On a May morning in 1969, a Berkeley High School student left class and walked to Sproul Plaza to join a protest. Soon he was in the midst of tear gas and shotgun blasts as protesters clashed with police over People’s Park.
By no means was this the first demonstration Steve Wasserman had attended. His parents, now 92, involved their three children in political actions almost since birth. But it is perhaps the most dramatic example of a family whose activities over the last 60-odd years, along with those of so many others, personified Berkeley.
Ann and Al Wasserman were leaders in the Berkeley Citizens Action party, one of the earliest influences that steered the city politically leftward in the mid-1960s. Steve is now publisher of Berkeley nonprofit press Heyday; sister Sherry is the co-founder and president of Another Planet Entertainment. All four live in Berkeley, while sister Rena is a senior vice president for Nederlander Concerts living in South Pasadena.
The siblings accompanied their parents to countless demonstrations as children.
“Wherever we went, our children went,” Ann said in a March interview with her husband Al at the SenS Hotel on Shattuck Avenue.
“In 1965, we took part in the (civil rights) Selma protest with all three of our kids. We marched across the Golden Gate Bridge,” Ann said. Steve was 13, Rena was 10 and Sherry was 8.
Sipping coffee at the ground-floor bistro at the former French Hotel, Ann and Al looked back at their 59-year-and-counting sojourn in Berkeley.
“It was accidental,” Al said of the family’s relocation to Berkeley in 1963. At the time, Al was an engineer with Bechtel, and the company assigned him to a project that was to permanently change Berkeley and the Bay Area – the then-nascent Bay Area Rapid Transit system. A colleague recommended Berkeley for its weather, not its politics.
“In 1963, the politics were not all that progressive. It was a Republican town,” Al said. “Berkeley changed over the years; it all began almost that year.
“The free speech, antiwar and civil rights movements all began within a space of four or five years,” he said. Al became an attorney in 1968, leading to his eventual involvement as a progressive lawyer and president of the local ACLU chapter.
His wife, Ann Dragoon Wasserman, didn’t just influence the shape of politics in Berkeley, but the shapes of generations of women.
Before moving to Berkeley as a dancer, she studied with George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. She had a 52-year career as an exercise teacher in Berkeley and Albany. Starting in 1968, she led a series of popular exercise classes, teaching four or more classes a week and quitting only when forced to when the lockdown closed the venue where she taught for decades.
She was 91. After the building shut down, Ann decided it was time to retire.
The couple’s politics “are in our blood. It’s in our genes,” Ann said.
“I was 7 years old, riding on my father’s shoulders in May Day demonstrations,” said Al, a New York native. “We were red diaper babies before the term was invented.”
At least in Steve’s case, the liberal bent was encouraged by reading.
When he was 12, Steve wanted to read “On the Beach,” an antinuclear tome, Ann said. “The librarian told me, ‘We don’t allow children to check out adult books.’
“I told her, ‘I don’t ban any books.’ He checked it out and read it cover to cover.”
Three years later, in 1968, Steve and fellow student Ronnie Stevenson led a student walkout at Berkeley High School in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., leading to the founding of the school’s pioneering African American Studies Department.
After graduating from UC Berkeley in 1974, Steve left Berkeley in 1977. He later described the sensation of missing the city “like the amputee is said to miss the phantom limb.
He returned to Berkeley in 2016 to helm Heyday after holding an array of prestigious positions including editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review.
Heyday specializes in California history, the environment, indigenous peoples, and social justice. Not surprisingly, under Steve’s stewardship, the company has taken a more political slant. Some examples are Peter Schrag’s California Fights Back: The Golden State in the Age of Trump and a book by Don Cox about his experiences in the Black Panther Party.
Steve lives in the Berkeley Hills with his partner Mina Witteman; his four children carry on the tradition of accomplishment in the family, though none of them live in Berkeley.
Just as politics are woven into the warp and woof of Berkeley culture, music has always played a major role, from spontaneous drumming sessions in the parks all the way to the Greek Theatre – at 8,500 seats, the city’s largest concert venue.
It’s also the first venue Sherry Wasserman’s Another Planet Entertainment took on after she co-founded the concert production company in 2003.
Like her brother, Sherry attended Berkeley High. Also, like her brother, she found her passion while a Berkeley High student.
When she was attending Berkeley High during the 1970s, storied Bay Area promotion company Bill Graham Presents would stage events at the Berkeley Community Theatre, which sits on the campus.
“We never thought of it as a job, but for many of us it developed into our life’s passion and gave us a purpose that would endure throughout our lives,” Sherry said in an email.
Rena, Sherry and Steve’s sister, has also attributed her work with Bill Graham while at Berkeley High as her introduction to concert promotion. Rena is now a senior vice president for Los Angeles-based Nederlander Concerts. (Rena declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Working with Bill Graham, Sherry progressed from working at the box office to talent, buying and overseeing much of concert staffing and operations in the 1980s. Then, soon after Bill Graham’s death, when corporate behemoth Clear Channel (later to become Live Nation) purchased the company, she jumped ship with fellow longtime staffer Gregg Perloff, with whom she co-founded their new company.
In her resignation letter, she said, “My upbringing in the San Francisco Bay Area in Berkeley and my tenure with Bill Graham and the values he taught us are not welcomed within the corporate culture of Clear Channel. We literally come from another planet.”
Over the last nearly 20 years, Another Planet has grown to become the largest independently owned and operated concert promotion company in the U.S., Sherry said. It’s known for producing the Outside Lands concert in San Francisco and exclusively operates and books the Independent in San Francisco, Fox Theater Oakland, San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and, of course, the Greek, as some refer to it.
“The Greek Theater has always been our favorite venue, with an unusually intimate feel for its capacity. It is our first home – much like a first child, it is special,” Sherry said.
Acts including Bob Dylan, Radiohead, White Stripes, Daft Punk and Tom Petty have played the Greek. A concert with Brandi Carlile, winner of six Grammy Awards, is coming on June 18.
The company is based in Berkeley, with offices in Oakland and San Francisco.
“Bringing 300,000 people into the Berkeley area each concert season supports the city of Berkeley economically to factors untold,” Sherry said.
The company in January announced plans to partner with the owners of San Francisco’s Castro Theatre to refurbish the landmark building and present live events. Some fans wondered about the future of repertory film at the theater.
“We believe that our stewardship of the Castro will be respectful to its origins and the community in which it sits while programming content for a wider audience to also enjoy this gem of a theatre,” Sherry said.
Along with restaurants, travel and hospitality, the entertainment business has suffered inordinately from COVID-19, but Sherry seemed optimistic about the future of Another Planet.
It’s been challenging, she said, but the company’s annual Outside Lands Festival over three days in Golden Gate Park was a turning point.
“The pure joy of 70,000 people each day being together was palpable, from audiences to artists. It was one of the few and genuine good feelings that we had experienced in over two years,” Sherry said.
“It gave us renewed hope that life as we once knew it might indeed return at some point,” she said. “Like everyone, we don’t have a COVID crystal ball, but are hopeful that we will weather this long storm.”