Bill Grahams American dream: Retrospective tells story of Holocaust refugee and rock impresario

As a Jewish child in Nazi Germany, Wolfgang Grajonza saw his family torn apart by the Holocaust.

His mother was taken to Auschwitz and gassed, his siblings were split — some were sent to an orphanage for safety, while others stayed behind and ended up in the camps.

The young boy went to a series of orphanages and on the Kindertransport to France, eventually making his way to New York City, with only a handful of photographs and a yarmulke on his person.

Grajonza would go on to become Bill Graham, perhaps the world’s most well known rock promoter and a beloved impresario. He’s best known for operating the legendary venues Fillmore West and Winterland in San Francisco and Fillmore East in New York City, but he also donated time and money organizing charity music events such as Live Aid.

Bill Graham

Those that were close to him are fiercely loyal and paint a larger-than-life picture of the man as the ultimate survivor, the true American dream.

Graham died in a helicopter crash in 1991 at age 60, leaving behind decades of memories. The browning old images of life in Eastern Europe, memorable rock concert posters popping with color, and aging newspapers documenting his legendary life have been revived, framed and are currently on display in a comprehensive retrospective.

“Presenting: Bill Graham” is up through July 10 at the Lush Life Gallery at the Jazz Heritage Center in San Francisco’s Fillmore District, just a few blocks from the infamous venue. The Bill Graham Memorial Foundation is presenting the exhibition with support from the Koret Foundation. The vivid patchwork comprises more than 200 pieces explained by placards with quotes from Graham. The additional background information on each piece was written by his biographer, Robert Greenfield, co-author of “Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out.”

“The point of this exhibit was to make a record,” Greenfield says. “That entire era, all of those [Holocaust] victims — it’s about showing what happened to ordinary people, because he wasn’t Bill Graham then.”

As the three main curators, Greenfield, Bonnie Simmons and Graham’s archivist James Olness spent more than three months putting the finishing touches on the exhibit, which chronicles his life from Eastern Europe in 1931 through Marin County in 1991. Many of the images in the collection came from Graham’s adult children, sons Alex and David Graham.

“We hoped to give people a snapshot and some of the background of someone who had an amazing life,” says Simmons, executive director of the Bill Graham Memorial Foundation.

Bill Graham (back row, second from left) with other children (including Ralph Moratz, far left) and a teacher in Mainsat, France in 1941. photo/courtesy of ralph moratz/the bill graham memorial foundation

Graham had a spotty memory of his childhood in Berlin and Paris, but Simmons found Ralph Moratz, a friend of Graham’s in those early years, and slowly pieced together their lives.

Moratz, who now lives in Southern California, had pictures of the class of Jewish refugees in chateaus in France on his own personal website and, as it turned out, “an extremely good memory,” according to Simmons. Moratz spoke with her and helped fill in some of the gaps of Graham’s journey to America.

The exhibition shows Graham as a child surrounded by other dark-eyed kids, mostly somber in expression. The children were housed at the Chateau de Quincy outside of Paris and worked as servants to the German troops at the battlefront.

Greenfield explains in the wall narrations that Graham moved to different orphanages and eventually was put on a boat to the U.S. He chose the name Bill Graham out of a phonebook because it was close to his birth name.

There are pictures of the San Francisco Mime Troupe he managed, which led to his first benefit concert and a note about his first dance hall permit, when local merchants, including a nearby rabbi, opposed him doing business. Once he talked to the rabbi, and made it clear he was a fellow Jew, they worked it out, Graham explains in the caption.

Bill Graham in front of Winterland photo/ken regan/camera five

The exhibit includes dozens of the signature psychedelic Fillmore concert posters along with event tickets and photographs of legendary musicians on the stage, like Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana. There are flyers for the benefit concerts he helped organize and shots of him on backstage wheeling and dealing with rock stars.

Graham’s past resurfaces in the framed copy of the full-page ad he ran in the 1980s asking Ronald Reagan not to lay a wreath at Bitburg Cemetery in Germany where S.S. officers were buried.

“His whole life was finding ways to do something he thought was valuable,” Greenfield says. “The phrase wasn’t used much then, but [Graham] embodied ‘tikkun olam’ — he never said no to anyone, he raised more money than anyone in the history of rock and roll.”

He adds, “people are charitable for different reasons. [Graham] never thought of it as charity, his job was to do the right thing.”

“Presenting: Bill Graham” runs through July 10 at the Lush Life Gallery at the Jazz Heritage Center, 1320-1330 Fillmore St., S.F.