Rain­bow Sign was her­ald of black cul­ture

San Francisco Chronicle - - BAYAREA - OTIS R. TAY­LOR JR.

It wasn’t the enor­mous raised fist, an in­deli­ble sym­bol of black power, that made me pause as I toured “Black Power,” the new ex­hibit at Oak­land Mu­seum of Cal­i­for­nia.

I shook my head when I saw the photo of a white man dressed in black­face at a party in Liver­more circa 1970. What caught my at­ten­tion was a black-and-white mem­ber­ship pam­phlet with a car­toon­ish owl on the cover. It was for Rain­bow Sign, some­thing I’d never heard of.

“It was like a gath­er­ing place that a lot of peo­ple don’t know about,” Lisa Sil­ber­stein, the ex­hibit’s ex­pe­ri­ence di­rec­tor, told me. “It was re­ally im­por­tant in the East Bay, specif­i­cally, and was a place that peo­ple came through and made a point to come speak.”

Un­der­neath Rain­bow Sign’s logo on the pam­phlet are th­ese lyrics: “God gave Noah the rain­bow sign; no more wa­ter, the fire next time.” I know “The Fire Next Time” is the ti­tle of a book by the black writer and ac­tivist James Bald­win, and the ti­tle was in­spired by the lyrics of “Mary Don’t You Weep,” a Ne­gro spir­i­tual.

I learned the lyrics were printed on the pam­phlet by a woman named Mary Ann Pol­lar, a Bay Area con­cert pro­moter who founded Rain­bow Sign with her hus­band, Henry Pol­lar, in 1971. Bald­win was a fre­quent guest. So were the writer Maya An­gelou and the singer Nina Si­mone.

I had to learn more. I

reached out to the Pol­lars’ daugh­ter, Odette Pol­lar. Four decades af­ter Rain­bow Sign closed in 1977, Pol­lar is think­ing about what to do with the archives she has in her base­ment.

She knows she has a trove of the Bay Area’s black his­tory that isn’t widely known.

“My mom prob­a­bly had a sense that this was im­por­tant,” Pol­lar told me this week.

Rain­bow Sign was a black cul­tural cen­ter in Berke­ley on Grove Street, now Martin Luther King Jr. Way. It was an art gallery. It was a sup­per club. It was a stage for lec­tures, poetry readings and in­ti­mate con­certs. The Pol­lars turned a run-down funeral home into a des­ti­na­tion for black artists and writ­ers who spoke and per­formed in front of di­verse au­di­ences. The build­ing is now used for an adult men­tal health ser­vices pro­gram.

The “Black Power” ex­hibit, a re­sponse to the mu­seum’s 2016 ex­hibit “All Power to the Peo­ple: Black Pan­thers at 50,” ex­plores the re­la­tion­ship of black ac­tivism in arts and cul­ture. It opened Feb. 8.

“The black arts move­ment served as sort of the spir­i­tual leg of the black lib­er­a­tion move­ment,” Eren­d­ina Del­gadillo, the mu­seum’s as­so­ciate cu­ra­tor of his­tory, said.

Tessa Ris­sacher, a UC Berke­ley un­der­grad­u­ate re­searcher, has spent two years study­ing Rain­bow Sign’s sig­nif­i­cance to the black arts move­ment.

“One of the things that Rain­bow Sign re­ally opens up is the way that so many other parts of the black com­mu­nity were very much in­volved in fig­ur­ing out what black art meant, what it meant to be cre­at­ing cul­ture at that point,” she said.

Ac­tivism in black art was en­trenched in self­de­ter­mi­na­tion and self­def­i­ni­tion.

Eu­gene Red­mond read poetry at Rain­bow Sign. Bobby Hutch­er­son and John Handy played jazz there. El­iz­a­beth Catlett, who cre­ated art de­pict­ing the black ex­pe­ri­ence, ex­hib­ited her work there. Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, and Josephine Baker, the en­ter­tainer and ac­tivist, made ap­pear­ances.

“Hav­ing per­form­ers and en­ter­tain­ers around was very nor­mal,” Pol­lar, an Oak­land na­tive, said.

Back then, Rain­bow Sign didn’t mean much to her be­cause she was young. Be­sides, run­ning a cul­tural cen­ter was sim­ply some­thing her par­ents did.

“Look­ing back now and un­der­stand­ing how fun­da­men­tal and how dif­fer­ent and new and un­usual, and in some ways un­heard of (it was) then, it’s hugely sig­nif­i­cant,” said Pol­lar, now 63 and re­tired from a ca­reer as a time man­age­ment and or­ga­ni­za­tion con­sul­tant.

Mary Ann Pol­lar was cre­at­ing cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ences long be­fore she opened Rain­bow Sign. She’s the kind of black trail­blazer his­tory of­ten over­looks. As a con­cert pro­moter, she booked folk mu­sic shows at the Berke­ley Com­mu­nity Theatre, San Fran­cisco’s Ma­sonic Au­di­to­rium and other venues. If Pete Seeger came to town, she found him an out­side venue to play.

“She was do­ing it, as far as I know, even be­fore Bill Gra­ham,” Pol­lar said, re­fer­ring to the con­cert pro­moter who has an au­di­to­rium named af­ter him in San Fran­cisco. “She taught him some of what he knew.”

She booked Peter, Paul and Mary, Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and Si­mon and Gar­funkel.

“She did the first Bob Dy­lan con­cert on the West Coast,” Pol­lar claims. “She turned him down twice, be­cause she’d never heard of him.”

Did Pol­lar go to the shows?

“I went to of them,” Pol­lar said. “I grew up around mu­sic and got to sit in the front row, be­cause I was a lit­tle kid. Front row on the end.”

The en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit rubbed off on Pol­lar. In 2007, she started the Plant Ex­change in front of her house as a way to meet her neigh­bors on Lakeshore Av­enue. About 75 peo­ple showed up. Twelve years later, the event that al­lows peo­ple to swap plants and gar­den­ing tools at­tracts more than 1,000 peo­ple.

“I tend to grow things,” she said. “My par­ents were very so­cial. I am so­cial.”

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