It’s a chilly Thursday night, right in the middle of the post–New Year’s slump, but the cozy performance space is filled to capacity. Musicians begin streaming onto the stage, which runs nearly the length of the oblong room, leaving a shallow but wide space for seating. No seat is more than eight feet from the stage. There’s a homey feeling in the room and, seeing people chatting together, you get the distinct feeling that a lot of people know each other.
“So I’ll bet you’ll be going to all the concerts here now,” a woman remarks to an acquaintance upon hearing of her friend’s retirement.
“I do anyway!” her friend responds.
Way up high on North Lake Avenue in Altadena, The Coffee Gallery Backstage is in an unlikely spot for a performance venue, but then the venue is an anomaly in many ways. There’s no marquee announcing performances, and if it weren’t for the flyers listing upcoming shows, you could hang out in the funky coffeehouse area for quite a while without even noticing the small auditorium hidden like a speakeasy in the rear of the building. Most nights, the Coffee Gallery Backstage comes alive with music, comedy or both, from tried-and-true performers and up-and-comers.
What stands out more than anything, though, is the extent to which the Coffee Gallery serves as a music community hub of its own. It’s a throwback to the halcyon days of the Greenwich Village folk club of the 1950s, when the venue itself was as much of an attraction as the headliner. The Coffee Gallery is like that; its “cruel overseer,” as owner Bob Stane jokingly calls himself, is a veteran curator with a following of his own. People trust him to book quality entertainment, and a booking there is endorsement enough to draw a crowd.
On this recent night, the stage is filled with a small army of folk-rock’s original royalty — emblematic of the kind of talent the venue features. Everyone has assembled for a tribute to the late songwriter P.F. Sloan, one of the most prolific songwriters of the ’60s, who penned songs in styles that ranged from the edgy, cool rock of “Secret Agent Man” to the bitter protest of “Eve of Destruction.” Present are Moby Grape guitarist Peter Lewis, former Byrds member John York, Textones founder Carla Olson and Spanky MacFarlane, former leader of the 1960s folk-rock group Spanky and Our Gang (“Sunday Will Never Be the Same”), all backed by a crack house band.
Folk music in all its permutations is The Coffee Gallery’s staple, along with a dose of classical. Its oeuvre encompasses Celtic music, Western, Hawaiian, flamenco and gypsy jazz, with an emphasis on acoustic instruments. Folk music, Stane says, has been a perennial over the years with cyclical fluctuations, but he does fret a bit about the graying of its audience. For that reason, he makes a point of booking young up-and-comers, scouting performers from the Berklee School of Music and taking newbies under his wing, such as the teenaged Licata Brothers of Arcadia, whose repertoire draws from early- to mid–20th-century music. They joined the cadre of grizzled luminaries celebrating P.F. Sloan, turning in a ripping performance of “Secret Agent Man,” which drew rousing applause from an audience that clearly roots for the home team.
Stane is one of those last-of-the-rugged-individualist types who’s been a fixture in the San Gabriel Valley for decades. He grew up in Boran, a California outpost on the western edge of the Mojave Desert, and his rather Kerouac-y youth included stints working as a surveyor for the Santa Fe Railroad and setting off dynamite in borax mines. If he’s not the hardest-working man in show biz, he’s definitely in the running. Stane helped put Pasadena’s The Ice House Comedy Club on the map when it was primarily a folk-rock club with some comedy, running the venue and booking acts like Linda Ronstadt and Seals and Croft from 1961 to 1979. He’d met club owner Willard Chilcott during an audition he’d arranged for a San Diego act he represented. “I had a reputation as an entertainment promoter who ran things in a businesslike way,” Stane recalls. “Willard said, ‘I don’t care much for your act, but I’ll give you anything you want to run The Ice House for me.’” Stane signed on as partner, and now he takes a certain amount of credit for helping launch the careers of Jay Leno and David Letterman, among others.
Stane realized early on that he was an inveterate night owl who loathed office work and made a firm decision “not to live anywhere I didn’t want to live or do anything I didn’t want to do.” It may have helped that coffeehouse culture runs in Stane’s blood, but his first business venture was The Upper Cellar, one of San Diego’s first coffeehouses. It was 1958, a point in time suspended between the remnants of beatnik culture and the advent of hippiedom. With a $500 loan from a friend, he opened The Upper Cellar in 1958 and turned it into a thriving den of folk music and gathering place for cultural and philosophical discussions.
Himself a humorist, Stane was the impetus for one of Pasadena’s quirkier landmarks, the Fork in the Road, an 18-foot-tall aluminum dinner fork stuck in the traffic median where St. John Avenue splits off of Pasadena Avenue. Stane drove past the median frequently and liked to joke that “the fork in the road needs a fork.” So for Stane’s birthday in 2009, his friend and business partner, Coffee Gallery co-owner Ken Marshall, organized a squad of guerrilla installationists who donned fake Caltrans uniforms and waved at police as they hoisted the giant utensil upright. The “installation” has since become a permanent part of the landscape.
After selling The Ice House in 1979 (to owners who turned it into a comedy club), Stane promoted shows and stage-managed the reunion of the classic folk group The Limeliters. In 1998, he partnered with Marshall, who’d opened The Coffee Gallery in 1978. “I asked him if he had a little closet somewhere in the building where I could put on shows,” Stane says. They renovated a storage room behind the lounge area, adding a mural of a coffee warehouse, a stage and 49 seats.
From the beginning, the performance space seemed to have a magic of its own. The combination of its intimacy, spatial dynamics and first-class sound system quickly made it a must-play room for performers on the folk circuit, such as former Nitty Gritty Dirt Band singer-songwriter John McEuen, a multi-instrumentalist (and Steve Martin’s banjo mentor) who visits annually, and éminence grise singer-songwriter Randy Sparks, founder of The New Christy Minstrels, who remains a perennial at the age of 82.
Still, the coffeehouse business is a tough one, Stane says, and it’s not easy to make a dollar by serving a beverage that has to be ground, pulled, steamed and frothed to order. He’s at it six nights a week if not seven, sitting at the door, running the sound, tweaking the lights. But in the end, it’s all about the magic, he says. “One night there was a guy peering in who looked very distressed,” Stane recalls. “I could tell he kind of wanted to come in but he wasn’t sure. So I said, ‘Come on in as my guest. Don’t worry about the ticket price.’ It was a great show that night and he came out beaming. He told me later that he’d been thinking about killing himself that night, and the show helped him turn the corner. That’s what music can do for people and it’s what keeps me going.”
The Coffee Gallery Backstage is located at 2029 N. Lake Ave., Altadena. Shows generally run from 8 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday; weekend days have two performances — from 3 to 5:30 p.m. and 7 to 9:30 p.m. — but the schedule varies so check the website or call. Cover charges usually range from $15 to $20. Call (626) 398-7917 or visit coffeegallery.com.