Alton Kelley was raised in Connecticut, where his father worked for Chance Vought, building the Corsair—a navy fighter plane. As a kid, Kelley always drew pictures, but his passion was cars—pin striping, and the hot-rod world. He went to art school at the Philadelphia Museum and College of Art with an interest in industrial design. Then in 1959, Kelley hitchhiked to San Francisco to see the North Beach Beat Scene, the poets, the Co-existence Bagel Shop, and City Lights Bookshop. He traveled south to Los Angeles, then to Mexico. After returning to art school at the Art Students League in New York City for a brief time, Kelley went to work as a helicopter mechanic for Sikorsky Aircraft for two years, got laid off, then worked at a motorcycle shop. About that job Kelley said in an interview:
“I came I worked there and I hated it. And I said. ‘Well, I'm gonna go back to California.’ . . . And that's how I met everybody on Pine Street. Bill Ham was my landlord . . . Mike Ferguson was living there, and Ellen Harmon and Luria Castell . . . And then these folks came down from Virginia City. They got the Charlatans to go up there, so we all went up there and worked on the Red Dog Saloon . . . spent the summer in Virginia City . . . Then, when we came back from Virginia City, we figured, . . . because we knew the bands were all playing together, the Charlatans and the Great Society and the Jefferson Airplane and Warlocks . . . so we figured we'd just start throwing some dances . . .”
Alton Kelley, Jack Towle, Ellen Harmon, and Luria Castell became the first four people in the Family Dog Collective. Kelley thought up the name “because we had a building . . . everybody in the building had dogs and the original family dog was a Rhodesian ridgeback named "Animal" . . . so it just sort of came natural, so it was the "Family Dog."
Ralph Gleason, music critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, recalled when Family Dog members Castell, Harmon, and Kelley came to see him in 1965, "San Francisco can be the new Liverpool," Castell told Gleason. Then permits were secured for October 16 at Longshoreman's Hall. Bands were enlisted, handbills were drawn by Kelley and printed by Joe Buchwald, Marty Balin’s father. When Gleason arrived at the hall he observed that everyone appeared to be going to a costume party. He described men dressed as characters out of the Old West, longhaired girls in longer dresses. There were “riverboat gamblers” and “mining camp desperados,” black leather, and brown buckskin. Inside, the scene was even more colorful. The crowd, Gleason reported, danced wildly all night as the bands played. The light show pulsated to the beat of the music. “It was orgiastic and spontaneous and completely free-form,” Gleason wrote.
Although he had designed the flyers advertising the original Family Dog shows, Kelley lacked drafting ability. When he met Stanley Mouse there was an instant connection. The two formed Mouse Studios and Kelley's drawing skills improved so that he would be working left-handed on one side of the easel with Mouse on the other. “He had the most impeccable taste of anybody I knew,” said Mouse. “He would do the layouts, and I would do the drawing.” They worked together steadily for 15 years and on and off thereafter. Their Mouse Studios was located in a converted Lower Haight district firehouse where Janis Joplin first rehearsed with Big Brother & The Holding Company. They also opened a store called Pacific Ocean Trading Company (POT Co.).