There are few promoters and club owners in folk and Americana music today who are so close to the heart of the genre and the audience; they embody music. And few love the music and the artists as much as Bob Stane. Since 1958, when he fell into the music business in order to avoid morning work hours, Bob Stane has been instrumental in helping to launch and continually support artists and entertainers like Steve Martin, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, John McEuen, the Dillards, the Association, John Stewart, the New Christy Minstrels, Mason Williams, and countless others. And it all began in San Diego when he opened up a small venue called the Upper Cellar. Although his time there was brief, the experience helped to form the foundation of what would become legendary for two decades at the Ice House in Pasadena. During a recent conversation with him, Bob Stane remembered his San Diego years with fondness and a touch of nostalgia in his voice. As he continues today with nearly daily shows at the Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena, it is clear how important his time at the Upper Cellar still is to him.
San Diego Troubadour: When did the Upper Cellar begin?
Bob Stane: I think it was around February of 1958. I had been exposed to coffeehouses and I was looking for a new career. I was not happy working day hours. I am not a morning person. Getting up in the morning was painful to me. That limited my options. I had done a lot of jobs. I had surveyed for the railroad, I’d worked in mines. I had done all kinds of jobs.
SDT: How did running coffeehouses become your career?
Bob: I got involved in coffee houses when I went to the Unicorn on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, in 1957. Now, I don’t know this for sure, but I have this memory of Theo Bikel playing guitar and singing there. It was a turning point. I looked around and within ten second I thought, “I can do this.”
SDT: How did San Diego come into the picture?
Bob: I was going to school at San Diego State College at the time. I went into the army and was stationed up near Monterey. So, I started poking around coffeehouses up there around Carmel. When I came back to San Diego, one of my fraternity brothers loaned me $500 to open a coffeehouse. So, that’s just what I did. That became the Upper Cellar, located at 6557 El Cajon Blvd.
SDT: So, that was the beginning.
Bob: Yes. It just bubbled along. I started learning the business. Promotion and publicity turned out to be my strong suit. In those days, everyone read the newspaper. I mean everyone—high school and middle school age kids. Everyone. And they responded to what they read. So, I learned how to get in the gossip columns. I learned how to introduce novel things into the newspaper. Like, we started serving chocolate covered ants and deep fried grasshoppers. I had fortune cookies with my own particular fortunes in them. That would get me a few inches of ink, which kept the people coming.
SDT: Was there any particular piece of publicity that stands out in your memory from the Upper Cellar?
Bob: Yes. I had a comedian who worked with me at the place. He had kind of long hair and beard, so I told him to grow it even longer. We did what became known as cranial paintings. I had him dip his head in buckets of water colors and then press his head on butcher paper. Then, I took color photographs of it.
SDT: Did this catch on or get anyone’s attention?
Bob: Not at first. But, I learned a lesson about promotion and publicity while I was there in San Diego. I present this story whenever I’m asked to teach or lecture on promotions. At first, I called the three local television and they all said this was a publicity stunt, not a news story and they wouldn’t cover it. Then, one of the stations called and said they had a three-minute slot they needed to fill during the news hour and wanted to come film the cranial painting process. After they made an appointment-and I found appointment to be a key word to use—I called the other two and let them know about the appointment the other station had made for the cranial paintings, so they said that they would like an appointment too. It opened up the door, just by using that word, appointment. And these were all stations who turned me down before.
For me it all began with my total love for folk music. At the time, “entertainment” was illegal in coffeehouses. So, once I worked that out with the city, the right artists started showing up. Mason Williams was stationed in San Diego. So, he came around. Randy Sparks, the founder of the New Christy Minstrels, was just finding solo success a few years before he formed the Minstrels. He had a boat docked in San Diego. So, he called one day and said he wanted to do some shows there.
SDT: These both turned out to be long friendships and artists who carried over to the Ice House?
Bob: Yes. The Upper Cellar was the blueprint for the Ice House and the Coffee Gallery Backstage today. Randy was already successful at the time. He had a hit song and was in a movie. He was opening shows for Burl Ives. So, I put a sign out front, and people just poured in. He was a consummate entertainer. He was very musical. A folk singer. But, he was also funny. He is one of the best single acts I have ever seen in my life. He sang, played guitar, and was a comedian full of funny patter. I mean, he tore the paint off the wall. This was a full five years before the New Christy Minstrels.
SDT: Tell me about Mason Williams in San Diego?
Bob: He was stationed in San Diego when he was in the navy. He was on a destroyer that would come into port. He played at the Upper Cellar around this time. But, somewhere after that he returned to Oklahoma. He came back with four friends. One of the them was the famous artist Edward Ruscha. He played at the Upper Cellar frequently and later at the Ice House. He went on and had the hit song “Classical Gas” and became a great comedy writer. He was famous for writing for the Smothers Brother Show.
SDT: Are there any other acts you began with in San Diego who played the Upper Cellar?
Bob: Well, Judy Henske was there. She became very well known in folk music.
SDT: Were there any rumblings of bluegrass back then at the Upper Cellar?
Bob: Well, the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers played there. That was about it.
SDT: Was Chris Hillman with them?
Bob: You know, I don’t remember. I do remember Mason Williams played with them for a while.
SDT: Do you see a future for the coffeehouses?
Bob: I don’t know. There are younger acts who play at the Coffee Gallery Backstage, but we don’t have a lot of younger audiences coming in. It’s a sad thing. People don’t seem to stick as an audience. I see them at events, like banjo and fiddle contests. I would like to see this kind of entertainment grow on to another generation. I do feel what we do is one-of-a-kind entertainment.
SDT: Well, Bob, you are a one-of-a-kind legend in the field.
Bob: Thank you.