Alameda Point Entrepreneurs: John Walker’s Area 51

Alameda Point Entrepreneurs: John Walker’s Area 51

Heather L. Wood

From the outside, 2301 Monarch looks like yet another drafty government building on Alameda's former Naval Air Station. Inside, however, is a different story – or stories, if you stay long enough to hear John Walker tell them.

Area 51, the Alameda Point event center now operated by Walker and Nancy Marzouk, is just the most recent adventure in Walker's 40-year career in the Bay Area entertainment industry. In an office bedecked with Summer of Love posters and other concert memorabilia, the former Marine colonel hosts actors, caterers, race car drivers and maintenance crews. He is gregarious but slightly reclusive, proud but unassuming, all at once.

“Not everyone knows we’re out here,” he explained, “but I like it that way.”

Walker grew up in San Francisco and the East Bay, serving in the United States Marine Corps after graduating from Berkeley High School. In 1964, he was working at the San Francisco Examiner as a copy boy. He wasn’t a musician, but spent much of his free time in the music scene with childhood friend Marty Balin, who was then lead vocalist for the group Jefferson Airplane.

When the Beatles played the Cow Palace in August of that year – part of their first-ever U.S. tour - Walker was asked to join the band on stage. His task was simple: to safeguard Ringo Starr’s drum set from thousands of flying jelly beans. (British fans had heard a rumor that George Harrison liked Jelly Babies, a soft jellied candy, and began throwing them on stage at British shows. When the band came to the U.S., fans deluged them with the much harder American jelly beans, which struck the performers and their expensive equipment like hailstones). Walker thus found himself in one of the most iconic spots in music history: the electrified space between the Beatles and their adoring teenage fans. He was hooked.

In the following years, Walker immersed himself in the burgeoning Bay Area rock scene. In 1967, he helped create Berkeley-Bonaparte, a poster producer and distribution agency responsible for some of California’s most famous music art. He also set out to learn the art of band management. Bill Graham, America's leading rock music promoter, became Walker’s most important mentor.

Walker was not bent on personal stardom, but thrived on being connected and “making things happen” for up-and-coming artists. The band he managed, It’s a Beautiful Day, made it into the Top 40. And Walker is the one who convinced Bill Graham to pay attention to Santana, a Mission District garage band who played at high school dances.

The signed photographs, letters and other mementos on Walker’s walls paint a picture of the Bay Area music scene during this time – original, exciting, troubled and vibrant. But like most other revolutions, it eventually came to an end.

By the 1990s, the local music world Walker had helped shape no longer existed. He was looking for another opportunity when he learned that the Alameda Naval Air Station had been slated for closure. With a directness that Bill Graham would likely have appreciated, Walker called the air station's commanding officer, Captain Jim Dodge, and explained his vision for the future of Alameda Point: large-scale media and entertainment events. Dodge approved, and Walker secured a spot on the base before it opened to the general public.

Walker felt that the former military base offered the perfect combination of space and accessibility for high-end corporate events and large-scale filming – he just had to convince the right people to visit the small town east of San Francisco.

“Clients didn’t even know where Alameda was,” he remembered. “Some of them thought it was part of L.A.”

Confusion aside, Walker was confident that word would travel about Area 51. He was right.

Director Ridley Scott visited the space while scouting film locations for the 1997 movie "G.I. Jane." “When he saw it,” Walker recounted, “he had this really emotional moment.”

“Stay here," Scott told Walker. "This is your life’s work. This doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.”

Dramatic words for an abandoned, empty space – but Walker said that’s the point. An artist who needed space to create art, Scott saw in Area 51 what Walker sees: unlimited possibility. Scott was impressed by the sheer amount of open space – a crucial commodity in film and other industries that Walker said is becoming more and more scarce.

“Most people, when they see an open space, rush in and want to fill it with something,” he lamented. “They see nothing there, so they have to think of something to build on it. But the most valuable thing is to leave open space open. There isn’t that much open space left on the planet. I look at an open hangar and see every opportunity in the world.”

Walker’s “don’t build it and they will come” philosophy has paid off. His 40,000 square feet of clear event space now provides a blank slate for movies, commercials, photo shoots, trade shows, nonprofit events and corporate functions. One of his main clients is the automotive industry, which uses the space to host seminars and invite-only driving events, and television, which sets up shop for years at a time to film ongoing series.

Walker believes that the former air station is uniquely suited for the kinds of events held at Area 51, and believes that Alameda has a lot to gain as a hub for the media and entertainment industry. “We hire locally for these events. With hotels, catering, and flying executives out here, the local economic impact for doing one of these shows is in the millions,” he said.

Walker sees himself and protégé Marzouk as founding members of an Alameda Point “frontier” which he believes has unlimited potential to generate revenue for the community. That not everyone in the community shares his vision for the Point doesn’t seem to faze him. He believes that what he offers - empty space - will only increase in value, and he won’t be scared away by naysayers.

“I’m attached to the experience, not the material gain,” he said. “I started with nothing; I can always go back there. It’s the life’s work and the mentoring that means something to me.”