Bob Stane: For the Man Who Owned Pasadena’s Ice House – It’s All For The Love of the Game
(Bob Stane Announcing Interview into Recorder: “This is Bob Stane owner of The Coffee Gallery Backstage, formerly owner of The Ice House in Pasadena from1961 until 1978. The great glory days of the Ice House when, as I like to say,the stars fell on The Ice House. Here we are trying to do it again.”)
TERRY: Okay. Let me say first, the impetus for doing this interview was after talking with Chris Hillman, Herb Pedersen and David Lindley, they all mentioned your name separately and they all had kind things to say about you.
BOB: Kind? Oh, I like that! Go ahead.
TERRY: They talked about the early 60s quite a bit and how important it was that you were there to help support them through it. The other one was Steve Martin.
BOB: In the book. By the way, he was very kind to me in the book. In that he said basically that Bob Stane was there. Now you say shouldn’t he have said more about me? I say no, I’m happy with what I got because he mentioned one other club owner and he said, “she asked the ventriloquist to move the microphone closer to the dummy.” Now I’ll take Bob Stane was there, over move the microphone closer to the dummy, every time. Basically that’s my career, I was there. I’m making the wheels move and that’s good enough for me.
TERRY: I’d like to start things a chronologically. So, how did you get into the business -quickly.
BOB: Quickly? Alright, I’ll try quickly then. I discovered,when I was about four years old, that I was a night person. I would stay uplate. Later, I came to realize, that I was not a day person, I was a night person. Now today this is called a sleep disorder. I call it life. To this day I have trouble going to bed until four o’clock in the morning. So I was going to college studying marketing, trying to decide what to do with my life. There are very few people who wanted you to come to work at midnight and work till dawn and I think I’d rather be shot before I’d work in a warehouse. Anyway, I went into the Unicorn in 1957 and I think Theo Bikel was playing over the corner and it was rich in atmosphere in those days, and I walked in there and looked around and said, ‘I can do this.’ Five hundred people over the next few years thought they could do it too. I thought, ‘I can do it and I can do well, I just had a feeling. I opened a coffee house in San Diego. It was spectacular. I had people like Judy Henske and Mason Williams. They just poured into my place. The club was the Upper Cellar. I had several acts that thought they wanted to go big time. A lot of them were going from my place to The Ice House. I took one musician up there to audition. This happened to be a day when the owner was there. So I went to talk with him and asked if he liked the act and he said, “No, but I’ll give you anything you want if you’ll come up from San Diego and run The Ice House. I said, “Half” and he said “Sold.”
TERRY: What year was that?
BOB: 1961. At that point I had also applied for Playboy in Chicago for an executive job. Having no common sense whatsoever, I only applied to the biggest. I had advertised a book on how to run a coffee house in August of ‘61and they offered me a job. I couldn’t afford not to take it. My partner agreed we couldn’t afford not to take it. So I flew back to Chicago and I got the job. I was there for six months and solved a problem they were having and then came back to The Ice House. Then we expanded. We ran it for 17 years and then we sold it. It’s now a comedy club, very successful.Then I retired for a little bit until I was told by various acts that my retirement was over with.
TERRY: It’s not working.
BOB: It was not working for them. So here I am.
TERRY: When did you start doing the Coffee Gallery Backstage?
BOB: This one we opened in 1998 on September 11. That’s why we don’t celebrate an anniversary. We’re coming up on 11 years.
TERRY: Let’s go back to ‘61 to ‘65. The folk period.
BOB: It was winding down by ‘65. What had happened was The Beatles came along and that changed everything, especially folk music on the west coast. It never died on the east coast. We carried on for another four or five years, but it was basically over.
TERRY: Can you drop some names for us during that period?
BOB: The Dillards, of course, who in my opinion was the greatest act we ever had. They were perfect in all ways. They were instrumentally perfect, the vocals were perfect, the humor was great. We had The Wayfarers,The Wanderers, all kinds of acts who provided music and humor. Mason Williams was there, Pat Paulson, Gabe Kaplan, Lily Tomlin, The Smothers Brothers, Steve Martin and David Letterman. Some great stories with those guys. There’s so many good stories of the comics. Gallagher was there. As a matter of fact, our latest senator was a comic, what’s his name? Al Franken. We had winners on this stage every night. A lot of people who made it. We had award winners in every field. Oscars, Emmys, Grammies. You’d find Oscar winners in the kitchen talking with the cook. Movie stars like Leonard Nimoy would come in. It was just a brilliant place. It’s the same with the Coffee Gallery. We are basically a house of champions. We have fiddle champions, guitar champions, banjo champions, vocals, songwriting. This was such a beautiful thing about these quote-unquote, ‘coffee houses’ and I include The Ice House in that, even though we served beer and wine.
TERRY: Do you have any Steve Martin stories?
BOB: Yeah, I do. Well, more of a review of his show. I was talking with someone the other day who does balloon animals. I told him, “Steve Martin used to do balloon animals. Steve was 19 or 20 years old. He came from the Magic Corner in Disneyland to The Ice House. He said it was his first job. So many people are like that. The Dirt Band claim that. I don’t remember it, but John McEuen said I gave them their first job.
TERRY: Chris Hillman was talking about he and Herb Pedersen. He thinks they met at The Ice House, it may have been The Troubadour, but he thinks it’s The Ice House.
BOB: I can remember them just as kids standing in front of the light booth. They were these amazing instrumentalists and just kids. Anyway, getting back to Steve Martin, he was like any number of things. He did the balloon animals and then he would do the bits with the banjo and the arrow on his head. He came to me as a magician. Everybody began to assume he was a comic. But, he was a pretty darned good magician. The thing that made him a good magician is that he was funny. This gave him the skills of being an actor. Then he started writing stories and he became an honest to God actor. He took John McEuen’s brother along with him because he produced the movies. Every time he’d come in he’d have something new. He was always teaching himself.
TERRY: Then came the end of the acoustic folk days with Bob Dylan on stage at Newport doing electric music. How did that change The Ice House?
BOB: I think the coming of drums changed everything. We went from an audience of highly educated people with degrees in philosophy to a much younger crowd. When the Beatles came along we went to the high school kids who wanted to be rock and roll people. A lot of the talented folk people thought there had to be another market for their talents. I happened to think The Beatles were really wonderful. But, it’s a long slippery slope down to what we have on the radio today, which I consider garbage music. But, the drums is where we started along with a little folk rock. It changes the music. It’s just not folk anymore. I have to say what I’m doing now is not entirely folk either. It’s extremely eclectic. I consider it acoustic vaudeville.
TERRY: That’s good!
BOB: And it is good, by the way. It’s a marvelous entertainment. When I have people in here like Ian Whitcomb doing the old fashioned music, people are just enchanted because it’s real entertainment. I try to tell people I believe in the show in show business and I believe in the entertainment in the entertainment business and if you can’t do that, I don’t want to talk to you.
TERRY: So we go from ‘65 to ‘70 and you’re getting more into drums.
BOB: To tell you the truth, it got to the point where it wasn’t making sense anymore. Kids were going out to do other things, people were not showing for their reservations, we were getting less than full houses, we had salaries to pay, our inventory shrank and we weren’t able to advertise as well. The thing is in those days the engine that drove the folk shows was the date crowd. These were high school and college kids and they had to go out on a date and they had to go some place, so we played to the younger crowd. In those days everyone seemed to like folk music, it was on the radio and people often came just because they wanted to be there, not always because of dates.
TERRY: Let’s go to when I entered the picture. In 1969, I discovered John Stewart. Now, I had no idea about the Kingston Trio, but to me, John Stewart was up there with Bob Dylan. The first time I saw him was at the Ice House in 1971.
BOB: Well, my particular quote is that John is the best, period. My wife thinks he’s the best. My thing is how good is John Stewart? If I had to stay on a desert island and I could take only one CD with me, it would be California Bloodlines. I think it’s the best extended play music ever recorded in the entire world. I probably wore out seven LPs playing it at the Ice House and at home. An amazing talent and songsmith. He had the best feel for the music he traded in of any artist I’ve ever known.
TERRY: And he never stopped. He even made recordings at home.
BOB: That’s right. The only one I could compare him with would be Stan Rogers on the East coast with his maritime songs; he understood the maritime very well. Just an aside, one afternoon I was coming home and on the news it said a Canadian airplane had crash landed at the airport. Half the people lived and half the people died. The news said one of the people that had died was a Canadian folk singer. You didn’t have to tell me who it was. It was Stan. I would have had Stan here. I don’t know what I would’ve had to have done to get him here, but I would’ve had him here. I had John Stewart here. He put on a splendid show.
TERRY: After you sold The Ice House in 1978, were there any other acts that would come to stand out in your mind?
BOB:(without pausing or blinking): The Association. There was the question as to whether they were folk music or rock. It didn’t matter.Yester was a folk singer, but the rest were not. I had them audition back then, their first time on stage and they were perfect. They could come in and play just as they did on the audition at The Ice House and the people would be blown away. The same would be true of The Dillards. If you could hear them as they were in 1964, they would blow the room away. They were perfect.
TERRY: What do you think about the future of folk music?
BOB: I don’t. I don’t think about the future because obviously, we’re aging our audience as I’m aging, and it’s all a question of how long I want to hang in here. The answer is as long as I can and fortunately, my mom and dad were very long-lived and healthy. So, I’ll be at it another five or ten years. I’m good at changing in midstream. Who knows? I may have an intern or associate and have them go on. As long as we have the people coming in. Our youngest seems to be about 20 years old and the older end is probably about 60.
TERRY: What about young, up and coming folk singers? Anyone like another John Stewart out there?
BOB: No. I don’t listen to radio so I don’t know. It’s really just a waste of my time. I listen to KPFK especially if they have a Latino program on. I love listening to that while I’m driving over the hills around L.A. The Mexican music just turns me on. I was listening the other dayand they actually did This Land Is Your Land in Spanish and it was just great.
TERRY: Can you think of a way to sum this whole experience for the last 50 years?
BOB: Yeah, I can. It’s in baseball terminology. Those of us from the late 50s on, we’ve been in this for the love of the game. I was talking to Barry McGuire and other people and we agree we don’t know why in the world anyone would ever want to do anything else. There’s a lot of people who dream they can retire and do what I do. There are people who come to me and look at me and say, “How do we get to be Bob Stane?” And you know, I say, “You don’t. There’s only one of me and I’ve worked 50 years to get here and you can’t be me. You can enjoy me all you want. You can fantasize about being me all you want, but you know what? You’re just as good as you think you’re going to be.”
Bob continues the best in both up and coming and veteran acoustic acts in the biz today at the Coffee Gallery Backstage. Below is an example of a show at Coffee Gallery Backstage featuring Po Girl.
(This article originally appeared in FolkWorks)