Fran Belkin Captures Cleveland's Rock 'n' Roll Legacy in Her New Book, 'Rock This Town!'

click to enlarge Phil Collins celebrates his birthday with Fran Belkin. - Courtesy of Fran Belkin
Courtesy of Fran Belkin
Phil Collins celebrates his birthday with Fran Belkin.
As music fans, we all have our stories of the incredible adventures that we had at concerts while seeing our favorite bands and artists play live. These days, with the ability to get a pair of concert tickets with a couple of clicks, it’s easy to take for granted what an experience it used to be just getting those tickets. You weren’t competing with computerized bots —instead, you were congregating with fellow music fans and waiting in line to buy your tickets, while swapping tales about the last time that you saw that artist and the things that went down.

Backstage, a whole different set of memories were being created and so many colorful stories that haven’t been told until now. For all of those who worked at Belkin Productions or ever bought a ticket to one of their shows, it was a magical time, and Fran Belkin captures that in vivid detail in the pages of her new book, Rock This Town!, which went on sale this week. She spent three years working on the project, interviewing former Belkin co-workers and associates along the way. As she writes in the intro, “Thanks to great timing, good luck and the birth of rock music, Belkin Productions and Cleveland became a powerhouse in the national music scene for the next 35 years.”

What began as a “lark” to book and promote the occasional concert in Cleveland, as Belkin reflects, became an astonishing adventure for Jules Belkin and his brother Mike, who founded the company in 1966. Fran got involved in the business early on, and they eventually began to make swag (“shit we all get”) for the bands and personnel who were coming through town.

Decades later, these T-shirts and related items would become important artifacts for Belkin. Tucked away in the attic, Belkin says, “I realized those shirts illustrated the incredible journey of our family business. They are the spine of the story I wanted to share with our grandchildren, who were all under age 7 when the company was sold.”

Inside the pages of Rock This Town! are colorful adventures with the Who, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, KISS, Bruce Springsteen and many others, plus a detailed chronicle of historic Cleveland concert events. Among them, the World Series of Rock, a series of all-day concerts that to this day, are etched into the memories of those who were lucky enough to attend. Chances are good that you’ll find many shows that you were in attendance for, with stories anchored by amazing memorabilia that you’ve never seen.

We got together with Fran and Jules to talk about the new book, which will be celebrated with a series of signing events (beginning with an invite-only book launch on Monday and an appearance at the Rock Hall on Thursday, Nov. 1), to hear some of their memories from over the years.

It’s such a cool thing, essentially telling the story of Belkin Productions using T-shirts and other swag as the angle for the narrative. I was impressed at how you were able to tell that story in such a concise fashion. This book could have easily been double the size, I would think.

It could have. I had interviewed a lot of people too, so it was a lot of other people’s stories. But the problem was that the people couldn’t remember, because it was so compacted then. We were doing two or three shows a night and somebody was everywhere.

What other sort of challenges were there, working on this project? One thing I wondered was if there were any items that were produced over the years that you were unable to locate but that you would have wanted to include.

I think that between Barry [Gabel] and I and Stacey [Harper], who gave me a sweater, I think we had almost everything that we wanted. There was nothing that I recall that I didn’t have. It’s a pretty comprehensive collection. Originally, I was just going to give the shirts out to my grandchildren and a friend said to me, “You’ve got to photograph them. You can’t do that! That was sort of the genesis of what happened.

What are some things that you guys wanted to produce that didn’t make it out of the idea stage for one reason or another?

Well, you know we did shirts, we did tank tops, we did shorts, we did bags, we did bathrobes. We did sweatpants.

Fran: I can’t think of anything really…..

Jules: ….that we would have done…

Fran: ...or something that we made for a band that didn’t happen.

Chris Hixson worked on this book with you and helped to pull it together from a design standpoint. How was he helpful in taking the vision that you had for this project and really shaping it into the book that we’re now holding.

Chris is extremely talented, and first of all, I had the stories, and I had the shirts, but when he would design a spread, we would move it around until it felt right to both of us. You know, we both had to love it. And then we took a look at the book and it was so plain. So I said, “Chris, you have to do something to give it more of a rock and roll feeling, especially in the beginning.” He added those drawings and it just perked up the book. If you notice, the [ad] for the Akron Rubber Bowl, it’s actually white. I said, “Chris, it doesn’t pop.” So he turned it into blue and then it popped. There are also some drawings from a girl who is a teacher at the Cleveland Institute of Art and she made those drawings for me. Her parents grew up on Belkin concerts and she was so excited to make these drawings. The drawing of the trailer [from the World Series of Rock era], I mean, we had nothing from that time and she brought it to life. And actually, it’s a funny story. We were in L.A., and we were visiting my son-in-law’s daughter at a movie studio and they had one of these old trailers. And I hadn’t seen one of those since the ‘70s, so I took a picture and then Amber [Kempthorn] copied it and made it look like the picture of Steven Tyler. She kind of took off of that picture. Those RVs were hilarious. But it was all we had, and it was so brilliant of Jules to come up with that idea because we didn’t know where we were going to put those people! One of the things that makes this book great is how you incorporated the memories and stories of various Belkin employees and band members from across the years.

Were there any stories that came to the surface that were things you had forgotten about — or weren’t aware of, from back in the day?

Fran: There were a lot of stories I hadn’t heard, actually. Because I was the boss’s wife and a lot of things, I didn’t see and hear. I was close with everybody and I was the kind of person that when Stacey said, “Clean the bathrooms in the RV,” I did. I didn’t argue. So they knew that I was one of them, but that being said, I was not really one of them, because I was going home with Jules, and I would always say to them, "I’m never repeating anything,” but you know, there was always a little bit of a difference, I think, when I was around.

How early did you find yourself involved in the business?

Well, very early. My daughter had just started first grade and she could stay at school for lunch if I worked. So on Fridays, I would go down and his secretary wanted to go on vacation and she typed the paychecks. She called me and she said, “Fran, we don’t want everybody seeing all of the paychecks, so would you mind? You just type them and hand them out when I go on vacation.” So then she said, “Well, you should come every Friday and type because I’m too busy." That was sort of my segue. When we started doing the really big concerts, I started to help out backstage.

There’s a lot of important Cleveland rock history that’s documented in the pages of this book, including the World Series of Rock shows. It’s really something looking at the lineups of those shows now. The thing that always sticks out is that it seems like there would have been a lot of egos to manage with some of those concert bills. What are some of the complicated things you recall having to navigate and negotiate?

That’s a Jules question!

Jules: They were complicated. You know, when you’re dealing with four or five bands, first of all, even before you did the show, you had to try to make sure that all of the egos were satisfied, relative to where they were in the lineup. Were you going to be first, second, third, fourth or fifth? It took negotiating with their agent and then sometimes, it was so important their management would come to us and say, “You know what, I think that I’m better than X, and I should be fourth, and he should be third." Because number one was really the low man on the totem pole, and number five was the headliner. So you played that game. After a while, these big shows became popular around the country. We were one of the first along with Bill Graham, who was doing Day on the Green, that really had these big all-day shows with four or five different artists. So between what Bill was doing and what we were doing, the agents started sorting out all of these egos. When they finally came to us, everything was fine, and it was set. Everybody had a rider, and we’d get that, and most of their basic requirements were covered in the rider, and our production people did what they were supposed to do, and the riders were nuts. I mean, getting out of the World Series thing, one of the craziest riders that we had was when we did Barbra Streisand up in Detroit. She was doing a minimal amount of shows, and we got a 100-page rider. I mean, it was [specific right down to] what kind of utensils we had to use and what kind of plates we had to use backstage.

Fran: How about the carpeting!!

Jules: Right, we had to carpet the entire floor of the arena, all of the hallways going back to her dressing room and her dressing room. We had to build a wall between the bathroom facility and the rest of the room, so that if she went in there, nobody else was seeing who was going into the room. Really, it was because she was such a huge star and hadn’t toured that much, so it was supposedly a privilege to be able to do her concert. So there were no monetary arrangements made prior. It was kind of up in the air. You know, you guys do it, here’s what you have to do, don’t worry about things. And of course, it was an honor for us, we were partners with guys in Detroit, and it’s kind of an honor for us to be able to do a Streisand show.

Fran: So I could get free tickets.

Jules: The night of the show, we wanted to do something for Barbra on a personal level, the other promoter and ourselves. I think we made a piece of glass that was etched with the concert and we thought it was really nice and somewhat expensive. She’s talking with somebody and we’re trying to get her attention. She’s talking and talking and finally we get her attention and go over and we introduce ourselves, “We wanted to thank you.” She took the thing and put it on a table and walked away.

Fran: She never even said thank you.

Jules: And then, finally came the end of the evening where we had to talk about monetary arrangements and her manager, I’m not going to name the amount, but it was insignificant for what we had to do. But then again, that was part of the business. There was a lot of, you butter my bread and I’ll butter your bread, but you get it done.

You guys didn’t get to see a lot of the action out front because you were working, but what are some of your favorite memories from backstage?

Well, I didn’t tell the story about Bruce Springsteen’s wife. I love that story, but it didn’t make the book. When he first came, he would talk to everybody and it was fun to have him around. By the time he was at the Stadium, that was it, he was circled with security and you never saw him again. But Julianne Phillips, his wife [at the time], we were all in the catering tent and she came out to get food. She came into the tent and it was like a beam of light. She had this blondish hair and she was wearing all white, which we all dressed in dark-ish clothes, because you were working. She just walked in, and the whole tent lit up and everybody stopped talking and she waited in line, got her food and went back to the trailer. That was one of my [favorite moments]. I’ll never forget that. She was so beautiful.

In the book, there’s the story about the blizzard of '78 that really kicks into gear while folks are attending the KISS concert that night at Richfield Coliseum. Many of the fans end up sleeping at the venue that night as a result. How often was weather a factor when it came to shows you had booked at the Coliseum? Was it any worse than what you dealt with weather-wise with other shows and other venues?

No, you know, I can think of so many [situations], especially outdoors. It was just a constant…

Fran: Jules had a stiff neck…

Jules: ...looking up at the sky all day long, no matter what your forecast was, there was always that fear of rain because heavy rains could wipe out a show. Roofs were not that sophisticated at the beginning of the business. We did a U2 show in October at the stadium.

Fran: When it was so cold.

Jules: I almost didn’t want to walk out of our trailer; it was so miserable. But we did the show. Weather was one of the worst parts of the business. But it got to be such a big part of the business that you had to take that chance. We had a sold-out show, the Eagles, in Buffalo. It was a Sunday night, and usually, if you had to make up a concert, bands would do it under those circumstances. But the Eagles were a little tough, and we were rained out that night. The only night they had left was the next night on their tour, so we had to play a Monday night. A lot of people didn’t show, we had a problem with refunds and that was horrible. You know, I think over the years, it probably wasn’t a matter of lots of rainouts; it was just the inconvenience of having that kind of thing during a show. You know, mics would get wet, and you’d have to start protecting speaker stands that you didn’t anticipate. Sometimes, you’d get rain that was really not in the weather forecast, so we didn’t bring that kind of equipment that we needed.

Jules, there’s a classic photo and a great story in the book about you posing in full makeup with the original members of KISS during their first reunion tour in the '90s. What do you remember about the experience of putting the KISS makeup on?

[Laughs] You know, that’s a good question.

Fran: I think you had a makeup artist.

Jules: I mean, I used to walk into the dressing rooms and see these guys putting this stuff on, night after night after night. And this stuff doesn’t go on easily. It’s a rather complicated process. So for them to sit for maybe an hour before each concert and get this stuff done, I just couldn’t understand that whole process. But that was their success!

Essentially, this is your life’s work, collected. What’s that feel like when you look through this now that it’s completed?

You know what? When we finished and sent this to the printer, I called Chris [Hixson] and said, “You know how I am; I’m always so critical.” And I said, “But this book is fabulous. This book could not be any better.” And that’s how I feel, truthfully. It’s everything we wanted and ten times more. I never dreamed that it would be that kind of a fabulous book. I thought it was just going to be T-shirts with stories. But it grew from the collaboration between the two of us into something really special. And also, the stories that people gave us. My daughter, as I said, she helped with rewriting it. My son, he is a real rock 'n' roller; twice he came in, and he went through the whole book, “Mom, this doesn’t work!” Or, “Mom, this quote is so great, make it bigger!” He pulled stuff out because he’s 55, so he lived through a lot of this. He also helped a lot.

Jules: We knew the day they were going to deliver the books to us, the finished product, here. [Fran] was like a little girl in a candy store, just waiting for this delivery. We got the cartons in and she couldn’t wait to open the carton. It was amazing.

Fran: The thing is, we saw it [before it was finished], but you can’t compare that to the quality. The book really, again, expresses our commitment to quality. It’s the best paper, it’s the best cover. I didn’t want a hardcover; I didn’t want a big book. I didn’t want a coffee table book. I wanted something that was low-key and something that was not braggy, in your face. I just wanted a small book that told our stories, but that was high quality. We had it printed in America, which was very important.

It seems like the people that you interviewed were folks who you had stayed in touch with across the years. But still, I think it must have been interesting and cool to reconnect with those folks in this way, revisiting what you had done together.

Fran: Almost everybody that I interviewed are people that we’re still close with.

Ultimately, when you look at this book, what does Belkin Productions mean for you at the end of the day, all of these years later, when you look at it collected in this book like this. What do you think the lasting legacy is that you guys leave?

I feel like that book is kind of a love letter to Cleveland and that time. It was such an unusual time. All of the stars were aligned. The radio station, the promoter, the music, I think that’s what I wanted to tell, was the story of this time. It’s not like that anymore, we don’t have 'MMS like we did. Things are different. Live Nation is a different type of company than we were. I think what I wanted to tell was the story of that time, how special it was in Cleveland. How special Cleveland was. Every band wanted to play Cleveland. I mean, Clevelanders don’t realize, when you leave this city, people go, “Cleveland, nothing’s going on there.” Every band wanted to play Cleveland. Every band wanted to be here. So that’s what I wanted to tell, was the story of how special that time was. And it was our story, but it’s also Cleveland’s story. And 'MMS’s story. And the Coliseum’s story. You know, it’s all of our stories.

Early in the book, there’s a vintage picture of you and I think there’s always an element where you can look at a picture like this and it’s like, “Man, that feels like it was yesterday.” So doing this book, do you think there are things that you took for granted that now you’re like, “Oh my God, I’m so glad I had those experiences?”

We took it all for granted. We were going to work. It was a big concert and you had a million things to think about. I mean, I had to do flowers, I had to do this, I had to do that. You didn’t think about how lucky you were until you look back and you think, “Holy shit, look at all of the things I did!” I mean, I’ve been literally living in the '60s, '70s and '80s [working on this book] with Chris the last couple of years. It’s hard to believe that we did all of this and we didn’t even have a sense of it. The other thing is, I never took a picture with anybody backstage! I only have pictures that other people took. We never said to a band, “Let’s take a picture.” We just weren’t like that, and I think back, and I think, “Oh, why didn’t I do that!”
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