Historical Highlight: “People in Motion”

Suzanne Slick, Collection Information Specialist

All across the nation

Such a strange vibration

People in motion

There’s a whole generation

With a new explanation

People in motion

People in motion

For those who come to San Francisco

Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair

If you come to San Francisco/Summertime will be a love-in there –

Lyrics from “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)”, 1967. Music and Lyrics by John Phillips.

It was the 1960s, and throngs of young creative types were drawn to San Francisco to tune into the happening, hippie scene. The birth of a new pop culture and the revolution of music, thought, art, and society was about to set the world on fire.

Among the emerging talent ready to shape the evolving counter-culture and indelibly transform San Francisco into the mecca of hipdom was a young Jewish man who had grown up in foster care in the Bronx after fleeing Nazi Germany at the age of ten. Another whose particular outlook, skills, and drive would forever change the media so firmly a part of that era was a young woman from Philadelphia who had grown up in Trenton, New Jersey, and gone off to work in the Big Apple after earning a degree at Penn State. We know less about Bonnie MacLean’s quiet life than we do about Bill Graham’s high-profile life, but we do know that Bonnie, while living in New York, had a job at the Parsons School of Design which allowed her to take evening studio courses. This training would serve her well later when her fine ability at freehand drawing would result in dozens of the most fluidly poetic posters of the 1960s. We also know that she studied at the San Francisco Art Institute, the Academy of Art University, and the California College of Arts and Crafts, and that she would continue to create art long after leaving the rock scene in the 1970s.

“” think handwork needs to be kept alive. It’s something people are inclined to do naturally. It’s something we have a human built-in desire to do. It always has been. It still is.” – Bonnie MacLean in an interview with The Key, 2015.

Both Bill and Bonnie would be trailblazers in their vocations: one as a celebrated impresario who lived and died in the spotlight, the other who quietly and steadfastly worked, crafted, and attended to the details. Ultimately, she left her mark gently, but firmly, in a circle that, until she entered the arena, was owned by the groovy guys of the day.

Wolodia “Wolfgang” Grajonca was born in Berlin in 1931. In 1939, his mother sent him to France for safety as the rise of the Nazi party began to cast its dark shadow over Germany. Wolfgang’s mother would later perish in Auschwitz, but her son was sent to the United States in 1941 with other Jewish children who were evacuated by the International Red Cross. Wolfgang was taken in by a family in the Bronx who saw him through his senior year at DeWitt Clinton High School. He then served in the U.S. Army in the Korean War, and afterward, earned a degree in business from City College. He dabbled a bit in the theatre in New York City and the Catskills before heading west to seek his fortune in San Francisco. By then he had picked the name ‘Graham’ out of a phonebook after too many years of correcting the spelling and pronunciation of Grajonca. And somewhere along the line, Wolfgang became Bill.

Bill Graham was employed by Allis Chalmers heavy equipment manufacturer in San Francisco in 1964 when young Bonnie MacLean showed up for a job interview in the ugliest chartreuse coat Bill had ever seen. Once he saw past the coat and had a chat with her, he hired Bonnie as his secretary, they dated, and eventually moved in together. When Bill left the corporate world to join the radical San Francisco Mime Troupe, Bonnie went with him; and when troupe leader, R.G. Davis, was arrested in 1965 on obscenity charges, Bill and Bonnie organized a series of benefit concerts to pay for his legal defense. These took place at the Fillmore Auditorium; one event featured Alan Ginsberg, the Fugs, John Handy, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Bill called this event, “By far the most significant evening of my life in the theatre” and afterward, he took over the lease of the Fillmore — he had found his calling. The rest is rock and roll history.

Bill Graham was the big idea guy with the theatre in his blood, the guy who could book the best and most diverse talent, promote it, and turn it all into a social movement. One of his gifts was bringing together talent never before paired — American roots musicians with new British rock bands or psychedelic American bands with folk singers and blues artists. He was a visionary who saw, not just the musical miracle of life-changing concerts, but also the social and political power of music as the medium of the movement. Graham was the big daddy who left his mark forever on the concept of the rock concert. But Bonnie was beside him through the launch and evolution of the Fillmore — through all the shows — the Doors, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, Cream, the Jefferson Airplane, Eric Burdon and War, the Grateful Dead and Santana, to name just a few. Some of these bands, unknown until then, were launched by Graham’s promotional genius. 

While Graham hobnobbed with the rockers, it was Bonnie who got the permits, paid the bills, took the tickets, and kept business rolling. When a concert scheduled for June 11, 1967 was cancelled, Bill and Bonnie took advantage of the day off to get married — it was the eve of the Summer of Love. A lot happened in 1967. Haight-Ashbury was the center of this mind-expanding trip and the mantra, “turn on, tune in, and drop out” was much repeated after being uttered by Timothy Leary at the Human Be-In on January 14, 1967 in Golden Gate Park. The Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” was released this year, with Grace Slick’s admonition to “feed your head”. The Viet Nam war was still sending American soldiers home in body bags, and thousands gathered across the country to march, protest, and hold sit-ins.

That same year, when poster artist genius Wes Wilson decided to venture off from the Fillmore to do his own thing, and it became more clear with each concert that psychedelic posters were a reliable source of revenue, Bill tapped Bonnie for the important Fillmore poster designing assignment. She had been lettering the Fillmore’s blackboard signs with the constantly revolving band lists, even adapting some of Wes’ fluid, trippy lettering style. When Bill gave her an easel and art supplies for Christmas 1967 –she was still running the office and doing all those other necessary tasks at the time– she took on the role of poster designer, too. And though her art seemed drawn from psychedelia, she abhorred the use of hallucinogens. Also recall, this was the beginning of the era of The Big Five guys of poster art: Wes Wilson, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, Stanley Mouse, and Alton Kelley – a boys’ club if there ever was one. Sadly, the world also lost Wes Wilson this year, he passed in January, 2020 in the Ozark foothills that he loved.

Bonnie only worked the poster gig for a few years – designing 32 of her feminine, lyrical, often ethnically-inspired compositions until 1971.  But her iconic images of lovely faces, gentle goddesses with flowing hair, headdresses, feathers, Nehru jackets, totems, doves, and celestial bodies still appear in museum exhibits, attract collectors, and are admired by each new generation that discovers this genre of American pop culture. 

Bonnie MacLean, American, 1939-2020. Eric Burdon Poster. Off-set lithograph in 3 colors, 1967. Museum Purchase, SC7.2018. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Bill and Bonnie divorced in 1975, their marriage wasn’t sustainable in the heady clime of free love and coast-to-coast events and concerts that kept Bill away from his wife and young son. Bonnie, her son, and new partner, Jacques Fabert, also an artist, moved to Bonnie’s home state of Pennsylvania and took up residence in Bucks County, north of Philadelphia where she lived until her passing. Bonnie died at the age of 80 in Newtown, Pennsylvania on February 4, 2020. Bill died on October 25, 1991 in a helicopter crash outside of Vallejo, California just after leaving a concert at the Concord Pavilion, another of Bill Graham Presents’ Bay Area venues. They are survived by their son, David.

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