By Bill Van Niekerken
The Winterland stage stands packed in anticipation of the guests joining The Band on stage for their final road performance, a classic concert, the Last Waltz, in San Francisco on Nov. 25, 1976.
For decades, The Chronicle’s photos from “The Last Waltz,” one of San Francisco’s greatest rock music events, were lost, thought never to be seen again.
The concert at Winterland in 1976 was to be the final concert that The Band performed on the road, and filmmaker Martin Scorsese was on hand to shoot it and produce a feature-length movie.
The evening started with a Thanksgiving dinner for the 5,000 concertgoers, with the diners entertained by Berkeley Promenade Orchestra, a 40-piece string group. Bill Graham borrowed set decorations from San Francisco Opera’s production of “La Traviata,” and he added chandeliers and a fountain in the lobby. After dinner, The Band took the stage, and as the night went on the musicians were joined by several famous friends: Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Ronnie Wood and Ringo Starr.
It was a San Francisco concert filled with rock royalty in a starry setting, but the images disappeared among the dust of The Chronicle’s vast archive.
Then, 40 years later, fortune smiled on fans on The Band.
Chronicle pop culture critic Peter Hartlaub and I had searched extensively for the photos and negatives but had come up empty-handed. Last week, our luck changed. We were searching through shots of a 1980 Bread and Roses show featuring Joni Mitchell playing guitar with B.B. King. Looking at the negatives as I scanned them, it became clear it was a different show.
The first few negatives showed an indoor venue with ornate decorations. It didn’t look dilapidated enough for Winterland, but by the 10th negative I was looking at couples dancing, maybe waltzing, and I started to get excited.
I kept scanning, and there they were: dozens of shots of the concert, taken by ace Chronicle photographer Gary Fong, showing The Band, the guest rockers and the final jam with all of the musicians on stage.
After 30 years digging through The Chronicle’s archive as a big rock ’n’ roll fan, this might be my favorite find.
Bill Van Niekerken is the library director of The San Francisco Chronicle, where he has worked since 1985. In his weekly column, From the Archive, he explores the depths of The Chronicle’s vast photography archive in search of interesting historical tales related to the city by the bay.