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When Grateful Dead played at a Cincinnati teen center

By Steven Rosen, Cincinnati Enquirer contributor, June 13, 2016

“I know from Facebook, discussions and everything else, people can’t believe the Grateful Dead once played at the Hyde Park Teen Center,” says John Fox, who quickly assures them it was true.

He should know. He not only was there for one of the concerts the Dead played on Nov. 29 and 30, 1968, but, as a 16-year-old member of the center, even helped carry the band’s equipment into the building. Now a marketing consultant and a musician in an acoustic oldies duo called Stuck in the 60s, he gets reminded of that time often.

The Grateful Dead epitomized the change in American culture in the late 1960s with their San Francisco hippie values, support of LSD’s mind-expansion possibilities and belief in rock ‘n’ roll as a creative and experimental medium. No surprise, then, that their Hyde Park-Mt. Lookout Teen Center visit has taken on an almost fantastical mystique to Deadheads everywhere.

That’s partly because this teen center would be the last place you’d expect to see a band that at the time had an “underground” reputation. Hyde Park and Mt. Lookout were, and still are, the heart of establishment Cincinnati.

The short-lived Hyde Park-Mt. Lookout center was an old church at 2753 Erie Avenue. The converted sanctuary held about 200, those who were there say. The centerwas founded by area adult residents and churches. Once renovated, the building’s stage was the old altar area and the audience sat on the floor where they also stood and danced.

But the new center’s ambitious teen board wanted to get the city’s attention and, earlier in 1968, had booked commercially popular rockers, Vanilla Fudge.

The center’s director was Jim Tarbell, hired in 1967, just before the music aficionado and community organizer turned 25. He knew rock was changing fast and wanted to visit the epicenter of the music revolution.

While on vacation n August 1968he headed to San Francisco. “I did not hear the Grateful Dead in person,” he says. “But while I was there, I heard about (them). I thought this could be a big deal. I came back here with that thought in mind, found their manager, called him up and asked if the guys were coming this way anytime soon.”

Told they would be in Ohio in November, he booked them for $2,000. “That was a lot for the teen center,” he said.

The group members who played Cincinnati were Garcia, guitarist Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, drummers Hart and Kreutzmann, keyboardist Tom Constanten and keyboardist/singer Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. Sound supervisor Owsley Stanley also came along. A handbill listed the entry price as $2.50 for members and $3 for guests.

While memories today are understandably vague and even contradictory on details, the Enquirer’s Jim Knippenberg wrote a rave review, though without mentioning any songs the band played.

“The sound is everywhere – it fills every corner of the hall, but isn’t painfully deafening (as one might think in such cramped quarters). It vibrates every floorboard but is never oppressive,” Knippenberg wrote.

Four resourceful Cincinnati high school students, using the name Flavor Scope, provided a then-radical psychedelic light show to accompany the Dead and won as much praise as the band. (The four were the late Jamie Osher; Daniel Stevenson, now chair of the religious studies department at University of Kansas; Bill Westheimer, a well-regarded photographer, and Johnathan Crawford, who has a marketing/advertising firm in Wisconsin).

Stevenson, in an email, remembered: “The Friday show was a bit rough getting started. (It began with Pigpen doing “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”), but once they got rolling, the music was revelatory, at least to me – like some unstoppable train. The two Saturday night shows were fantastic.”

He remembers hearing material from the band’s then-new second album, “Anthem of the Sun,” as well as the song “Morning Dew.”

Things obviously changed quickly after the Dead’s appearance in Hyde Park. When the band returned to Cincinnati in April 1970, they played two nights at the University of Cincinnati Field House.

Things changed as well for the teen center. It closed in 1969. Tarbell started working then toward opening the fabled Ludlow Garage concert club in Clifton. When he did, Flavor Scope provided the light shows.

Tarbell originally saw the Garage as a more relevant version of the Hyde Park-Mt. Lookout Teen Center. “I thought a new scene was emerging and it wasn’t going to stop anytime soon,” he says.

“It was way too exciting. I also sensed things were a bit confusing then, people weren’t communicating as well with their parents and really needed a place where we could gather and compare notes. And it needed to be in an urban setting.”