The Tower Theater in Upper Darby, PA (on the western border of Philadelphia) was a year-round movie house for decades, and going back even further, presented vaudeville acts after opening in the late Twenties. Seating three thousand, and with remarkable acoustics, it became a rock palace in the early Seventies, and is situated two blocks from the Upper Darby Municipal Building.
That’s where I come in. I carry a badge.
Okay, Dragnet fans, it isn’t a badge per se; it’s an Upper Darby Health Department inspector’s ID card. And I no longer carry it. But I was a member of the Department on January 28, 1977, when the following took place. No names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Certain higher-ups in the Township hierarchy were not keen on the Tower as a concert venue, for all the usual reasons. I, on the other hand, considered it the greatest thing to ever happen in the history of my hometown.
Wow, major acts in a relatively intimate setting–versus the mammoth downtown hockey arenas that were standard in that era–performed ten minutes from my home! I was a “walking encyclopedia” of rock at the time and absolutely CERTAIN I was going to be a rock star myself in the near future. How cool would it be to receive a standing ovation for a blistering drum solo on the very same stage upon which I graduated high school a few years earlier?!?
As much as a few local bigwigs frowned upon the Tower, the remainder of the health inspectors dreaded the site considerably more. A proper inspection meant not only eyeballing the concession stand, but also looking over every row in a building with a steep double-balcony as well as large subterranean lounges. My coworkers averaged about 35 years older than your narrator, so scaling Mount Tower for an hour was no treat for aging legs at the end of a shift. (One could only gain access to the Theater on late afternoons on concert dates, as it was locked up and unattended all other times.)
My elders saw the dreaded Tower inspection as one huge pain in the ass. I, being too young to legally buy a beer in the burg, and an adamant supporter of having concerts in my backyard, saw it as an opportunity.
I could serve as an unofficial liaison between the local administration squares and the powerful Electric Factory (who owned and operated the Tower) and perhaps get a chance to schmooze with Genuine Rock Stars. As you may have guessed, the remaining inspectors were to a one overjoyed when “the kid” of the Department magnanimously volunteered to be permanent Tower inspector year-round.
[FYI, to avoid any allegations of corruption, inspectors were assigned different areas of the township on a rotation that changed every three months, meaning each would eventually be assigned to the district including the landmark theater. Thus, the unanimous approval.]
I thoroughly enjoyed the Tower inspections, with occasional bonuses such as hearing Mott The Hoople playing a brief soundcheck, and signing autographs for hysterical Bay City Rollers fans who insisted I must be “somebody” because, after all, I was carrying a clipboard and just walked out the door of a building containing the Rollers’ equipment(!)
Nothing, however, topped the time I was the sole member of the “audience” for a Kinks performance.
There I was, flashlight in hand, in the otherwise-dark second mezzanine, dutifully ensuring the building had been cleaned thoroughly since the last concert. While I was protecting the public from the hazards of empty soda cups and lost lighters, The Kinks came onstage and plugged in; and as a long-term fan of the band, I was delighted over the prospect of hearing two or three tunes.
After the first song, I heard a familiar voice half-joking about whether there were ghosts in the balcony, the speaker having seen a ball of light floating around in the upper deck…which, of course, was me and my trusty flashlight making the rounds.
Pointing the light at myself, I waved a friendly “hello.” I don’t recall specifically what was said next, but it was delivered with what Yanks might call “that extremely polite method mastered solely by Englishmen.” Translated into Philadelphian, the message was “Yo, pal, your light is really gettin’ on my nerves.” With that, the man at the mic asked if I wouldn’t mind just having a seat while they continued.
I willingly complied, for three reasons. First, it was Ray Davies; secondly, I’m a wonderful human being; and, thirdly, IT WAS RAY FREAKING DAVIES.
Holy frijoles, a bona fide legend was asking me to do him a favor…and that “favor” involved being the only person in the audience as The Kinks performed live. Didn’t exactly need my arm twisted by roadies.
What could possibly be better than hearing another song or two from a band I greatly admired?
Well, I would eventually learn the Tower show that night was the first on their U.S. tour, and in order to be sure all the equipment made it overseas in working order and to familiarize themselves with the P.A. they had rented, Davies decided they should perform the entire set.
By the time I got out of there, it was dark, the Health Department office had been closed over an hour and I’d missed dinner. But who cared? I was far too excited to have an appetite anyway. Besides, I had to phone every Kinks fan I knew, to ask them to “guess what I did today.”
(And, hey, if you want to get technical about it, I actually got paid to listen to a Kinks concert as an audience of one. Not a bad day at the office.)