My Fillmore East Lobby Tiles

An eyewitnesses account of observing hallowed ground in New York City reduced to a shell in the early 90s

The Fillmore East in disarray (Photo: Google)

Languishing! My business career was languishing!

I was back home in New York during the early 1990s, out of work for the first time since graduating college over a decade earlier. But still, I’d come up with a strategy that would give TV advertisers a shot in the arm. It was something I’d have done had I been at one of my previous jobs.

Before coming up with the idea, I’d queried Late Night’s Robert “Morty” Morton about David Letterman’s NBC repeats. They seemed valuable for the music alone. Jack Rollins, was the man to see about that, ‘Morty” wrote back kindly. Eventually the repeats were sold to E! 

 

VIDEO: Late Night With David Letterman 2nd episode

But that effort saw me matched with a former NBC big shot. We got meetings because I had a visible job at ABC and his was a branded name. When we told advertisers how to capitalize on TV’s audience shifting from ABC, CBS and NBC to cable, they were skeptical and smug. 

I ran into Morton again after sending him a chart detailing broadcast TV’s audience shift to cable. As opposed to smug, he introduced me around the room when he saw I worked with former NBC topper, Paul Klein. But would “Morty” have liked an idea Klein could have hatched: “Live from The Fillmore East, It’s David Letterman.” Paul Shaeffer might have thought it “a fresh kick.”

My languishing saw me walking around Second Avenue one day, with but some baked goods from Moshe’s. I walked further toward Sixth Street and passed what I knew as the Fillmore East. Shocking me, a man was in the lobby with a jackhammer taking it apart! I asked him if I could enter the rock and roll palace he was ripping to shreds. He was the loveliest guy. But like a Middle Eastern Sergeant Shultz, he knew nothing of the theater’s history. He was amiable and gave me his card: Robert Abbas. (It pains me to admit that I’ve misplaced it. I took such care to protect it over the years.) 

Billy’s Fillmore East tiles 1 (Photo: Billy Sternberg)

I asked him if I could take some loose floor tiles. He told me to help myself, but to come back tomorrow; that the floor would be in chunks. When I returned the next day, he hadn’t lied. I made several trips that day to schlep the mother lode back to my Washington Square apartment. But were these actually the same tiles as were in The Fillmore East’s vestibule? The theatre had many incarnations. In point of fact, my grandfather distributed Tammany Hall’s 1920s campaign films there. It was then called The Commodore. Likely, these tiles weren’t that old. 

According to Wikipedia, the theatre’s Second Avenue site had most recently been occupied by The Saint, a gay club, from 1982 until 1988. (Fact check: a friend and I went to The Saint early one night soon after it opened. Perhaps the club catered to gays at night and years wore on.) Wiki, after naming no later occupant, says that the lobby was taken over and demolished by The Apple Bank in 2013; which seemingly authenticates my tiles as The Fillmore East’s. I brought the tiles home to Washington Square before 2000.

The tiles are sturdy and handsome, each are one-inch squares embedded in chunky concrete. All of the loose ones, sadly, are gone either by gift or stolen. How nice it would have been to place the loose ones ceramically in cement, all of them whether light blue or white or green or brown. I’ll never recall the lobby’s pattern from that one visit. I didn’t think to take a picture as Robert chiseled while the bulk of the floor remained. But I remember the Box Office windows. They were positioned beside the entrance doors. In trying to get inside, people buying tickets and those having tickets would readily “get into it” were they there for MMA not Cream. 

Billy’s Fillmore East tiles 2 (Photo: Billy Sternberg)

The Fillmore East became an obsessive adventure. On one trip, I brought my Minolta SRT-201 to shoot the lobby. But Robert wasn’t there despite what seemed to be a lot of demolishing to go. I got daring and snuck around the corner. I pulled on and then inched my way through the protective fencing on 6th Street and, after having to breath deep to make my way without getting stuck, found myself in the corner of the gutted theatre. It was an oasis. The outline on the wall where the lobby ended and the stage began was pronounced. In the shell of the theatre you could almost imagine Rosalind Russell singing Everything’s Coming Up Roses. Suddenly, the lobby didn’t mean shit.

The first song I heard in my head, however, was Leon Russell, giving Joe Cocker the lead in to the reprise of Cry Me a River, “1…2…3…4!” So many bands went through my head, The Dead, The Allman Brothers, Jefferson Airplane. I started thinking of my cousin’s favorite bands Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service and all the other bands who played there yet whose albums I never even bought down the street in Joe’s cut out racks. Nicky Hopkins crossed my mind for the first time this century. I felt like I missed something since I’d never seen a show there. But suddenly I had the entire show to myself.

Billy’s Fillmore East tiles 3 (Photo: Billy Sternberg)

I started taking pictures like a mad man. Nobody is going to believe this, I said to myself. When I took the roll to the developer, the roll was empty. I hadn’t spooled it properly. It was a first-time oddity. So, I asked the fellow behind the counter to thread it for me. He did so. I went back to the Fillmore and started shooting again. This time I brought a friend, “Whitey,” a total classic rock junkie. I took more pictures. There was no Instagram in those days. But we took pictures and bricks and whatever wasn’t tied down.

I brought the film back to the developer and the film hadn’t thread properly when he did it, either. Come. On. Man! Confounding the blunder was that he didn’t remember or take responsibility for feeding the film into my camera. Worse, the friend that turned me on to the store, a photographer, came with me. He screamed, “But you put the film into his camera!” Screw it, I said, in fatigue. Soon The Filmore East location was being cleared. I’d missed my chance to capture a ghost of Bill Graham.

Under my watchful eyes, however, his lobby’s tiles will never languish. The photo place went under well before The Apple Bank opened.

 

VIDEO: Fillmore East on 60 Minutes (1969)

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Billy Sternberg

Billy Sternberg graduated from Syracuse University's Newhouse School. He bought national TV commercial ad time for American Home Products. Their brands ranged from Anacin to Chef Boyardee to Black Flag Roach Motel. After that, he bought national TV time at Ogilvy & Mather for American Express, Kimberly Clark and Owens Corning Fiberglas. Because of this he was gifted many tickets to many events.

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