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San Jose Civic Auditorium:
A South Bay Treasure Chest

by Jud Cost
San Jose Civic Auditorium is a South Bay treasure trove of memories. Although the venerated old structure may have been somewhat overshadowed by the towering high-rises built all around it during the past 20 years, the Civic Auditorium has a heart and soul that goes way beyond mere bricks, mortar, steel and glass. In times of peace, in times of war, through prosperity and poverty, this is a building that has nurtured the people of San Jose for more than 70 years with dances and concerts, sporting events and Presidential rallies. If you were a San Jose musician you knew you'd hit the big time when you played the Civic, plain and simple.

Construction began on the San Jose Municipal Auditorium, as it was called then, in 1934 during the first term of Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal," and the Spanish Mission-style structure was completed in April of 1936 at a cost of $500 thousand.  Over the years, Herbert Hoover, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon have appeared at the Civic Auditorium, with Nixon's 1970 visit making national headlines when he was confronted by angry anti-Vietnam War protesters.

The Golden State Warriors played their home games here for a while as did the hoopsters of San Jose State and Santa Clara University. Heavyweight champions Joe Louis, Max Baer and Jack Dempsey all had prize fights at the Civic, as did highly-regarded San Jose State (and 1960 U.S. Olympic team) boxer Harry Campbell in 1961, shortly before he died the day after losing a fight in San Francisco.

Walk into the Civic and you might still hear decades of music soaked up by the wooden ceiling beams of this fabled edifice. The twirling, rainbow-colored Mexican folk costumes, blaring mariachi trumpets and weeping violins of the Ballet Folklorico as well as the thrilling harmonies of Gospel choirs have moved the faithful many times in these hallowed halls. Revered big band leaders Duke Ellington and Harry James appeared here, with James' stint setting the Civic's all-time attendance record the night they stuffed 8,800 fans into a building whose official capacity is three thousand.

But it's rock 'n' roll that resounds the loudest here. From presenting acts at the very pinnacle of their fame, to bands so obscure they're known these days only as tantalizing historical footnotes, San Jose Civic has a glorious rock 'n' roll past that cannot be denied.

Over the past 50 years, the Civic Auditorium has seen the likes of international pop chart-toppers the Rolling Stones unveiling "Satisfaction," their new song (and signature work), to the Civic Auditorium crowd at the very peak of the British Invasion in 1965. Jefferson Airplane, the torch-bearers of the psychedelic revolution brewing in San Francisco, appeared at the San Jose Civic just as 1967's Summer of Love was about to unfold in the Haight-Ashbury. The Beach Boys harmonized here about surfing, girls on the beach and cruising the drive-in when they were still dressed in blue-and-white striped cotton shirts. Herman's Hermits and the Dave Clark 5 headlined Civic shows in the days when they were serious contenders for the Beatles' pop-music crown. The Who opened their first U.S. headlining tour in February of 1968 at San Jose Civic—mere months after they'd knocked 'em dead at the Monterey Pop Festival. The Bay City Rollers attracted a Tartan Horde of South Bay teenage fanatics to their 1977 Civic gig.

James Brown, Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, Blue Oyster Cult, Buffalo Springfield with Neil Young, Cream, the Grateful Dead, Journey, Love with Arthur Lee, Roger Miller, Rick Nelson & the Stone Canyon Band, the Leaves, Carly Simon, Blue Cheer and the Kingsmen, among countless others, all played the Civic Auditorium—as have more recent indie-rock warriors Los Lobos, Billy Idol, the Pixies and Beck.

San Jose Rocks co-founder Tom Muller and his band The New Arrivals also appeared there with the Dave Clark Five, backed Sonny and Cher, Glenn Campbell, The Righteous Bros, The Ventures, and the Beau Brummels.

The Civic has also seen landmark performances by San Jose legends the Doobie Brothers, Syndicate of Sound, Count Five, Hush and the  Chocolate Watchband. As Syndicate of Sound bassist Bob Gonzalez recently said of the illustrious venue, "It's always been a special place for me. As a young boy it's where I first saw the circus. We used to dream what it would be like if we played there. And we knew when we did play the San Jose Civic Auditorium we had finally made it."

Related Links
December 4th & 5th, 1965 factor prominently in rock history. To learn more about the connection between the Rolling Stones at the Civic, Ken Kesey's acid test, and the downtown San Jose location where the Grateful Dead played as The Grateful Dead for the first time at a Victorian home now the site of San Jose City Hall's Rotunda, check out these links:

The Night I Met Jerry Garcia

The Grateful Dead's First Public Performance at Ken Kesey's 2nd Acid Test



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