It was 1981, and the auditorium of Pasadena’s Raymond Theatre was packed to the gills with excited teenagers and twentysomethings. Onstage, Wendy O. Williams, lead singer of the punk band the Plasmatics, had just spray-painted the word “F**K” onto an orange Chevy Nova that had been brought onstage. The crowd was going wild, having witnessed her earlier demolition of a television set with a sledgehammer.
Unexpectedly, Williams disappeared for a moment, returning with a cluster of what appeared to be lit dynamite, which she lobbed into the passenger seat of the Nova. There was an anticipatory pause, and then the car’s hood exploded in a massive fireball, scattering shards of metal. Though the dynamite itself was a prop, the car had been rigged with real explosives, and the rush of air from the blast could be felt more than 100 feet from the stage. The stunt thrilled many a teenager and horrified many a Pasadena City Council member.
The Plasmatics and their outrageous shows remain notorious, but they were merely one of hundreds of bands and musicians — including Bruce Springsteen, the Pretenders, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Oingo Boingo, the Ramones, Talking Heads, Jackson Browne, Hall & Oates, Phil Collins, R.E.M., Depeche Mode and Guns N’ Roses — that played the Raymond Theatre between 1980 and 1991, when it was known mostly as Perkins Palace.
For its relatively brief existence as a rock venue, Perkins Palace showcased new wave, punk, metal and even jazz musicians. British bands New Order, the Cure, and Adam and the Ants made their Southern California debuts at the theater, and during the 1980s, it was featured in films such as This Is Spinal Tap and The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, as well as numerous music videos (such as Whitney Houston’s hit from The Bodyguard, “I Will Always Love You”). On off nights, it was used by artists like Gladys Knight, Mötley Crüe and Van Halen for rehearsals before world tours. The venue even briefly had its own TV program, the Emmy-nominated Rock ‘N’ Roll Tonite, Live from Perkins Palace, which aired on NBC from 1982-4.
The theater’s brief rise and fall as a rock palace began in 1978, when brothers Marc and Jim Perkins purchased the property. Marc Perkins, a former investment counselor and owner of Perkins Restaurant (later the Parkway Grill), envisioned the building as a multiuse facility that could host concerts in its auditorium and banquets in its upstairs lobby. The venue, first known as Jensen’s Raymond Theatre, originally opened in 1921, serving for decades as a performance space for vaudeville troupes, jazz bands, opera productions, burlesque acts and plays of the era, like Peg o’ My Heart.
“Pasadena’s newest temple of the drama and the motion-picture art,” as the Los Angeles Times called it, underwent numerous changes of ownership over the years, becoming the Crown Theater in 1948 and switching primarily to films — even exhibiting adult films like Deep Throat in the mid-‘70s. By the time the Perkins brothers purchased it, it had seen some mileage, but its previous owner, Bruce Barkis, had renovated it and despite its age, it was in good condition. They took a gamble that Pasadena’s lack of a real rock venue had created a desire they could capitalize on.
Though Pasadena’s rock scene was never as big or as well-publicized as Hollywood’s, by the 1970s, a strong local music scene had sprung up, including Van Halen, whose first shows in the backyards of Pasadena mansions eventually led to gigs at Pasadena High School and the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. Other local bands like Smile, Stormer and A La Carte soon followed.
Pasadena did have a rock venue at one point, but its history had been brief. The Rose Palace, a large building on South Raymond Avenue built in 1964 for the construction of floats for the Rose Parade, had served from 1969 to 1970 as a concert hall, presenting a staggering roster of musicians, including the Who, the Byrds, Led Zeppelin, Joe Cocker, Cream, Deep Purple, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Grateful Dead, before complaints to Pasadena officials shut it down.
Farther up the street, the Raymond Theatre was in a neighborhood that was in many ways perfect for a rock venue. Old Town in the late 1970s was, as one anonymous poster on the L.A. Independent Media Center web site recalled, “a burnt-out bastion of dive bars, porno parlors and low-end department stores and thrift shops.” Simultaneously, however, there was a hip undercurrent. Eclectic merchants lined the side streets off Colorado, as did artists’ colonies and nooks and crannies like the Espresso Bar and the Loch Ness Monster Pub. This was the Old Town where artists inhabited places like the Hotel Carver and the Braley Building, the Old Town where, in 1978, the Doo Dah Parade was dreamed up by some intoxicated friends in a neighborhood bar.
“There’s always been this kind of free-spirit, cool bohemian energy downtown,” recalled Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez, former drummer for Oingo Boingo, who grew up nearby. “I remember riding my ten-speed bike up to the corner of Fair Oaks and Colorado and going to the head shop, looking at all the blacklight posters, you know, looking at all the hippies. It was just kind of a hometown crowd — and those are the kind of crowds that came to the shows at Perkins Palace.”
Into this milieu, “Pasadena’s Hot New Concert Hall,” as it was billed, opened in early 1980, and it would soon draw crowds not only from Old Town but from the entire San Gabriel Valley and Hollywood. Having made a hefty investment, the Perkins brothers hired a promotion agency to help stage shows by such established musicians as Smokey Robinson, Dave Mason and Leon Russell. The shows sold well, but recognition was still a challenge. Few people in Pasadena seemed to view the city as a viable rock hot spot. “For a long time we’d go into record stores in town,” Marc Perkins recalled, “and they’d have concert ads from the paper pasted up on the bulletin board — except for the Perkins Palace ads. It was like they were saying, ‘Nothing ever happens in Pasadena!’”
But they soon recognized the potential in a different kind of music — the kind that was being played by a radio station half a mile away called KROQ. Located on the second floor of a drab two-story building at 117 S. Los Robles Avenue, KROQ was small but influential, having become known as one of the first stations in the U.S. to play bands like the Sex Pistols, the Runaways and the Ramones. Their DJs, like Rodney Binghenheimer and Jed the Fish, were eccentrics who always seemed to be one step ahead of the latest musical trend.
By the fall of 1980, the Perkins brothers switched to a policy that emphasized new bands like Oingo Boingo, X, the Go-Go’s and Romeo Void, and they promoted the shows in cooperation with the station. This allowed them to lower ticket prices (which averaged about $6.50) and broaden their audience. They also hired a young law student named Mark Geragos to help with promotions. Geragos, who was then in his early twenties, would go on become a well-known attorney for such clients as Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson. He performed a variety of roles at the venue, including recording their outgoing phone message, which began, “Okay, you’ve connected with Perkins Palace in the beautiful city of Pasadena.”
KROQ proved a great asset to Perkins Palace in its first two years. The station advertised shows on the air, brought musicians in-studio, and hosted pancake breakfasts in its tiny back parking lot, where fans could meet the bands and get autographs. Soon, most flyers for Perkins Palace read, “KROQ 106.7 FM & Perkins, Perkins & Geragos Present.” With KROQ’s cooperation, Perkins Palace secured some of the hottest new bands of the day, giving Pasadena a sudden cachet in the L.A. music scene. Things did happen Pasadena.
By early 1981, word about the venue spread, not just among concertgoers but between bands themselves, who were impressed with the hall. Adam and the Ants played Perkins Palace after hearing positive words about it from another band. Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn also became an early champion, praising its “imaginative booking policy” in a May 1981 piece titled “For Rock in Pasadena, It’s Perkins.” Marc Perkins claimed optimistically that same year, “We’ve begun to build an identity here.” Concert promoters Avalon Attractions began working with the theater, and other radio stations, like KLOS, began to sponsor shows — notably a November 1981 Pretenders show where Bruce Springsteen made an unannounced appearance.
In the early ‘80s, when KROQ was not busy playing odd novelty songs like “Johnny Are You Queer?” or local groups like Oingo Boingo, they were playing British bands. Its “top 106.7” song list from 1981 included songs by such bands as Spandau Ballet, Bow Wow Wow, Killing Joke, Billy Idol, Gang of Four, Squeeze, Elvis Costello, Depeche Mode, the English Beat and Rockpile. On its list of top songs from 1982, more half the bands were British.
In fact, the entire rock scene in the U.S. in the early ‘80s was experiencing what many likened to a “second British Invasion,” and with the help of KROQ, Perkins Palace got first dibs on many of these hot bands from across the pond. In addition to New Order and Adam and the Ants, 1981 saw performances from British musicians the Specials, Joe Jackson, the Stranglers, the Cure, Stiff Little Fingers, the English Beat and Siouxsie & the Banshees.
The bands could be both innovative and as faddish as the myriad Beatles clones that sprang up in the wake of the first British Invasion of the 1960s. Times critic Richard Cromelin delighted in referring to slick pop bands like Haircut 100 (which played Perkins in 1982) as “faintly androgynous, hypersensitive young boys shrouded in fogs of vague, self-absorbed poetry.” More esoteric and downbeat acts from the U.K. brought puzzlement from concertgoers as well as critics. “Don’t be so serious!” an audience member reportedly yelled during the Cure’s July 1981 Perkins Palace show. Still, the overwhelming feeling among the young people who attended these shows was that this was something new and fresh.
One of the most exciting and highly anticipated bands, however, was American: the Plasmatics. Hailing from New York City’s punk scene, they had been touring the country during 1980-1 and had been the subject of much controversy, having been arrested twice on tour (once for indecency in Milwaukee and once for obscenity in Cleveland). KROQ had been playing their song “Sex Junkie” in heavy rotation, and the buzz surrounding them was enormous. Stephen Duncan, who graduated from Arcadia High School in 1982, remembered, “It was our chance to finally see this band that we were only hearing on KROQ, and it was wild — it was a big, new wave, punk rock, slash and bang slamdance, and we weren’t finding that anywhere else.”
When the three Plasmatics shows he’d booked sold out, Jim Perkins wanted to book a fourth show. In what was probably a well-planned publicity stunt, lead singer Wendy O. Williams went on KROQ and announced that if Jim Perkins would let them blow up his white Lincoln Continental onstage, they would consent to a fourth show.
He agreed, and the fourth show sold out within an hour. KROQ also co-sponsored a contest where the winner got to have Williams come to his house and sledgehammer his television. Remarkably, the car-demolishing stunt did not seem to violate the fire or safety codes of the day, but it was certainly dangerous — besides scattered shrapnel, the blast created enough volume so engineers had to throw plywood over the speaker stacks to keep them from blowing up.
If 1981 saw a peak in new wave acts at Perkins Palace, the following years were more diverse. Metal was gaining popularity, and bands like Mötley Crüe and Quiet Riot began to play the venue. A three-night stand by mod-revivalists the Jam in 1982 drew fans from as far away as San Diego. That year also marked the beginning of a series of broadcasts on NBC called Rock ‘n’ Roll Tonite, which featured acts like Phil Collins, Todd Rundgren, Quiet Riot, INXS and Sparks.
Gina Zamparelli, a young Pasadena concert producer, had been selling out concerts at Odd Fellows Hall, a 700-capacity venue on Los Robles Avenue, and the city wanted her to look for a larger space to keep crowds under control (the parking lot would often burst with another 500-plus concertgoers). She negotiated a deal with Marc Perkins to bring her shows to Perkins Palace, ushering in a new era of metal and rock, with bands from both Pasadena and Hollywood including W.A.S.P., Ratt, Great White and Armored Saint. At this time, Avalon Attractions was ending its tenure with Perkins Palace, and Marc Perkins agreed to let Zamparelli take over management of the theater.
As metal was going strong, start-up punk rock promoters Goldenvoice struck a deal to bring more punk shows to Perkins Palace; but when shows by Black Flag, the Cramps and Specimen gained popularity, a rougher crowd began frequenting the venue, causing many to label it “Punker Palace.” Zamparelli took it upon herself to ensure the protection of the theater from disruptive concertgoers and routinely had to placate the police and fire departments, who were called by irate property owners in the neighborhood. “The punk years left a bad image of the theater and caused problems with the city,” Zamparelli later remembered. The Goldenvoice employees themselves could often be a handful. “When I wasn’t there, you never knew what they were doing,” recalled Zamparelli. “They would play raquetball at night inside the theater!”
The Plasmatics were not the last band to attempt an outrageous stunt onstage. In 1984, German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten, known for incorporating power tools into their live shows, proposed a unique exit strategy that tried Zamparelli’s patience. “I spent hours in the dressing room telling the band they would not jackhammer their way out of the theater,” she explained. “They disagreed, so I brought on twenty more security guards… and lined the walls of the theater with men and had them escorted out after the show.”
A series of punk concerts in 1984 drew particular complaints from local property owners. Fights were rare, but crowds both in and outside the venue could be rowdy and would sometimes tear up seats, litter and get drunk. By the mid-’80s, plans were afoot to revitalize Old Town, and this kind of environment did not sit well with city officials.
Due to this combination of factors, Marc Perkins closed Perkins Palace after a July 27, 1984 performance by English band the Cult, and he began to think of converting the building to different uses. During the next three years, the theater was dark, though it was used for music video shoots, the occasional public function and a the taping of a Showtime/KROQ special called Rock of the ‘80s in 1984.
Zamparelli, a longtime historic preservation advocate, convinced Perkins that there was still concert life in the building, if it could be cleaned up a little. He eventually consented, but not before securing assistance from Pacificoncerts, a large promotions agency, which spruced up the place. Perkins Palace reopened in July 1987, and for the next year presented concerts by bands like the Dickies, Lizzy Borden, Public Image Ltd., Poison, Warlock, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Guns N’ Roses. But the renaissance was short lived. In 1985, Perkins had sold a share of the property to developers Gene and Marilyn Buchanan, who believed the theater should be converted into offices. In 1988, concerts abruptly ceased, and Marc Perkins told Gina Zamparelli that this plan would be going forward. This initiated a long and bitter battle that would stretch for nearly twenty years.
Zamparelli immediately contacted Pasadena mayor Rick Cole and requested a feasibility study to see if the theater could be saved, which the City Council approved. While the study was taking place, however, Gary Folgner, a restaurateur, bought the building from the Buchanans in 1989. Optimistic about its continued use as a concert space, he spent $1 million renovating it and it reopened in November 1990 as the Raymond Theatre, with a performance by pop band Toto. Pasadena officials closed the venue a month later due to fire violations. Folgner spent more money correcting the problems, and the theater opened again in early 1991, but Folgner had made too risky an investment, and he was forced to give the theater back to the Buchanans later that year. As a farewell nod to its early new wave days, Devo was one of the final bands to play the venue, on March 23, 1991.
After Folgner left, the city lost faith in the effort to save the Raymond, and the project to convert the theater to offices moved forward. Zamparelli formed a nonprofit organization named Friends of the Raymond Theatre and for the next decade successfully fought several proposed conversion plans for the theater — including separate plans to turn it into a boutique hotel and a nightclub.
The preservation struggle took on a character of high drama. Musicians like Slash, David Lee Roth and members of Oingo Boingo showed up at hearings. Lizzy Borden, Blackie Lawless of W.A.S.P. and others released statements to the media, and hundreds of angry letters with headings like “Treasure trashed” and “Selling out history” poured in to the Pasadena Weekly and Star News. Zamparelli sued the city several times, and the Pasadena Weekly eventually published a story claiming that funds had changed hands between the Buchanans and certain City Council members. Despite these efforts, destruction of the theater went forward (some claimed without proper permits), and the interior was gutted and redeveloped into the Raymond Renaissance, a block of condominiums, offices and retail space that opened in 2009. While the Buchanans made a point of leaving the original “Jensen’s Raymond Theatre” façade and other minor features intact, the conversion was drastic enough that the building’s days as a concert venue were over forever.
For those of a certain generation who grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, the Raymond’s days as Perkins Palace were an essential part of their teenage years, and to see the space desecrated saddened many. “It was just something of nostalgia a little closer to us in the San Gabriel Valley,” said Stephen Duncan. “If you look through the history of Hollywood and the San Gabriel Valley and a lot of the old things that were landmarks in their time — it’s surprising that anything remains. They’ll tear down something of such nostalgia and they’ll put a parking lot.”
Of the theater’s loss, Oingo Boingo’s Hernandez had harsher words to say: “It’s really regrettable. It’s a loss not only to Pasadena, but reflective of a loss in the entire nation. If you go from town to town, you can see the corporatization of everything. America is driven by the almighty dollar, and not by the intelligence, the experience of life, and the understanding that it’s not all about commerce.”
Author’s note: Special thanks to Gina Zamparelli, Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez, Stephen Duncan, Jon Pool, and Michele Harwick for their recollections of Perkins Palace. Thanks also to the Pasadena Public Library and their Los Angeles Times archive, including Robert Hilburn’s profile of Perkins Palace, published May 26, 1981. Descriptions and stills of the Plasmatics shows were taken from Wendy O. Williams and The Plasmatics: The DVD – Ten Years of Revolutionary Rock and Roll.
See History Buff’s Flickr account for more pictures of Perkins Palace and a near-complete list of bands that played there.