Over 100 years of history have granted the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon, with something of a mythology all its own. The Crystal’s psychedelic heyday in the late 1960s lives on in the fantastic, surreal murals throughout the Ballroom and the enduring musical influence of the classic bands who played there. It’s funny to think that this timeless era of the Crystal Ballroom lasted, in reality, only from 1967 to 1968.
Gary Ewing, aka “Dr. P.H. Martin”, was an artist who created fabulous, hypnotic light shows for rock concerts in Portland and San Francisco during the late 1960s. There is a painting by Jennifer Joyce that brings to life Gary’s “amazing display of harmonic totality.” It hangs in Zeus Café, in McMenamins Crystal Hotel– just a block away from the Crystal Ballroom.
The other key person in this story is Janis Allen. She grew up in the small town of Rainier, Oregon, but on one rare occasion, she took a trip to the Crystal Ballroom in 1968 and chanced upon a behind-the-scenes look at how the concert magic was made. Here’s her recollection, which she shared with us recently:
“I was a skinny little seventeen-year-old [in] the summer of 1968… [Bill Halsey, her uncle] really thought he was a mover and shaker in the music world. Here he would come with his dark, dark black hair, long, and his brown leather coat with huge, long fringe under the arms. He says that he was part of some big music event that was happening at the Crystal Ballroom and he wanted me to experience it…He was introducing me to everybody like he was some bigshot.”
Janis was dazzled by her first gaze at the Crystal Ballroom. “It was absolutely just breathtaking, seeing something like this for the first time… [Uncle Bill] wanted me to dance a few times and meet these people, but I really was too shy. I did, a couple times.”
When at the concert, Janis discovered the source of the fantastic and colorful light display, enhancing the music and atmosphere. It was none other than light show artist, Gary Ewing.
“I noticed, up in the balcony… Here was the man with his overhead projector. So, I found my way around through the stairs and up in the balcony. I just felt so safe and welcome to sit right there by him… He was very kind, so I don’t know if he could tell: ‘Oh my god, here’s this country bumpkin.’
“He showed me all the stuff he was doing. He had all these different bottles of colored oils that he was squirting onto his overhead projector. He would move it with the rhythm of the music. He changed the little acetate stuff every now and then and started a new bunch of colors. I would just sit there and watch him.”
While the technique may sound simple enough, Gary crafted and prepared these light displays with great care and concentration.
From The Many Lives of the Crystal Ballroom
by McMenamins Historian, Tim Hills: “[Gary Ewing] melded images from an overhead projector, a rotating multi-colored gel wheel, strobe and spot lights, and movie and slide projectors. For a four-hour show, he sometimes used 500 painted 35mm slides, which could take as long as four months to prepare.”
Janis also recalled her impression of the “hippies” in the crowd, and as a teenager, she felt a bit awestruck.
“People were friendly and nice, but everyone had really long hair and all their beads on. My hair was growing out. And of course, there was a lot of tie-dye and a lot of flowing gauze skirts.” Janis also remarked that she seemed to be the youngest one at the Crystal that night; it was an older crowd of twenty-somethings, not exactly naïve teenagers. Janis was adventurous, though. She and her high school friends would often drive out to the Oregon Coast at Seaside, and go to the under-21 venue, the Pypo Club. They danced to bands like Paul Revere and the Raiders and the Kingsmen (both bands who also played at the Crystal Ballroom, by the way).
Janis only visited the Crystal that one time in 1968, but her experience that night remains an unforgettable memory. In recent years, though, she has returned many times, in the historic venue’s current incarnation as McMenamins Crystal Ballroom.
Dear readers, if you were also at the Crystal Ballroom in the 1960s, please let us know!