The Bluebird Café, founded by Peter Feldmann in late 1971 , was a major venue for the musical and theatrical arts in southern California in the 1970s. Located on West Anapamu street in Santa Barbara’s downtown area, it became a place for local musicians to display and develop their talent, and gave touring groups a popular venue to perform while traveling between Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
Conceived as a café, it served a fine, American / Swiss menu, originally designed by Peter, with home-style cooking and a variety of beverages, drawing on California wines as well as domestic and imported beers. “Music and food go together”, as Peter often declared. But that, in a way, was its cover story, for the Bluebird’s real mission was to form a center and school for acoustic music of all types on the central coast. Folk, Cajun, blues and bluegrass all found a home there, along with early country and a smattering of classical, jazz, eastern, and experimental musics.
Peter built the café around — and catering to the requirements of — musicians, with a practical custom-designed sound system, comfortable stage with lighting, and a ready welcome for the wandering minstrel. Peter’s thought was “..Make the musicians happy; they’ll play great music, and the audience will come…” There was music of some sort almost every night, from open mics to singer-songwriters, jazz, blues, and bluegrass bands, old time music, Indian classical music, and even a little light opera, drama, and experimental sounds. Musicians not only performed there, they comprised a large part of the staff. It was a place to exchange musical ideas and try out new acts. performers included Hazel Dickens, The Scragg Family, Lamar Grier, Mance Lipscomb, John DuBois, Aunt Dinah’s Quilting Party, Any Old Time String Band, The Cache Valley Drifters, Pat Cloud, Amya Das Gupta, Big Jim Griffith, John Hartford, Flash In The Pan, Alice Gerrard, Jon Lazell, Jess and Leonard Sutton, Jerry Higby, Furry Lewis, Johnny Shines, Earl Collins, L.C. “Good Rockin'” Robinson, Byron Berline & The LA Fiddle Band, Mike Seeger, and many, many others.
In order to reach out to the local music community, the Bluebird featured a regular “Open Microphone” night once each week, giving everyone with a song a chance to sign in and share an opportunity to try it out on our stage. Soon, performers were arriving from near and far to strut their stuff. Of course, their friends came along to watch and join in the festivities. The place was packed! Musical visitors from San Francisco to San Diego arrived regularly as the word spread. Our bartender and “sort of” maître ‘d Don Robertson often acted as Master of Ceremonies, announcing performers and filling numerous pitchers of beer meanwhile. Of course, some of these musicians became regulars at the ‘Bird.
In June, a reporter from the then-weekly Santa Barbara News and Review stopped by to sample the music and food and to interview Peter and his partner Joslyn Wellman. Click on the thumbnail to read the entire article and check out the photos.
To give you a glimpse of what it was like watching a show at the Bluebird, here’s a nine minute segment from a performance by The Floating House Band, Bobby Kimmel (of The Stone Ponies, Shep Cooke, and Kit Alderson – all regulars at McCabe’s Guitars in Santa Monica.
Remembering Rock And Roll . . . The Floating House Band
The Bluebird also had movie nights, Mondays or Wednesdays, where fans could drop by to watch classic films while having a burger and a beer, Movies at the ‘Bird; 50¢
Bluebird Café, staff and customer. Click on photo.
Other Bluebird performances . . .
Johnny played four days at my club, staying with me and my family
and attempting to teach me the ways of slide guitar playing, I admired
his patience. He insisted on watching his favorite show, Hollywood Squares, before packing up and heading for the club with me.
The original Bluebird was sold in mid – 1974 to “Robby and Lyle”, who kept the place going about 3-4 years longer. Nineteen years later, I opened a second iteration of the club, but it lasted only a year due to various complications, eventually becoming the current Soho music club. We did have a fine group of performers there, including Marley’s Ghost, who presented the following song one Sunday afternoon.
Fiddlers’ Green – Marley’s Ghost
Running the café involved endless work. I recall staying an hour after our closing time of 2:00 AM, only to have to return at 6:00 AM to get ready for the breakfast crowd. I couldn’t have done it without a lot of help from family and friends, including my wife Marianna, Tommy Chung, owner of Jimmie’s Oriental Gardens, who taught me a lot about running a restaurant, My first partner, Jocelyn Wellman, Jon Lazell, who built our amazing cylindrical speaker system with sixteen Bose speakers per column, driven by old Dynakit tube amps. Chris Strachwitz, DK Wilgus and Ed Pearl for connecting me up with wonderful musicians, craftsmen friends who designed, built, and installed fine redwood benches for our audiences, John McGibbon, who helped with electrical work, Gene McGeorge, who – besides fiddling with the Scragg Family, built our outdoor sign, and an anonymous porn film maker from LA who contributed to our stage lighting in exchange for a pitcher of beer.
I forgot the jukeboxes! We had three in operation simultaneously, which led to some confusing moments: A Rockola wall-mounted machine for 45s, A Seeburg 100-M, the first to play both sides of the 100 78’s it contained, and a Wurlitzer 700 machine from 1940,
which now graces the studios of BlueGrass West!. I remember the Ravi Shankar 45 singles I wore out from playing while moping the floors & bathrooms and washing glassware at 2:30 in the AM.
One thing I found strange: of course, many people mention the Bluebird to me after re-connecting after all these years, but puzzling that so many proudly recall crawling into my club on all fours, simply to avoid paying the cover charge – which was usually 50 cents! So, they loved my club, but went to considerable effort to cheat the musicians they were coming to see. A real study in the human psyche.
Thanks for reading this exploration of memory. If I think of anything more worthwhile to say, I’ll add a page for you. Comments welcome.