The famous Family Dog psychedelic concert poster from the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco on Sept. 16 & 17, 1966, with the Oxford Circle as opening act. Graded a stunning 9.8 by CGC (Certified Guaranty Company) and includes an accompanying letter by poster artist Stanley Mouse (see pictures).
For poster collectors, rock-music fans, pop culture historians, art lovers and just the curious with a good sense of taste, this poster checks every box. The Grateful Dead. San Francisco. The mid-60’s. Unforgettable artwork. Legendary graphic artists. Charisma. Colors. Rarity. In the best gem-mint condition that exists today. What more could one possibly ask for?
A breathtakingly near-perfect 9.8 grading makes this already hard-to-find first printing the psychedelic poster of the year. And maybe any year.
Second printings and reproductions abound, but this is the only printing of this poster done in the summer of 1966 for the sole purpose of exciting patrons enough to buy tickets and attend one of the two shows. It’s almost a surreal thought to us now, but that’s the whole reason this thing exists… it was strictly an advertising piece. Any printing run done after this was for the purpose of making money off the beautiful artwork. But this specimen was printed solely to herd as many people as possible into Chet Helms’ second-story Avalon Ballroom at Sutter & Van Ness streets. A year before the summer of love in San Francisco, when things were still pretty innocent.
The story behind Stanley Mouse & Alton Kelley’s artwork is well-known in the psych poster world. But to the uninitiated, Mouse & Kelley would often search the shelves of the San Francisco Public Library to get images & ideas they could then build their posters around, with seemingly nothing off-limits. Earlier that summer, they had famously appropriated the image from Zig-Zag wrapping papers to create a popular Family Dog concert poster for Big Brother & the Holding Company. What could they come up with next?
They struck gold by discovering a small black & white drawing by British book illustrator E.J. Sullivan. His book The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, first published in 1913, contained several images of skeletons. This particular one, of a skeleton picking roses and assembling a wreath of the flowers as well as wearing one on his head, really jumped off the page at them. How could it not? What a perfect image for a band called the Grateful Dead!
Their sublime psychedelic lettering and gorgeous red & blue coloring sealed the deal, creating a four-color masterpiece that looks better with each passing decade. (Questioning that? Let’s not discount the other two basic colors: black, used for the Grateful Dead’s name; and white, used for the skeleton, Family Dog logo and “Avalon.” Just as important as the other colors!)
Also for the uninitiated, “FD-26” means that it was the 26th poster in the series of San Francisco concerts hosted by Family Dog concert promoter Chet Helms, which began in February 1966. The poster is also known alternatively as “skeleton & roses” and “skull & roses”; the terms are interchangeable. And the condition will never drop below 9.8 as long as it remains in the classy plastic protective holder placed there by CGC when it was certified and graded.
So why aren’t there more first printings of this poster around? The main reason is that print runs were still relatively low in the summer of 1966, with the whole process having just been birthed a few months earlier. The first Family Dog and Bill Graham posters had appeared only in February, so there was no momentum yet behind saving & collecting these things. They were still being created purely as marketing tools to fill the ballrooms, so surely the promoters felt… “don’t print any more than you needed.”
Another factor is that people weren’t quite habitually saving these things yet in any organized fashion. But in the case of this poster, it was so popular that people all over the Bay Area would proudly tack them up on their walls, exposing them to daylight, pinholes and all measure of wear & tear. In fact, sometimes hippies would move from pad to pad, taking this eye candy along with them each time. So most of the first printings found of this poster are in used – even if lovingly – condition. To find one that was seemingly slipped into a protective folder right off the printing press and not touched again for decades can almost be called a “hobby miracle.” When it did happen, it was by accident. Certainly nobody could anticipate that these would be held up as museum pieces half a century later. And the word “investment” was as foreign to the Bay Area counterculture as the New York Philharmonic playing the Avalon would have been.
And finally, collectors today who have an “FD-26 first” simply hang onto them. Sell something else, trade away another favorite, even tap the savings account… just don’t get rid of this beauty.
It took until July 2018 for Heritage to finally offer a first printing of this poster, and we sold it for $37,500, and that one wasn’t even graded. If it had been, it wouldn’t have been anything close to a 9.8; it had actually been dry-mounted at one time. On the other hand, a 9.8 graded specimen of this poster sold at auction earlier this year for $55,000.
So yes, this remarkable FD-26 specimen has the telltale “band-aid” dark blue rectangle to the left of the skeleton’s crown, as only first printings do. The first reaction when one sees our Skeleton & Roses in person, and the richness of its colors and crisp, bright white edges and corners, is, “Are you sure????” It’s an understandable reaction.
But yes, we’re sure, and we’re also sure that the lucky winning bidder will have trophy for their walls that might likely be handed down in their family for generations to come, as the best piece of 20th-century psychedelic art that was ever created, in the best condition known to man.
Oh, and the music behind it was pretty good, too.
Poster measures 14 1/8″ x 19 7/8″ and is graded 9.8 by CGC (Certified Guaranty Company).
COAs from Stanley Mouse and Heritage Auctions.
Literature: See Grushkin, Paul, The Art of Rock: Posters from Presley to Punk, Abbeville Press, New York, 1987, p.97 (illus.).