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1960s pop-art posters highlight Utah Historical Society event

If you were a teenager in the 1960s, then you probably believe Ken Sanders was a witness to history the night he first saw Janis Joplin.

It was Sept. 30, 1967, in the Terrace Ballroom — in downtown Salt Lake City. Sanders still sounds amazed when he talks about it.

He didn't know who Joplin was. He'd come to see her band, Big Brother and The Holding Company, because in those days, he says, that's just what you did.

"The Terrace Ballroom was our Avalon, our Fillmore," Sanders says. "You just went there, if you were into rock music. Sometimes you'd know the bands. Sometimes you didn't. You went to check them out. It was a social scene."

Joplin was unlike anything he'd heard before. "The band played an opening set, and this hippie chick came stumbling out onstage," he recalls. She clutched a bottle. Much later, Sanders would learn the bottle held Southern Comfort bourbon.

Then Joplin started to sing, to rasp out her songs. Sanders says he wasn't the only one in the audience dying to know her name. "She was electrifying. It was like she was channeling Bessie Smith or something."

Sanders will talk about Joplin on Sept. 16, at the Rio Grande Depot. He'll give a lecture and show slides of his posters of dozens of rock concerts held in Utah during the 1960s and '70s. "One of my talking points will be the accident of geography."

An accident of geography put Salt Lake City a day's drive from San Francisco, and thus the perfect stopping point for a Bay area rock band on its way east.

Sanders owns a poster advertising the 1967 concert at the Terrace. It doesn't mention Joplin. In wacky lettering, the poster merely says "Big Brother and the Holding Company." Soon after, Joplin became the band's headliner. "And four years later, she was dead," Sanders says. He will remind his audience, on Friday night, that there were also a lot of Utahns who were casualties of drugs and alcohol in those days.

Sanders owns more than 200 locally produced concert posters. Some, like his Grateful Dead poster, are autographed by band members. He likes to reminisce about the Rolling Stones coming to Lagoon in 1966. About the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix coming to Salt Lake City. About the 1969 Grateful Dead SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) Ball. He likes to talk about the Terrace and the Fairground Coliseum and about the artists who designed the posters for all these groups.

He likes to talk about what makes the Utah poster art unique. "The San Francisco posters are a well-known American art form," he says. But local artists like Neil Passey, Rob Brown, Kenvin Lyman and Richard Taylor developed their own look. And their posters are rarer.

Knowing of Sanders' posters and his memories, some folks on the board of the state history association asked him to make a presentation at their annual meeting. "The radicals have taken over the Utah State Historical Society," Sanders notes, laughing.

He's only an amateur historian, he adds. Still, soon after he agreed to speak, he became the headliner for Friday's meeting.

The '60s were a dynamic time, explains Philip Notarianni, director of the Division of State History. As they put together the schedule for the annual meeting, the historians got more and more excited about the rock posters.

So now Sander's slide show is the main event Friday night — and there's a dance to follow. There will be displays of the posters in the Rio Grande, and also several blocks away in his store, Ken Sanders Rare Books. With all the interest the posters are generating, Sanders has decided to keep them displayed in his store until the end of September.

There will be many topics covered in the three-day annual history meeting, Notarianni adds. Archivists and journalists, and historians, too, of course, and even some young winners of the state history fair, will encapsulate certain moments in Utah history. Some will talk about disasters and diseases (including the flu epidemic of 1918). Others will talk about Camp Floyd, Westminster College, Utah's Scandinavian pioneers, ethnic diversity, horrible trends in historic neighborhoods, or agriculture and rural life. There will be walking tours (of Gateway and the Warehouse District and the Governor's Mansion and the Salt Lake City and County Building) and a bus tour (in Box Elder County).

When they hold lectures at the downtown library, they get an audience of people who might never go to the Rio Grande Depot, Notarianni says. He also hopes the posters and the dance, which will be at the Rio Grande, will bring out people who have never come before to the annual meeting.

Sanders says the history of the '60s has been grossly overlooked. Notarianni hopes this year's annual meeting will motivate more Utahns to look through their own collections. Maybe someone will do an oral history project, interview Utahns who made music — or who made political statements — back then.

Notarianni says people usually think of history as something more than 50 years old. But in fact, state historians want to collect artifacts from the '60s now, so that 50 years from now Utahns will have them. "It's our job," he says.

As for Stephen Holbrook, he wasn't sure the state historical society would be interested in his memorabilia from the '60s. The former state legislator only knew he needed to clean out his closets.

So he left a message at the state Historical Society and before he knew it, historians were at his door. He gave them boxes and boxes of stuff. Holbrook is not making a presentation at this year's annual meeting, however. He has not yet finished going through his stacks of leaflets and photos and tape recordings. He meets with a state historian for several hours at a time, several times a week, and together they decide what to toss and what to save.

In the early '60s, barely out of his teens, Holbrook worked for Utah Congressman Sherm Lloyd in Washington, D.C. When a delegation of Utahns came to Washington in 1963 to march with Martin Luther King Jr., Holbrook took their photos on the steps of the Capitol.

He'd never known them, or any African-Americans, when he lived in Utah. He'd never known that, in the South, blacks were not allowed to vote.

But in his civics classes at Bountiful High School, he'd been given a vision of the United States of America, a vision he believed in. So the next summer, and the summer after that, Holbrook was in Mississippi, registering black voters — and being thrown in jail for his efforts.

Of 250,000 African-Americans who could have voted in Mississippi, only 18,000 had been allowed to register, Holbrook recalls. He came back to Utah a committed activist. He organized war protests. He helped stage a sit-in to block the door of the draft-induction center. He was part of the local civil-rights movements that ended up spawning the women's movement and the environmental movement. He ran for various offices and was eventually elected to the state Legislature, where he led reforms in low-income housing, youth corrections, pollution cleanups and the way the state cared for its homeless.

Sanders defines the '60s as a decade that actually began in 1963, with the assassination of JFK, and ended 11 or 12 years later with the resignation of Nixon or perhaps with the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. The music was inseparable from the politics of the time, Sanders says. Holbrook agrees.

As he tries to describe what it felt like to be young and politically active in the '60s, Holbrook mentions a song written by Stephen Stills and performed by Buffalo Springfield. "Somethings happenin' here, what it is ain't exactly clear. . . ," Holbrook quotes.

The rest of the song celebrates, "Young people speakin' their minds, meeting so much resistance from behind. . . . Think it's time we stopped, children, what's that sound? Everybody look what's going down. . . . "

If you go

What: The Salt Lake Sixties

Where: Rio Grande Depot, 300 S. Rio Grande St.

When: Sept. 16

Open House/Poster Exhibit: 5:30 p.m.

Slide show: 7 p.m.

Sixties Music/Dancing: 8-10 p.m.

How much: free

Phone: 533-3500


Also: This event is part of the Utah State Historical Society Annual Meeting, three days of lectures, programs and tours on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Most talks will be held at the Main Salt Lake Library. For a complete schedule see the Web site.