Spotlight on Bob Stane and The Coffee Gallery Backstage

An Evening with Bob Stane - Southern California’s Legendary Folk & Bluegrass Promoter



Article and Photos by: Shelley Kilgore


Image634895216234304415Much has been written about Bob Stane’s legendary career promoting the likes of The Dillards, The Wayfarers, The Wanderers, Mason Williams, Steve Martin, etc., during his days as owner of the infamous Ice House in Pasadena, CA from 1961-1978.

However, what remained to be unseen for me was the craft and ingenuity behind Bob’s promoting.

I was intrigued to discover just how, at the ripe age of 21, he could turn a $500 loan from a college friend into a booming music/comedy club with his first coffee house venture in San Diego in 1958, called the Upper Cellar. So I set out on a short jaunt during a business trip to L.A. and visited with Bob at his quaint venue called the Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena, CA.

The main road to Bob’s place is Lake Avenue, just off I-210E outside of Pasadena. The left turn up Lake Avenue takes me up a gradual incline toward the San Gabriel mountains and for me, promoted a sense of suspense. My interview with Bob was something for which I had been anxiously awaiting. I had visions that his venue would have a quirky, colorful exterior, much like that of Bob’s vivid personality that so many love. But as I approached the address on my GPS, I nearly drove by the venue. It was an older building with a barber shop on the left side and the entrance to the Coffee Gallery on the right side. Image634895254406927764There was a green awning out front with small white lettering that inconspicuously stated, “The Coffee Gallery.” What I would soon find out, however, was that the interior of this place was bursting with creativity, community, passion and soul and that these elements would propagate a following without the need for obtrusive signage. I quickly discovered that this place is something like that of a shrine for locals and musicians in Southern California and beyond, largely due to the whimsical style and careful touch that Bob lends to his venue.

After high school, Bob worked as a surveyor for the Santa Fe Railroad with his father. It was during a stint in San Diego that he had an epiphany he would never live anywhere he didn’t want to live and would never do anything he didn’t want to do. The pact Bob made with himself that day would be the defining characteristic that later shaped Bob’s ability to formulate successful ventures throughout his career, the first of which came about by a chance visit at the Unicorn coffee house in Los Angeles. Bob recalls the moment he stepped into the Unicorn as his defining moment of clarity about his future; his sort of “ah-ha” moment, if you will. Bob said he took one look at the Unicorn and said, “I can do this” and “I can live anywhere I want and do this. This was quite a bold realization at the just young age of 21.

The imprint of the Unicorn stayed with Bob during his college days at San Diego State University in 1958 where he brought up the idea of opening a coffee house to a college friend. Much to his surprise, this friend offered to loan him $500 to give it a shot. It was this moment where Bob’s vision became possible and he soon opened his first coffee house called the Upper Cellar. Bob was under much pressure to pay the first month’s rent, which realistically meant he needed to sell out his opening weekend, which he did. This really sparked my curiosity. What gimmicks did Bob conjure up to attract a sellout crowd his first weekend? Image634895214221459287What promotional tactics did he deploy? What was so intriguing about the Upper Cellar? Bob laughs when I ask him this and you can see his eyes light up when he begins reminiscing about those early days of his career as a business owner and promoter. He describes the ambiance of the Upper Cellar first as “dripping with atmosphere” and the quaint cellar door at the front, along with the steam boiler that patrons would walk past to get to the main area. That was the first hook for visitors. But then Bob described the playful menu he created which offered “chocolate covered ants” and “deep fried grasshoppers.” He would send press releases to the local newspapers which described the local fare at his coffee house, which furthered the playful reputation of his new place. One reporter by the name of Neil Morgan, listened and printed these press releases. Bob employed a standard comedian to further contribute to the quirky vibe of the Upper Cellar and the crowds continued to show up, but Bob wanted more. Around this time, color televisions were becoming more widely accessible and, being an innate promoter, Bob set out on devising a way to get on television. With the help of his friends, they came up with an idea called “cranial painting” where his comedian would grow out his beard and mustache, dip them in various colors of paint and paint pictures with them. It was a gimmick that at first annoyed the local television stations and caused them to ignore his stunt. Bob’s fearless and persistent nature, however, led him to call each station to inquire why they had not responded to his press releases. Finally, one station had a 2-minute spot they needed to fill, so they called Bob and booked an appointment with him. Bob took this one step further and called the other stations to let them know that one news station had just booked an appointment with him and he asked if they, too, would like an appointment. Bob’s efforts prompted a sort of media frenzy which led to full market coverage of his odd painting events and ultimately won the “feature of the year” with one of these stations. And so began the hype of the Upper Cellar and the swarm of well-known acts.

I was intrigued by Bob’s ability to grow a successful talent base without having an extensive background in many of the genres he attracted. Surprisingly, Bob explained that he rarely auditioned talent and still doesn’t to this day. He says he has just always had an innate sense of when a performer has the ingredients to put on a good show. He said, “I tell them, just talk to me.” Bob went on to explain that a performer speaks a certain type of language for which he listens. If he asks a performer, “tell me why you are going to put on a good show,” he then waits for a specific response that keys him into whether this act will work in his world. This approach, albeit unconventional to some, has created an eclectic line up at all of his venues that cultivates creativity and has one key element of success…good entertainment. Image634895226586026500One performer in particular was the epitome of the perfect show, according to Bob. This performer was “funny, active, good looking, had great songs and musical prowess and a consummate entertainer.” Bob called this performer “the most incredible showman I have ever witnessed in my life.” That man was Randy Sparks of the New Christy Minstrels. Bob claimed this was the moment he knew these were the types of acts he wanted to start promoting and also the moment he knew he wanted to do this for the rest of his life. Bob calls his sense of good entertainment, “magic.”

Bob worked on various artistic ventures for several years after he sold the Ice House in 1978 and “retired.” Then The Limelighters called because they were looking to tour again and approached Bob to help them find a place to rehearse. Bob also helped by booking them at the Ice House. One thing led to another and Bob went further to create a hugely successful showcase for them at Forty Five Beantown in Sierra Madre. Bob involuntarily came out of retirement, after a consensus from the musical community. He confessed to me that he had been a little bored anyway, so he began to put the word out that he was looking for a new musical venue. He mentioned to the owner of the local coffee house he frequented regularly, that he could probably help him increase his business if they could find a place where he could bring in performers. The coffee house owner told Bob that the landlord made pottery in the back room and Bob took one look and it and said “this could work.” So, in 1998 they made a deal with the landlord and the Coffee Gallery Backstage was born.

Bob stated that his rooms are the reason why big acts come to play at his clubs. He is a perfectionist when it comes to creating the ideal atmosphere…crisp, sharp sound with warm, intimate lighting. He goes into great detail about how he transformed the high, narrow concrete back room of the coffee house into the now, Coffee Gallery Backstage. He said the vision for it came to him in a matter of about 20 seconds while walking out of his house one day. He brought the height of the ceiling down by adding fans. He wanted to create the feel of being in a Central American coffee bean warehouse and found just the right person to paint the scene. He claims he has always had exactly the right people surrounding him to help make his venues successful, from the sound engineers who crafted impeccable acoustics to artists and contractors who could paint murals on the walls and build the surrounding set.

I asked Bob about some of the mistakes performers make these days with the ways in which they promote themselves. After having emailed Bob back and forth about this interview, I can tell you he is particular with his expectations of how one communicates with him, but with good reason. He gave me some examples of mistakes artists make when emailing him, such as bios in white font against a black background (not good for cutting and pasting onto a white background), lack of or insufficient information in the subject of their emails and vague information in their emails, using numbers for indicating a date (rather than spelling out the month and day), etc. Bob then goes on to explain to me that “language is code” and he expects to know the who, what, why, where and when in a succinct, clear manner. He said he tells the attendees at his publicity lectures to make it easy for the person at the other end helping you make the money and that “when someone is offering to give you money, go out there with your umbrella turned upside down.” Bob elaborates further that if an artist is sending a press release to a reporter, they should make it easy on the reporter by “giving them a lead, make it juicy, give them something to work with, do it in double space and send it off.” He reiterated, “Make it easy for people to give you money.”

Bob has been awarded with many honors over the years and most recently was recognized by the Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Contest as their 2012 “Music Legend Award” winner. Bob attributes much of his success and longevity in the business to paying attention and caring, as well as constantly being open and willing to learn. When I asked if Bob has anything left to cap his dynamic career, he shares with me his love of writing comedy.Image634895217906830078 He said he would love to write comedy for television, just to find out if he is “really funny or if he is just a parlor clown.” Bob is a man who is self-assured and beams with confidence, but it is as if this is the one final frontier of his world where he needs to be validated. Bob said it isn’t even about making money at this point, but more of whether he could help contribute.

I ended my night by experiencing the culmination of Bob’s humor and craft for attracting rare talent. Bob takes over the microphone and opens the night with a series of jokes. The laughter builds in the crowd. They know his routine. After all, they have been coming here for years. Bob begins to dim the lights and the man sitting next to me nudges me and says, “you have to say wooooooo when he dims the lights.” So I responded appropriately with the crowd and everyone erupted again with laughter. Then a young, 6-string flat picker by the name of Alex Finazzo takes the stage and picks his guitar effortlessly while the crowd watches in awe. A woman earlier in the night told me that Alex was up to 160 beats per minute on the metronome during his sound check. I look around and people have smiles on their faces while they tap their feet. They are mesmerized and engaged.

The Salty Suites finish the night and they grab me from the beginning. Scott Gates is a virtuoso. The juxtaposition of his hard playing style with the sweet notes he evokes from his mandolin is a beautiful feat. Image634895218705775775Chelsea Williams strums her guitar with complete abandon and has crisp, pure and delicately controlled vocals that mesh harmoniously with Scott’s. And Chuck Hailes masters the upright bass with an essence that is all his own. All have played with popular artists, but have a sense of humility and maturity that makes them utterly enjoyable to watch.

My evening at the Coffee Gallery Backstage was carefully crafted magic. I think back to the small, subtle sign outside of the building and realize that if you stick around long enough, you will become a regular at Bob’s venue like so many others. His knack for attracting phenomenal talent is captivating and the intrigue is enough to keep the crowds returning for more.





Visit the Coffee Gallery Backstage

Online:  http://www.coffeegallery.com/


2029 Lake Ave.

Altadena, CA 91001-2444




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1 comment:

Bernie & Theresa N. said...

What a very nice article....Bob Stain is such a sweet man and goes out of his way for everyone.
My husband and I drive out there from Lake Elsinore, CA. when ever Salty Suites and some other bands play there.
A very friendly place with great musicians.
Ck. it out!!!