ne afternoon in 1972, Nina Simone was getting ready to appear at Rainbow Sign, a Black cultural center that had recently opened in Berkeley. Situated at 2640 Grove St (today’s Martin Luther King Jr. Way), the venue had been set up by local concert promoter Mary Ann Pollar the year prior. After Simone and Pollar had finished eating lunch, they were on the way out of the building when they encountered two young girls in the hall, approximately 10 and 12 years old. They immediately caught Simone’s eye.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in school now?” Simone asked.
“Oh, I don’t have to go to school,” the older child said. “I’m going to be a singer like you.”
Simone immediately went into mentor mode. “Out of the next 100 people who walk in here, perhaps 90 can sing as well as I do,” Simone told the girl. “Do you really want to know how to become a singer?”
Simone took both girls aside and talked to them for 45 minutes about the importance of education, commitment and working hard towards their goals. Simone made clear that raw talent alone was not enough to make it in the world. It was a stunning — and probably life-changing — interaction for the girls, who had shown up just hoping to catch a glimpse of their hero. A couple of years later, Mary Ann Pollar relayed the story to local journalist Sandra Greenlow.
“In one way,” she said, “we probably scared those children half to death. In another though, [Simone] gave them a priceless lesson.”
For the six years it was open, Rainbow Sign was a hotspot for the kind of exchanges that Simone and those Berkeley children had that day. It was a venue that entertained audiences with some of the greatest Black artists of the time — Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Pharoah Sanders, Oscar Brown Jr. and Simone amongst them. Writers like Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Alex Haley, Alice Walker and Joyce Carol Thomas gave readings there. Historians like Samella Lewis and Mrs. W. E. B. DuBois gave talks. Legendary dancer Josephine Baker even appeared in the 200-seat hall.
At the time, Mary Ann tried to explain what made her intimate venue so appealing to such major artists. “It’s an energy,” she said. “It floats in the air. In other places people overhear the performers. In this room, they listen. I don’t know what explains it, but here it’s more than just someone standing on a stage.”
Rainbow Sign was much more than a music hall too. It hosted weddings, tea parties, art shows and children’s events. It was the venue at which Shirley Chisholm announced her presidential run. It was a restaurant that served up Mary Ann’s spectacular cooking — smothered steak, fried chicken and dessert pies were all raved-about favorites. The banquet hall hosted the League of Women voters, the NAACP and the Urban League. Rainbow Sign was a place where employees recently released from San Quentin could rub shoulders with Berkeley’s first Black mayor, Warren Widener. Rainbow Sign also served as a movie theater, a venue for film and writing workshops and a floor for dance classes.
Mary Ann’s daughter Odette Pollar tells KQED Arts today: “I remember the feeling of Rainbow Sign. It was like walking into somebody’s home. It was very friendly and warm and welcoming. It was a big place but it was always bustling — always something going on. It was fun. Everybody was very accessible.”
hen people remember Mary Ann now, it is most frequently through the lens of what she did with Rainbow Sign, which, sadly, closed in 1977 because of financial woes. But Mary Ann was a pillar of the Bay Area community from the time she moved here in 1951.
Mary Ann was interested in workers’ rights from a young age. After graduating from Chicago’s Roosevelt University with a degree in labor education, she shared her unionizing knowhow while working with the National Urban League — a nonprofit that, to this day, works towards economic empowerment, education and civil rights for underserved communities. In the late ’60s, she volunteered with the United Nations Day Committee, even helping to organize a U.N. birthday party in Oakland in 1968.
“I am a U.N. fan,” she noted at the time. “The whole idea of everybody putting in his two cents’ worth has a lot of meaning for me.”
After Rainbow Sign’s closure, Mary Ann went back to this kind of work while employed by AC Transit. For the two decades she worked there, she took part in multiple campaigns to benefit her fellow workers. She encouraged employees to buy savings bonds — a safe and reliable means to invest — and she organized a local union.
It was music, however, that first turned Mary Ann into a public figure. In the 1950s, after booking a show for their friend Odetta — a beloved folk and blues musician — Mary Ann and her husband Henry decided to become concert promoters. Under the moniker “Mary Ann Pollar Presents,” the pair booked the likes of Simon and Garfunkel, Taj Mahal, Joan Baez, Frank Zappa, Nancy Wilson, Buffy St. Marie, Nana Mouskouri, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Peter Paul and Mary and, of course, Nina Simone. They were also responsible for booking Bob Dylan’s very first Bay Area concert in 1964.
As concert promoters, the Pollars were involved in every single aspect of getting live music to the Bay. It was their job to find appropriate stages when there were very few dedicated live music venues. In the evenings, the couple and a pre-teen Odette would sit around their dining table stuffing envelopes with upcoming concert listings and sending them out to their mailing list. (“I loved it!” Odette says, reminiscing.)
The couple handled advertising, ticket printing and distribution, running the box office and even picking up and driving around the artists. After concerts were over, both musicians and audience members would usually resume the party in the Pollars’ living room on Shattuck Avenue. On at least one occasion, singer-songwriter Bob Neuwith acted as the designated door guy for the Berkeley home.
Because of the dedicated way the couple ran their business, and because they exercised good judgment in their booking, artists grew to trust the name Pollar, and Mary Ann became known well beyond Bay Area music scene.
“A lot of people came because they trusted my mom,” Odette says now. “So if there was a new performer and people got a flyer from my mom, people would go, ‘Let’s go. Let’s try it.’ That was very common. In the ’50s and ’60s, this was a small community. Not that many people knew folk music. Everyone was just starting out. Bob Dylan was just starting out!”
Though she is often remembered for her love of folk music, Odette mentions that her mom had very eclectic musical tastes — something Mary Ann had been careful to note in her own life.
“I’ve never been able to understand why I like folk music so much,” she once said. “I come from a family of Baptist preachers down in Texas on the border of Mexico, so of course I love gospel music. I dig flamenco too. I never had any musical background. I am a listener — really a listener.”
oday, looking back, Odette speculates that her mother’s childhood may have been the reason Mary Ann carried herself with such confidence and fortitude. Mary Ann grew up in Mission, Texas — a town so close to the border she grew up speaking fluent Spanish. Mary Ann’s mother, conscious that her daughter would get a better formal education elsewhere, sent Mary Ann to Chicago at the age of 12 to live with relatives. Getting thrown into big city living without her mom by her side proved to be an education for Mary Ann in more ways than one. Mary Ann and her parents would never live in the same place again. Odette’s maternal grandparents died before she could ever meet them.
Mary Ann’s dedication to the Bay Area was not wasted. Even after her death in 1999, her good example and the effects the spaces she created had on others, continue to endure.
“Whenever we showed up at the Rainbow Sign, we were greeted with big smiles and warm hugs,” Kamala Harris wrote in her 2019 autobiography, The Truths We Hold. “Kids like me who spent time at Rainbow Sign were exposed to dozens of extraordinary men and women who showed us what we could become.”
“They were risk-takers but not crazy,” Odette says of her parents now. “My dad would say ‘Go to college, get a degree, have fun, do anything you want, but also make sure you have a practical skill to fall back on.’ What I got from my mom,” Odette continues, “is the idea that you could create something from nothing.”
Mary Ann Pollar did that over and over and over again.