I got hired as a bartender at The Fillmore in October 2011, and worked there for two years until 2013. Anyone who is a fan of music would surely have heard of The Fillmore. Concert Promoter Bill Graham made the venue famous for booking acts like The Doors, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix and Alice Cooper way back in the sixties, at both The Fillmore East in New York and The Fillmore West (now simply called The Fillmore Auditorium) in San Francisco, and its tradition continues to this day.
It’s difficult to get hired at sought after venues like this unless you have a great reputation, you know someone, and the timing is in your favor. In bartending, especially in a city like San Francisco, nepotism runs rampant. I had already been bartending at another well-known busy bar and nightclub for many years at the time, and I knew a guy who had worked as head of the stage crew at The Fillmore for many years. He happened to put a word in for me, and that’s how I was hired. When I went to meet the boss, he simply said, “If you can handle the (other place I worked), then you can handle this.” It wasn’t really an interview. I filled out paperwork and when the background check came through, I was hired.
My first night was a sold-out Stevie Nicks concert, where I only had 15 minutes of training. The manager said, “This is what we have, this is the stock room, this is how you measure the liquor at the beginning and end of the night, these are the prices, this is the cash register, these are the credit card machines, now go…” It was a lot to absorb in a very short time, but he had me work next to a nice bartender who was willing to help if I had a question. After all, I hadn’t used a credit card machine in over five years. In the first 15 minutes, the other bartender said to me, “You look like you’ve been working here your whole life.” That was high praise for sure.
The best part about the experience being employed there for me, was feeling the energy of all the people who had come in and out of that building for decades. My favorite time to be there was right after we set up the bar and had about a half-hour before doors opened to customers. I could feel the ghosts of so many famous people and great gigs that had happened there. Sitting in this vast empty venue is not an experience many people get to have. That was a privilege and an honor. Unfortunately, I soon learned that corporate bullshit and “office politics” overshadowed the cache that being a part of the staff embodied.
People used to say to me how great they thought it must be to work there. In theory, they were right. It is cool to hear a band you like at work, but when you are taking orders, serving customers and counting money, you can’t experience the show. It ends up just being background noise, unless there happens to be a lull in customer demand and you get to watch a portion of the show. There are so many amazing cool shows that happen there, but in the two years I worked there, I was not allowed to see even one show on a night off for free. One corporation owned the bar, and a separate corporate entity owned the concert-booking portion. If an employee wanted to see a show, we had to request it a few weeks in advance by filling out a form in the office, and the few times I did this, I received calls saying, “Sorry, that is a ‘no comp’ show so you can’t get a ticket unless you purchase one.”
Another thing I can say that I really liked about working there was the customers. When a customer came to The Fillmore, they were happy to be there and excited to see a band they came to see. For the most part (with the exception of a few bad apples), the customers were friendly, happy, gracious, and a pleasure to serve. I really enjoyed their attitudes, and they were some of the best crowds I have ever served anywhere.
What I didn’t know when I was hired, was that the rest of the bartenders had all been there for six to 20+ years! I’m not kidding… I was the first new bartender hired in six years. The rest of the bartenders had all known each other for a long time, and did not have any idea that a new person was being brought in. It turns out that I had been hired to keep some of the too-comfortable, complacent bar staff on their toes, and stir things up. Some of them had been there for decades and worked for Bill Graham himself. Needless to say, collectively they seemed weary of me, they were cliquish and unwelcoming, with very few exceptions.
I went in enthusiastic, feeling very lucky for the opportunity and wanted to prove myself to be an asset. No matter how friendly my attitude was, for the most part, the staff made me feel like they were a big family that I would never be welcomed into. I knew this would be challenging, but I like a challenge and just went in every shift positive and friendly, with the intent that I would not let these people get me down. I didn’t really care if we made friends, but if we didn’t, it wouldn’t be because of my attitude. There is really no room for sensitivity in bartending. You have to have a thick skin, which I do have, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that these bar “office politics” did get to me at times.
I noticed a lot of things co-workers said and did that were rude, hurtful and unnecessary, but my direct superior bar manager was the absolute worst of all, frequently making me feel as though he was putting me through a fraternity or military hazing. He put me down, criticized or complained about my work, or made it seem like I wasn’t doing a good job or deserved to be there, which I knew was untrue. He said hurtful things like a mean boy in school who is pulling your pigtails to get your attention because he likes you. When I confided to my boyfriend and my therapist about some of the specific the things he said, they both thought he had a crush on me, even though he was married. I have no idea if that was the case, but after a year, I couldn’t stand his bullying anymore.
I used to tell my boss and coworkers at my other job about the things my bar manager at The Fillmore would say and do to me, and they always were surprised at how messed up and passive aggressive it was. At the time, I worked very hard to move past these upsetting incidents each time and try hard to forget about them, although I couldn’t help but go over them and get pissed off in my mind for a while before I was able to let them go. In retrospect, I probably should have written them all down and kept track. It’s just not my style to dwell on the details or report someone. I started to get pissed off that he wasn’t letting up, so once when he insulted me again, I said, “Do you think it would be possible for you to ever be nice to me?” And his response was, “I have to break you down in order to build you back up.” This was ridiculous, and exactly what was talking about when I said it felt like military hazing.
For over a year, I never said a bad word about him to anyone else there. I chose to never let him see me react. I did defend myself if he said things that were blatantly untrue, like implying I wasn’t on time, when I had never once been late. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and I spoke privately about his treatment of me to his superior who had hired me, giving him a few specific examples. At the time, I was glad I did, because our manager was shocked to hear I was dealing with this. He said to me, “You do a great job, you are one of our top sellers, and we are happy to have you here.” I immediately felt better.
That just confirmed to me that the bad treatment I was enduring was personal. I told our boss that I absolutely did not want him to take my bar manager aside and talk to him about this, but that I was only telling him what I’d been going through in case I was badmouthed or he tried to make me lose my job. I asked him to take anything this guy said about me with a “grain of salt” because I felt he had a personal problem with me for no reason. I assured him I would not let it affect my work, but if anything was said behind my back, I wanted the opportunity to defend my position. Our manager promised he would keep it between us and not talk to him, but it’s a “boys club,” and our manager soon broke that promise.
This proposed a further problem since my superior didn’t like me and then he knew I had talked to our boss about him. He was the person I had to turn my money into at the end of every shift. All of a sudden, I got a call that there was $300 missing from my bank. In my six years of bartending at various places, nothing like this had ever happened to my money or me. I swore to our boss that my money was all there when I turned it in and that I had counted it twice. Our boss said he absolutely believed me and that they would be looking into it and that I shouldn’t worry about it. I asked him if there was any alternative to my handing my money in to the guy who didn’t like me. He said he would think about it and let me know.
After the incident, they changed the policy temporarily about counting and turning in of money each night. Everyone was then required to count their bank in front of another person and both were to sign off on it. This added an extra 30 minutes of work for everyone, and people were irritated. That policy disappeared as fast as it appeared. I don’t think it lasted more than a week or two.
I will never know who took that money from my bank, or what happened to it. I can’t believe that a manager would sabotage a co-worker like this, so maybe he didn’t. I felt this was a slight black mark on my reputation, even though the boss said it wasn’t, and there was nothing I could do about it.
I left the Fillmore after two years, and it was honestly a relief. About a year after I left, a girl who used to work as the office manager showed up at the other bar where I worked, and I served her a drink. She no longer worked at The Fillmore, and she told me that she had been on Heroin the entire time she worked there. That was a shock to me. This girl worked in the office where all the banks were turned in at the end of the night. It is widely known that drug addicts have a reputation for stealing money. Maybe this girl actually removed $300 from my bank, not knowing or caring who it would affect, because anyone who was working in the corporate office of a giant music venue while operating on Heroin obviously had some issues and poor judgment. In fact, she didn’t seem to care how it made her look to tell me she had been using Heroin while working there.
I don’t really care what happened, because my bar manager made me so unhappy working with him, I was truly relieved when that stress was out of my life. He’s not actually the reason I quit working there though. On three or four separate occasions while working at The Fillmore (while I had two other bar jobs), our manager put me on the schedule and I showed up to work, (having walked a mile to get there), only to find out that there was a mistake and I was not working. When you work 3 jobs, and you clear a night to work at one and then you don’t work, they are causing you lose money you could be making working elsewhere, and they are also blatantly showing you that they don’t respect your time. Some other bartenders had spouses and children in addition to other jobs, and this blatant disregard to employee’s other time commitments is irresponsible. The scheduling manager didn’t have a cellphone or text, so he was also hard to reach, which is pretty unprofessional.
Then, another thing happened… I showed up to work and they scheduled me to work in the room of the venue that has a kitchen attached to the bar. I have no problem with that, but there was this extremely rank smell and I started to feel like I was going to be sick. We had not opened yet, and it was an hour before doors would open, so I went and talked to my boss (the one who had hired me, believed me about the money, and said I do a good job.) He had a reputation for being a hothead and difficult to talk to, but up until this point, he had always been pretty nice to me because I did my best to stay out of his way. I said, “I am really sorry to have to say this, but something in that kitchen is making me feel really queasy and ill, and I don’t think I can work in that room tonight. Is there any way you can move me to any of the other bars (of which there were 7 other spots)?”
I later found out what that vile smell was. It was something that I never should have had to encounter working at a music venue. It was lamb. I am told that lamb has a very “gamey” smell and is a harsh smell even to people who are meat eaters, which I am not. We did not serve lamb at the venue; therefore, there is no reason why I should have had to be exposed to it. The kitchen had prepared it as a meal for one of the bands before we opened, but being exposed to this was in no way part of my job at this bar and live music venue, so it was just something that happened by chance and was simply my bad luck.
When I asked to be moved, he said, “If you don’t want to work, you can leave.” I said calmly, “I do want to work, I am here, but that smell is making me sick, so I’m asking if you can move me to any other spot.” This was not an unreasonable request in my opinion. He said, “If you want to leave, you can leave.” I said, calmly again, “I don’t want to leave, I am here to work, but I cannot handle that smell.” He said, “You should just go.” This seemed to be going nowhere. I said, “I don’t want to leave. Are you sure you want me to leave?” And he said yes. I said, “Are you sure you don’t need me?” And he said, “You should go.”
I felt really weird about it and I didn’t want to leave, but I knew I couldn’t handle being trapped with that smell for six hours. In retrospect, I wish I would have stayed and worked after voicing my discomfort, and then just thrown up everywhere to prove my point. I planned to work and showed up on time and was told to leave, so it was one more time that I lost money on a Friday night, but this time was because my boss simply refused to acknowledge that something was making me sick. I’m not a prissy girl who can’t handle a lot of smells… in fact this is the only time it’s ever happened to me in my entire life. It smelled like a dumpster of trash with a dead body decaying. It was completely rancid, and I have no doubt in my mind that I easily could have thrown up while trying to work. I really wish I would have… although unprofessional, it would have been a great story and would have brought his unreasonable management skills to light.
I believe my decision to leave when he told me to was a nail in the coffin of my standing there. My boss no longer thought well of me, and he even started yelling at me out of nowhere the next time I saw him, to my surprise. I think he was under a lot of pressure because the bar was being sold, and his job was on the line. He wasn’t very organized or professional, so it made sense for him to worry. Our schedules were written in pencil and Xeroxed, and we had to pick them up in person. In the two years I worked there, he had not once managed to actually spell my name correctly on the schedule. As I mentioned, his lack of organization caused problems with scheduling the employees, and he was also hard to reach, having no cellphone.
He often complained in front of us employees about ‘corporate’ and clearly didn’t like change. When we all had to take a food handler’s certificate test as part of state law, he complained he didn’t want to do it and joked he wished he could pay someone to do it for him. I said that I had already taken it and it was easy and I could do it. He gave me his Social Security number, his credit card number and gave me $20 to take the test for him. This was our manager… way to lead with professionalism.
He also openly talked to employees about the fact that he smoked a lot of pot, which it would have been smarter to keep to himself. This was a pretty unprofessional “boss” even though this was the music business… it was a corporate job. A catering company then bought out the bar/restaurant and we were all told to come in on a day’s notice and re-interview for our jobs. I hadn’t been happy for two years and I had two other jobs where my employers and coworkers treated me well, so I just didn’t even care about The Fillmore anymore. I left when the change over happened, and I was happy it was over.
I ended up going to see three concerts shortly after. The first time, I had been at a happy hour at a hotel bar where my friend worked on a Monday evening, and I met two musicians who were sitting next to me at the bar, who played with the B52’s. They invited me to see the show and gave me backstage passes. I took a friend and ended up in the VIP area with the band. My former superior who I had all the problems with was working at that upstairs bar, which we used to call “ the penalty box” because no one liked working that bar. You couldn’t see the bands working upstairs and a lot of concert goers didn’t realize there was a bar up there, so the bar was very slow and you didn’t make good money.
He looked sweaty and miserable. I walked up to him and smiled and said hello, and asked if he would buy me a shot for “old times sake.” I thought this was funny. He looked beyond miserable and said, “I would if I weren’t’ working for…” and I forget the exact words he used, but it was something like “the corporate monster,” or “big brother.” Seeing how clearly unhappy he was after all he had put me through in the past made me not only happy I no longer worked there, but also happy that he seemed to have been put in his karmic place. It was kind of priceless. The guys in the band gave me free drinks from backstage anyway and then we all ended up going to a dive bar together after the gig.
When I still worked there, being the new kid, I worked in that “penalty box” many times. One such time, I know my jerky bar manager sent me there as a punishment, but he had no idea it was the one time in my life I was thrilled about it. One of my favorite bands for over two decades had been The Cult, and they played that night. I had asked to get a comp and of course wasn’t able to, so I asked to work the show. I had seen them many times and was happy to work it. When the show was over and I turned in my bank at the main bar, I was told that everyone could leave except me, and they wanted me to go upstairs (to the “penalty box”) and work the VIP bar.
I was thrilled at the chance, since this was one of my all time favorite bands. I got to serve the band and their friends, and a band member even gave me a signed poster, which was really special to me. This all happened on my deceased father’s birthday, which is a rough day for me in general, so I felt like the gods had given me a great gift. It’s my favorite thing that ever happened to me there, and my boss had put me there as “punishment!” I think this is also a testament to karma. I worked so hard to stay positive in a challenging situation, on a particularly hard day, and I was rewarded for it.
The other times I ended up as a concertgoer at The Fillmore again, I always went up to whichever bartenders I thought had been the nicest to me. They had implemented new computer “Point-of-Sale” systems, showing that the already stifling corporate environment had progressed one step further after I left, and employees were also dressed in more corporate uniform attire. They couldn’t even give an old co-worker a free drink because it was so “by the book.” Although they were nice and apologetic for it, they seemed unhappy and I felt sorry for them. I think a lot of the bartenders had been there so long that no matter what happened or how unhappy they were, they were going to hold on to their jobs for dear life and couldn’t fathom walking away no mater how bad it got, because of the length of time they’d been there. Maybe in this sense, being the largely unaccepted “new kid on the block” during my stint there was more a blessing than the curse it often felt like during that time.
After all, I was afforded the experience of working in those historic hallowed halls, and I was able to escape it and ended up in happier circumstances, without feeling I had missed out on something or lost an important opportunity. My time there taught me how to deal with some challenging situations that I undoubtedly grew stronger from, and I actually did end up making a few friends there who worked security. I still see many of the security staff at other venues and they treat me like I am a part of the club because I paid my dues. They had no idea what I went through on the other side of the bar with the bar staff and management, but at least something good came from what felt at the time like a bad work situation. As glad I am that it’s over, I’m also glad I had the experience.
I am selling the remaining Fillmore posters I have, so if you are interested, you can view them here.