Pitschel Players became Joe McDonald's second wife and Joe took time out in MAy and June 1969 to performat the Intersection in San Francisco with the Pitschel Players and John Fromer.

  2. Thank you Mr. Shark, I've added your notes to the page.

  3. Tom Davis discusses the Pitschel Players iteration of this ca. 1974-1975 in his book, pp. 105-106.