When the San Francisco Chronicle reported recently that the paper had located a huge set of long-lost photos from “The Last Waltz,” the intriguing question was just how it happened. Having dealt with a newspaper “morgue” (as they are called among news folk), it’s not surprising that things get lost. And Chronicle columnist Peter Hartlaub said that was the case here.
“The Chronicle archive is remarkably full as a whole. It hasn’t moved since the 1920s, and no one has messed with it,” Hartlaub said in an interview. “But there are a few blind spots – archive subjects that were thrown away or misplaced/stolen from. And music is the biggest one. Most of the negatives for the biggest historic SF concerts – Beatles, Grateful Dead, etc. – have been taken from the archive, probably many years ago. I had looked for a negative pack of the Chronicle’s ‘The Last Waltz’ photos, but wasn’t the least bit surprised the photos were apparently missing, and I never thought I would see them.”
A little background on the concert: “The Last Waltz” took place on Thanksgiving Day, 1976 at the now long-gone Winterland Arena in San Francisco. It was the final show for the Band’s lineup with Robbie Robertson. The evening was full of probably the best list of surprise guest performers ever. They included Ringo Starr, Neil Diamond, Ronnie Hawkins, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton (who brought his wife, Pattie Boyd), Dr. John, Sir Van Morrison and, of course, Bob Dylan. The photos found included vintage shots of many of them and the now razed Winterland, which was lavishly decorated for the occasion.
Hartlaub said the search for the photos had been going on for a decade. “I started going through the archive about 10 years ago, and I’m sure ‘The Last Waltz’ was one of my first searches. When we were writing about concerts for an archive project last year, I remember looking again just in case I had missed them,” he said. “It’s one of the most iconic rock concerts in San Francisco history, arguably second to the Beatles at Candlestick. But the Beatles put on a horrible show. ‘The Last Waltz’ was an all-time classic.”
He said the Chronicle’s Library Director Bill Van Niekerken, who had also been searching, alerted him the pictures had been found. “I was floored. He said they were misfiled in a random Bread & Roses concert – I’ve actually seen the pack of negatives he found ‘The Last Waltz’ in, but never looked closely at them. Things are occasionally misfiled in the Chronicle archive, but it’s very rare. This was a massive find of something that we thought had been lost forever. (I’d suspect divine intervention if I was a religious man.) It’s like one of those stories you hear, where someone finds a Picasso at a garage sale.
“I believe there are more than 50 (photos). Some of them are basically duplicates – photos that are very similar to each other – but they are remarkably clear. Concert photography in the 1970s was often very poor. These photos were extremely sharp and had a ton of detail, probably aided by the brighter lighting for Scorsese’s movie.”
Hartlaub says the pictures will be reprinted often in the future by the Chronicle. “We’ll add them to our digital archive, and I’m sure they’ll run frequently in future projects. When we put together books and magazines celebrating San Francisco history, these will be on the ‘A’ list. We have a roster of iconic San Francisco photos: Harvey Milk at the 1978 Pride parade. Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe getting married. The first 49ers Super Bowl parade. These ‘The Last Waltz’ photos are right up there with the best of them.” You can see some of the found photos here.