RTH: Did you have any training as a caterer or in the food service industry?
Penny: After years of going to concerts, I was asked to be a runner for a Grateful Dead show. My job was to take one of the cooks who was on the road with the Dead around to buy groceries. This guy was very abusive to me and yelled at me about everyplace I took him, ranting “Aren’t there any decent stores in this fucking town?” I was so traumatized by the experience, I almost quit. But I hung in there and lived through it. Soon I started helping out a couple of other women who were providing food for the local promoter. That was my only real training. Just jumping in and learning by trial and error. This was a pioneer field, it was being made up as it went along.
RTH: Do you remember the first band you ever fed?
Penny: That’s kind of hard to answer. It happened gradually, but I guess I’d have to say, when my girlfriend and I got officially hired as the caterers for some young promoters who were starting a production company, we did a string of shows, including people like Eddie Money, The Tubes, and Santana. Actually the first show I ever did on my own was Finnigan, Dudek, and Kruger at the Uptown. It was my birthday and Mike Finnigan told me happy birthday on stage.
RTH: You have a nice story about meeting Animals’ manager Terry McVay backstage, when you were a young woman. You kept in touch with him over the years, through his work with Eric Burdon’s New Animals and War. McVay sounds like he was, in some ways, your sponsor into the world of rock ‘n roll. Rock ‘n roll is such a major industry these days, with major label performers seemingly miles away from the audience. Can you characterize how small and intimate the world of rock ‘n roll was while it was first reaching new heights in the 1960s?
Penny: Yeah, it was pretty small and intimate all right. In the ’60s, there was no security to speak of, at least the kind you have now, just a few off-duty cops making a few extra bucks. No backstage passes. If you were brave enough to make your way backstage and act like you were supposed to be there, no one paid much attention to you.
You may have read about my encounter with Jimmy Page when I was in high school. I went to see a Dick Clark Caravan of Stars show and really wanted to see The Yardbirds. I really liked the English bands the most. I was looking forward to seeing Jeff Beck, but he wasn’t in the band, Jimmy Page was. After the show, he came back out when most people had left, to get his equipment together, so I began chatting with him. That’s how intimate it was. I asked him for an autograph and he signed the back of my report card. He was totally unknown then, but he was very nice and friendly to me. Later, when Led Zeppelin came to town, I wandered backstage after the show to talk to Jimmy and stood in a tiny dressing room and watched him and Robert Plant be interviewed. No one gave me a hard time for being back there at all.
Terry McVay was a real sweetheart and, yes, he did usher me into the world of rock ‘n roll. He was a true gentleman and never tried to take advantage of me. In fact, he treated me with the utmost respect and showed some real trust that still amazes me to this day.
RTH: Was there a point in your career when you first sensed a significant loss of intimacy between artists and fans?
Penny: That’s an interesting question. Let me see… You know, I guess I’d have to say it depended on the artist. Even a show that is massive like Pink Floyd can still seem intimate to their fans if the artist is really connecting to them. I did several Floyd gigs and it was always exciting and transcendent, so I’d say they kept the intimacy going. There were definitely shows when I didn’t necessarily feel like the artist was in touch, but that was just my own assessment. Others around me were totally feeling the connection, so I’d say it’s a personal thing. I still go to shows regularly and I think intimacy is still alive and well depending on the atmosphere and the mood of the artist and fan. Seeing someone in a small club is still very intimate and personal, and I’ve experienced it recently with someone like Carolyn Wonderland or David Lindley.
RTH: Did I read correctly that prior to your work as a rock ‘n roll caterer you were a seamstress for rock artists? Did you and a friend actually get started by taking it upon yourselves to design clothes for Peter Frampton? (If you ever re-launch your stage clothes business, let me know! I’ve been looking around from some shirts like my hippie uncle used to wear, with giant collars and velvet trim.)
Penny: I was never an official seamstress for artists. It was my first attempt at getting close to them before catering presented itself. Yes, we did take it upon ourselves to single out Peter Frampton and actually got him to try them on. And we did make some clothes for a fledgling English band who was traveling around the US playing high schools, but that’s about as far as it went.
NEXT: Close Encounters With Bob Dylan!