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No Re-Entry: The Ghosts at Great American Don't Have to Show You Their Damn Hand Stamps 

Tuesday, Oct 28 2014
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San Francisco has always had its ghosts.

There's the legacy left behind by family man Charles Manson, of course, and the Zodiac Killer. If you grew up here, you may have been lucky enough to go on a field trip to Mission Dolores as a small child in the '90s and have your docent deliver a detailed examination of every aspect of the church's historical and cultural significance, followed by a curiously brief and vague explanation of the small graveyard out back full of tombstones bearing Native American names. Any questions, kids?

As of this writing, news is circulating in sad emoticon-filled Facebook posts that the Lexington Club, one of San Francisco's last standing lesbian bars, will soon be closing — joining Cafe du Nord, Esta Noche, and a slew of other homey, now-glorified neighborhood bars and venues that have fallen victim to a changing San Francisco, casualties in the ongoing rent explosion.

And then there's the former brothel and dance hall in the heart of the Tenderloin that's haunted by the spirit of Duke Ellington, among others. Built in 1907, during the period of reconstruction following the earthquake, the room began as a restaurant and bordello called Blanco's (named for a Barbary Coast brothel), a place where, as veteran sound engineer Lee Brenkman puts it, "men could go, and if you didn't have a woman with you, one could be added to the check." In the '30s, it was the Music Box, a burlesque club (and yet another brothel, making use of the hotel next door — did everything double as a brothel back then?) run by the famous ostrich-feather-fan-dancer Sally Rand.

Things have changed a bit since those days: It hosted the indie dream-pop duo Tennis last week; next week Jeff Bridges will take the stage. And it generally enjoys a festive, warm atmosphere inside — that is, when it's full of people. But next time you belly up to the bar at Great American Music Hall, consider asking your barkeep what happens when the place clears out, or if she's had any run-ins with shadowy figures who walk straight through other people lately.

"I felt uncomfortable from the very first moment I walked in there," says Toni Morgan, who'd been the house manager at Slim's for years when the club's management took over operations at Great American Music Hall in the early aughts. When booker Dawn Holliday sent her to GAMH for three months to learn the ropes at the new venue, what Morgan thought would be like "a vacation" — the singer-songwriters the room hosted made for easier shows than the rowdy punk crowd at Slim's — quickly turned nightmarish.

"So behind the stage there's the balcony up top, and behind that there's a long corridor of offices, and a long staircase that winds up the back," says Morgan, audibly worked up as she walks the 107-year-old room in her mind. "And I'd be up there doing the cash, paying the band or whatever, and every single time I would feel somebody's hand on my right shoulder. And every time I'd turn, there'd be no one. It got so I didn't want to sit there alone. I would run. I didn't even want to be in the back section of the club at all."

"Oh, I believe wholeheartedly that there are ghosts here," says GAMH box office manager Chris Valera, who's worked at the venue since the '70s. "I'll never forget, there was [an employee] at one point who was a really burly, biker-type dude who didn't seem like he'd be scared of anything. And it was late at night after the place was completely empty when he comes into the box office and he can hardly breathe, and he says 'I just saw a guy, there was a black man just here, and he walked right through me.'"

Stories of creepy incidents have been passed between so many GAMH employees with such frequency over years that it's difficult to chalk it up to a few superstitious souls. A shadowy figure rushing down the stairs when the janitor knows there's no one left in the building. An accountant poked in the back while he was in the men's room and when he turned around: no one there. And a backdrop of unexplained noises, flashes of light, and power outages.

Claire Brouwer, an owner and general manager, swore to SF Weekly in 1999 that a ghost had triggered the security alarm, then picked up and moved her purse and briefcase while she was working alone early on a Sunday morning. That same year, she and other staff members decided to consult a psychic, who reported that there were 30 to 40 spirits who called the place home — including one who dreamed of being a rock star and was hanging around the GAMH to, you know, break into the biz.

One theory goes that construction happened so quickly after the earthquake and fire in 1906 that dead bodies were never recovered from the wreckage of the saloon that had previously stood there. A caretaker who lived in the building in the year prior to GAMH opening in its current form — around 1970, after 859 O'Farrell's short-lived stint as a French restaurant, which was eventually taken over by the feds and padlocked because of failure to pay taxes — was said to have slept in the dumbwaiter because he was so terrified of the voices and figures that appeared at night.

"We know it was a gentlemen's club of some kind with a secret entrance in the back for carriages to come in. Who knows what may have happened in that building?" says house manager Fred Barnes, whose eeriest story took place when he was downstairs after a show at about 3:30 in the morning. Certain that he was alone, he suddenly saw a man in a long blue coat walk out of one of the dressing rooms and toward the bathroom. "I watched him go down the hall for about eight seconds, and I remember thinking, 'Well, if this is a band member or something, I'm not going to confront them in the bathroom. So I waited a while, and eventually went in there — nobody at all."

Barnes doesn't sound quite as spooked as some of his colleagues. But when you're there late by yourself and you're the one who has to turn all the lights off and walk through the darkened room to leave — yeah, things feel a little unsettled. "Let alone the fact that when you get outside," he adds, "you're in the Tenderloin."

Then there are the Duke Ellington stories, most of which revolve around a storage space Ellington used as his dressing room during his April 1973 run at the club — the normal green room is only accessible by the stairway at the back, and on the advice of his doctor, the bandleader, then 74, was to avoid steep places where he might fall, says Brenkman, who's been behind the board at GAMH since 1972.

"[Ellington] was immediately booked for a return engagement the next year, but he died before the scheduled replay," he explains. "After that, people 'saw' or sensed his presence in that room several times. One employee said they saw his face in front of them when they first came into the club, but it turned out no one was actually there."

(He notes that Count Basie also used that room when, in his later years, he was using a motorized scooter. However, he says, "To my knowledge, the spirit of the Count has yet to make an appearance.")

Meanwhile, Brenkman laments that while he's heard all the stories in his 42 years and counting at GAMH, he hasn't had any run-ins with dead people himself.

"Certainly some near-misses, going back to the rock 'n' roll era. Oh yeah, I've had the thought that I could write a tell-all book — 'Chapter 17: Famous People I've Performed CPR On,'" he says with a chuckle. "But I think I have to wait for some more people to die first."

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About The Author

Emma Silvers

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Emma Silvers is SF Weekly's former Music Editor.

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