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The On Broadway Theater

People still talk about the legendary Mabuhay Gardens and the Elite Club. But you rarely hear about the On Broadway Theater these days. Which is odd, because it was the primo venue for San Francisco punk bands back in the 1980s.

The On Broadway Theater was run by the legendary Dirk Dirksen. Like a lot of people I first became aware of Dirk Dirksen when he worked as Jello Biafra’s campaign manager during Biafra’s run for mayor of San Francisco in 1978 (Biafra finished a respectable fourth in a field of ten and garnered 6,591 votes and at least a thousand “Only In San Francisco” stories in the media). Dirksen was reputed to be the cousin of the famous US senator Everett Dirksen. And he was sort of a weaselly looking middle-aged guy with a receding hairline and a little pot belly. Not the kind of guy you’d expect to see as the ringmaster of the SF punk scene. And he took pains not to ingratiate himself to his youthful audience. Incredibly abrasive and insulting, he delighted in getting on stage in between bands and referring to the audience as “morons” and “cretins” and “maggots” and “insects.” Taking a seemingly masochistic delight in the reaction he provoked (by his own account Dirksen claims his nose was broken at least 7 times while working at the theater).

The On Broadway Theater itself was a beautifully laid-out piece of architecture. It had the vibe of a decadent and decaying haunted mansion right out of The Adamm’s Family. You walked up a narrow staircase to get into the place. The seating and the balcony was akin to the most cozy and comfortable, beat-up old movie theatre. Then there was a bar in the next room. And an outdoor patio where you could sit and drink around tables and clear your head with some fresh air. And if the bands sucked, you could always go downstairs and check out the more intimate setting of the Fab Mab. Outside there was the narrow alleyway where the roadies loaded and unloaded the bands, and where drugs were scored and beefs were settled (usually over cracked heads and bloody noses).

My only personal dealings with Dirksen was in 1983. I was making the rounds trying to sell advertising for this underground punk rock newspaper I was publishing. And he suggested trading ad space in exchange for letting me put on shows at the On Broadway (I’d get the door, he’d get the bar). That’s how the Biker Bashes — the San Francisco bike messenger parties — got started. True to his nature, Dirksen was incredibly insulting to deal with personally, but completely trustworthy and solid as a collaborator. A rarity in the flaky world of live rock music.

I remember talking to Dirksen about his plans for the On Broadway. “I’d like to turn the place into a live TV show,” he said. The idea seemed absurd to me back in 1983. But now with reality TV, I guess old Dirk was ahead of his time.

I forget the bands I saw back then at the On Broadway. A lot of those memories are more than hazy. Black Flag. MDC. Exploited. X. I remember climbing up this narrow stairway to this sort of loft/attic space that was a backstage area for the bands to hang out at. And I did a long interview with the members of X, who were surprisingly wholesome and down-to-earth. It was like hanging out in the coolest tree fort, this secret little hide-away. The On Broadway always gave the impression of a building laden with secret compartments and sliding walls masquerading as bookshelves. No doubt Batman and Robin had a secret lair in the basement.

The last time I was at the On Broadway it must have been 1984 for their final show before they closed for good. Dead Kennedy headlining. I was with John “Baboon Dooley” Crawford. The line stretched all the way down Broadway and around the next street. Crawford had money for a ticket, I had planned to scam my way in with my press pass as usual. But the place was too packed with paying customers for me to get away with that. So I turned and headed back to Berkeley. And that was sort of the end of the San Francisco Punk Rock era for me.###

All contents © 2011 by Gene Mahoney