focus on this story is the fire that burned down the People’s Ballroom in Ann Arbor on December 15, 1972. I had to do a little research to confirm the date because I had thought that the fire took place in early 1973 but thanks to an article I found online written by Mike Gould (which I will quote liberally from) the historic fire took place in December ’72. But in reality, the story for us, my band “Merlin”, started long before that. Like many bands at the time we wanted desperately to play in Ann Arbor…for the man John Sinclair
. In his article, Mike Gould accurately describes the scene as a “must-play venue for bands from across the state”. We went there on several occasions and saw some of the premier bands and musicians of the time. People like Mitch Ryder
, Jim McCarty
, Ray Goodman, The Mighty Up, The Mojo Boogie Band, Mighty Joe Young
‘s Blues Band and more.
Getting in to play though, required a lot of hard work and several visits to the White Panther Party/Rainbow People’s Party (RPP) headquarters on Hill Street.
I remember the first time we visited the house and while sitting there, Mr. Sinclair walked by us several times…totally ignoring us. The place was filled with the smell of marijuana and the young girl sitting behind the desk (obviously a budding feminist wearing a tight RPP T-shirt with no bra) was preparing a petition to allow citizens of Ann Arbor to smoke “reefer” whenever and wherever they wanted. There was a lot of literature that promoted the use of the “herb” including cooking recipes. For four young boys from metro Detroit we were shocked and amazed but in total worshiping awe of the scene that was played out in front of our, at the time, innocent eyes and noses. We had heard about marijuana of course, but we were not prepared for such a casual display of its use, as they were not the least concerned or worried about being hassled or arrested by the Ann Arbor constables. More than ever before, we wanted to be part of this environment…we wanted to be one of John Sinclair’s bands.
After several visits and a few more teasing sessions by the young girl behind the desk, we finally got an audience with “Big John”. He asked several questions and we provided stammered and stuttered responses. With a lot of pleading on our part, John hired us to open for Mitch Ryder on December 15th. At least that is the way I recall it. In his article Gould says that the other band was the “Knock Down Party Band”. Since he had access to records provided by Sinclair, perhaps I should trust his information. Maybe this was Mitch’s band, all I know is that band did not play that night anyway.
Since this was such an important gig, naturally, like so many bands, we had to bring our own entourage. I had invited a girl that I had recently met when playing at the Southfield Civic Center. Her name was Heidi and she brought along a friend whose name was Bambi. Both girls were in their teens and though we didn’t ask, I am pretty sure that their parents didn’t know who they were going out with or where they were going. It was a night of several firsts. Their first night on an inter-racial date. Their first night as “groupies or to be more polite, followers of the band and our first time playing in Ann Arbor.
We had waited with a lot of anxiety and anticipation for the night to arrive. We rehearsed every hour…every day we could. Nothing was going to go wrong. We bought new clothes. We wore stage jewelry. We bought new gear…changed our strings…we thought we were ready for anything. What we weren’t ready for though was the big snowfall that took place that day. It snowed heavily on Dec. 15th. By the time we loaded up our rented truck and went to pick up our “dates’ there must have been a good 8 inches of snow on the ground with more on the way. I remember watching Heidi walking out her front door with the silhouette of her mother standing there shouting for her to get back in the house, she was totally under dressed for the weather or for going out, plus who were these guys anyway? She yelled after her “I am going to tell your father…you are a bad, bad girl”!
With the snow it took us a little longer than usual to get to the ballroom. At this point, I have to say that Heidi looked real good…like a very young Kim Novak. I was already thinking about what was going to happen after we played. A guitar player full of lustful thoughts can be dangerous, but a guitar player that was rather nerdish was more of a danger to himself than he was to the object of his affection.
ballroom, according to Gould, was around 100′ by 40′ deep, with a raised stage (a cement block) at the east end of the room with food and drink provided at the west end. A team of local volunteers had built an “incredibly beautiful” suspended dance floor and from what he says “all were delighted by its dance-worthiness”. It had a capacity of 540 and was open on Fridays and Saturdays. They shared the space with the “Community Center Project”, a federally-funded group of agencies consisting of Drug Help, Ozone House
, and the Free People’s Clinic. Before the night was over all of these groups would be looking for a new home.
so we performed…we went on about 9:00. We played a 10 or 11 song set that included tunes by Jeff Beck
, Spooky Tooth, Traffic, Beatles, Joe Cocker
, Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac
, Clapton/Cream and Mountain. We were rockin’ the joint! We had made it…here we were in front of a lively crowd in Ann Arbor, the most liberal…musically savvy audience we had ever dreamed of playing for. It was our “Fillmore” moment and we were basking in the glow. At the end of our set, which we concluded with an incendiary cover of Jeff Beck’s version of “Jailhouse Rock”, the very same young girl that sat behind the desk on Hill Street, got up on stage and asked for everybody to give us a hand for our great performance…”Give it up for Merlin…they are from Detroit!”. “We want to thank them for such a fine and exciting show! Power to the People
! Power to the People! We also want to thank the inmates from Jackson Prison on work-release for coming out tonight.” It was here that I recall, though I could be wrong, that she said coming up next will be Mitch Ryder and his band. But before Mitch comes up, we have to tell you that there is a small fire in the basement and “just to be cool, let’s leave the room in an orderly fashion so that our great fire department can come in and put it out”. “We will be right back once it is out and will continue with the show”. After making that announcement, our pretty desk person/stage announcer, jumped off the stage and ran out the door. The last we ever saw of her was the back of her pretty blond head, for the room quickly filled with thick…very thick smoke. Stunned, we began to get our equipment off of the stage and out the very same door that everybody was squeezing out of.
This was not going to be easy! First it was still snowing…hard! Second, it usually took about 30 minutes to unload our truck to bring it into a well-lighted room with nobody in our way. Third, our equipment was on a stage that was at least 3 maybe 4 feet high. Fourth, it would take all four of us to get our wood cabinet-encased Hammond C-2 organ off the stage, an effort that under the best of circumstances would take at least 5 minutes, as we were musicians not roadies…we were weaklings. Lastly, what if we did manage to get our gear out…we still had to worry about items getting stolen in all of the hysteria.
Luckily for us, there was a art studio down the street a bit and that became the haven for our gear and our “girlfriends”. We got the guitars and drums out and carried them in the snow to the studio. All of the really heavy stuff was left behind. According to the Ann Arbor Sun, the firemen pretty muched stood by and let the building burn. That’s what we saw also. Another source, attributed in Gould’s article, said that the fire began in the basement of the front part of the building where the offices were. When the firemen arrived, the fire, accelerated by silk screen solvent used in the production of posters, had engulfed the entire ceiling (of the basement) and there wasn’t anything anyone could have done. Another story had it that the fire was caused by a disturbed street person. He had started the fire so he could report it and become a “hero”. He came running out of the basement yelling “Fire!” and grabbed the “only” fire extinguisher in the building. But the fire was already out of control and that was it for the Ballroom and Community Center. We had also heard something similar to that, but it was an inmate from Jackson that was responsible. Regardless of who was actually responsible or who didn’t do what…it was gone.
Once again luck was on our side, for as a result of the cement slab that served as a stage, nothing that was on it burned. There was severe smoke damage, but the gear that we had to leave behind was safe and still in working order. Unfortunately for the Ballroom, they had inconveniently let their insurance policy lapse and there was no way to make any claims for damages. The Ballroom was no more and the city really didn’t mind that it was gone. As an offer of restitution, since we hadn’t been paid for the night, they gave us what was left of their sound system. Though we were not at all happy with their solution, we took it anyway.
Our dates, didn’t get home until 5 or 6 in the morning. Their parents, at first did not believe their story, but once everything was confirmed by news reports, the girls were “welcomed” back into the fold. But we never saw them again…ever!
As it turned out the People’s Ballroom had a very short life. It existed for only three and one-half months of “rock and roll, peace, love, and mostly understanding.” It felt that it had been around for a much longer period of time than it actually was.
Not too long afterward we moved into our house in South Lyon, where before spring we had another close association with a fire, this time at the hands of our landlord. And if that wasn’t enough we had two more fires. One was when we lived in West Bloomfield and our house was burned down, allegedly by the Fourth Reich Motorcycle club (another story in itself) and the last happened when we lived in Wixom and our furnace exploded. In total, we lived through five fires. There was one at the Southfield Civic Center when someone knocked a candle over during our maiden “acoustic” performance of “Lifton, Littsey and Dawson. This fire preceded the Ann Arbor blaze by at least a year.
We survived them all and as the Rolling Stones sang, “It’s Only Rock and Roll!”
Arthur Littsey, Guitar/Vocals; Marcus Dawson, Bass/Vocals; James “Jimmy” Lifton, Keyboards/Vocals; Richard “Oval” Wood, Drums
- The Devil and Rock & Roll Parts 1 – 4 (ninedegreesbelowzero.wordpress.com)