The Ranch Bowl:
The Markel Years
has to come to an end. I had my time."
-- Matt Markel
story by tim
Lazy-i: Aug. 23, 2007
not meant to be a comprehensive history of The Ranch Bowl, published
the week following its demolition. There were so many events and
bands and people that happened at that night club, only a book
could contain that story, a book currently being written by the
Ranch Bowl's founder, former owner and operator, Matt Markel.
part of the story is merely an interview with Markel -- his brief
recollections of how it all began, the successes and failures,
and why it had to end.
we get to that, here are some recollections from one patron of
the fabled "entertainment complex" that are probably
different from those who only knew the venue for booking some
of the best indie and alternative rock shows in the city's history.
On any given
weekend in the early to mid-'80s, 72nd St. south of Dodge was
nothing more than a long strip of meat-markets and pick-up joints
The names of the clubs are as forgotten as the names of the one-night
stands that they begot. Among them, the pre-pasties version of
The 20's, along with Jodhpurs, Brandywines, and The Crazyhorse
Saloon -- three Brut-scented lounges that not-so-coincidentally
were attached to hotels.
But the crown
jewel and class act of the meat-market strip was located at 1600
So. 72nd St. at the top of the hill just across from the race
The Ranch Bowl was an entirely different place than the falling-apart
shithole it became just prior to closing its doors a couple years
ago. In the '80s, the Ranch Bowl was an elegant room, adorned
in oak and brass and mirrors, lit by small spot lights that never
revealed too much. Tall tables and bar stools lined the railing
of the elevated bar and continued along the back of the room to
the bathrooms and the door that led to Snookers, the tiny pool
hall next door.
continued on and on, surrounding the dance floor back to the sound
board and the glass doors that led to the sand volleyball courts
just outside. Along the rafters and above the bar hung photos
of all the bands that had played there, many of them autographed
with good wishes by the bands themselves.
It was a class
act for classy singles looking for love in all the wrong places,
serenaded by a slew of the city's finest cover bands -- On the
Fritz, Tight Fit, High Heel and the Sneakers, The Rumbles, every
weekend belting out the greatest hits of the '80s and the decade
before that. At that time, people went to The Ranch Bowl for two
reasons only -- to get drunk and to get laid, usually in that
couldn't be better. Lucky patrons who conned someone into dancing
could escape afterward for some conversation just across the hall
in Matthew's Pub, a long, quiet(er) bar, with plush leather booths,
low lighting, TVs and dart boards.
All of this
went on just a few feet away from yet another world -- one harshly
lit in florescent white light, that echoed with the thunder of
crashing pins, that seethed in a stench of sweaty socks and the
static noise of a PA announcer calling: "Wilson, party of
four, your lane is ready."
Ranch Bowl truly was an entertainment complex. At the center of
it all was Matt Markel, who spent most of his life making sure that
there always was, "A party every night of the week."
It was Markel's
vision and chutzpah that pulled The Ranch Bowl out of the meat-market
morass and made it into one of the city's seminal venues for live
original touring rock bands. Among them: The Red Hot Chili Peppers,
Pearl Jam, The BoDeans, Body Count, L.L. Cool J, Joan Jett, the
Rippingtons, Stanley Turrentine, Arc Angel, Green Day, 311, Wynton
Marsalis, Stanley Jordan, Chick Corea, Buddy Guy, The Cramps, the
list goes on and on and on.
their favorite Ranch Bowl shows. Mine were Bob Mould and Sugar (the
loudest concert I've ever experienced), the underrated Timbuk 3,
reggae novelty act Dread Zeppelin, Boston trio Guster, an angry,
frustrated Warren Zevon, and perhaps the most influential indie
band of the '90s, Pavement. All of them played at The Ranch Bowl,
along with a plethora of local bands getting their first break in
the music biz.
And now it's
all gone, reduced to a pile of rubble, making way for "progess"
in the form of another unnecessary Wal-Mart.
Markel and his old friend and business partner, Larry Good, watched
as the bulldozers tore down parts of the building they helped make
famous, at least in the history of Omaha's music scene.
a good time while it lasted," Markel said. "I'm not sad
about it, because it was in terrible shape. Everything has to come
to an end. I had my time."
His said this
while reclining in a leather La-Z-Boy in his room at the Lakeside
Assisted Living Center, his home for now. A stroke suffered five
years ago, followed by a series of "mini-strokes," put
him there, and ultimately led him to sell The Ranch Bowl in 2003,
but we're getting ahead of ourselves.
It all began
in 1978. Markel, a graduate of Creighton University with a degree
in Business Administration, had just spent the first part of his
life in the hotel business. "I worked at the Omaha Hilton as
a desk clerk, then was transferred to the DeSoto Hilton, then the
Myrtle Beach Hilton," Markel recalled. "I was bored.
He wanted to
be a general manager, but Hilton's career path was a long one, and
it would be years until he ever got his chance. Meanwhile, at Myrtle
Beach, Markel had begun working with bands that the hotel had booked.
It would be the start of something special.
who was then working at U.S. National Bank (and who now runs PI
Midwest), visited Markel in Myrtle Beach. "He persuaded me
to come back to Omaha," Markel said. "The hotel business
was all politics. I knew I could do something better."
was a good time while it lasted. I'm not sad about it, because
it was in terrible shape."
think I probably had a reputation as a hard-ass, but I had
to give them tough love. They had to grow up."
said he and Good bought The Ranch Bowl on a land contract from businessman
I.V. Zigman (known for his Carter Lake restaurant, Chez Paris) in
1978 when it was called The Ranch Room. "The first band we
did was Sweet Country," Markel said. "Then I went with
Larry down to Clancy's and saw Skid Row and Johnny O. I said, 'This
night with Johnny O on stage, however, was slow, Markel said. They
tried comedy nights. That didn't work. "We'd have food in the
afternoon, and then open the lounge and have everything going on,"
he said. "I had a restaurant called Manhattans, which served
sandwiches, but slowly we got out of that business and served only
The goal was
to make money, Markel said. But it was tough in the early, lean
years, when at times he was forced to make payroll using credit
cards. But eventually, things began rolling, and the cover bands
started to draw big.
They were followed
by the national acts. "I probably got into it from my time
in the hotel business," he said. "I'd always been interested
in music. The agents would call me and ask if I wanted bands and
I'd say, 'Send them through.' Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, I
just got into it. I went out to New York to visit all the agents,
and then went out to California. They would look at me and say,
'Are you from Omaha?' I wasn't that hip, but I still had relationships
with all of them."
Back then, Markel
was a maverick, an ambitious entrepreneur who was never satisfied
with his own success. "I over-think everything I do,"
he said. "That's why I could take a risk on shows and not lose
money. I would fax in the offers (for bands) and very seldom was
wrong. I would lose money on some tours. Booking shows was all risk,
it was gambling. I did okay."
Though he was
still booking cover bands on weekends, The Ranch Bowl's reputation
slowly changed from being a meat-market to being a stage for serious
alternative and indie rock shows. Along with national acts, Markel
began booking local bands either to open for bands or as part of
multi-band local music showcases.
He became revered
as a no-nonsense businessman who didn't play favorites. Bands either
loved him or hated him. They loved him for being a star-maker who
gave bands their first break. They hated him for introducing the
West Coast pay-to-play concept to the Omaha scene.
It was at a
trip to a Pollstar convention in Los Angeles where Markel
said he got the idea of having bands sell tickets to earn their
pay. "If they wanted to bring a crowd in, I would give them
a bunch of tickets and have them sell them," he said. "It
was the LA philosophy -- you had to make these local bands sell
some tickets. There were a lot of whiners who didn't want to, and
I'd tell them, 'It's up to you. If you don't bring more people in,
you probably won't play here again.' I was hard-nosed, but a lot
of time I could be courteous and nice. I think I probably had a
reputation as a hard-ass, but I had to give them tough love. They
had to grow up.
always taught me to stay strong, and I've always been honest,"
he said about his management style. "I was shrewd and kind
of rude. It was hard for people to get in to see me. I've worked
since I was really young, and I became very cautious of people.
My dad had liquor stores and I started working at 11 years old,
Queens Liquor in North Omaha. There were housing projects all around
it, and I'd go down there with my dad and stock beer in the cooler
and burn boxes in the trash."
tough business sense paid off. Business was good. Very good. "I
don't know how much money I made there, I just know it did really
good," he said. "On St. Patrick's Day, I would have to
go to the bank three or four times. There were nights when we would
pack the main room with more than 1,000 people (He said the room's
actual capacity was around 350). I made enough money off The Ranch
Bowl to retire. I'm not rich, but I have plenty of money to last
me the rest of my life."
A key to venue's
success was its diversity. From the beginning, the Ranch Bowl was
designed as an entertainment complex. Live music was augmented by
bowling and sand volleyball. But despite popular belief, neither
carried the weight for the music endeavors.
make that much money from bowling," Markel said. "In the
summer, that place was a death trap. I was never interested in it.
I think I bowled twice in my life. I did like using the alley for
concerts and for St. Patrick's Day. The capacity of the bowling
alley was huge."
Zevon's stage rantings about how much he hated "playing at
a fucking bowling alley," most national touring acts loved
the lanes. "The Chili Peppers would bring their own bowling
shoes," Markel said. "Even Stanley Jordan went bowling.
Green Day went bowling. Everclear bowled a lot. The tour managers
One of his favorite
memories was watching Eddie Vedder sunning himself out by the volleyball
courts the day of a show. Markel said Pearl Jam tops the list of
his personal favorite live shows at the club. "I would usually
be in the background," he said. "Every time I was at a
show, I would feel the hair on my arms go up."
With his cadre
of booking agents and other contacts, it wasn't long before Markel
began booking just about every decent live venue in the city, making
him The Godfather of the local music scene with control of all the
best shows. "I booked shows at Aksarben, The Civic, Pershing,
Sokol, Joslyn," he said. "I didn't have a lock on all
the agents. They just called me."
Part of his
power, he said, came from owning a radio station. In 1991, Markel
launched 93.3 K-ROCK, with studios located inside The Ranch Bowl.
"Midcity Bank loaned me $500,000 to start the radio station,"
he said. "I wanted to compete with Z-92. College music didn't
have enough of an audience to profit from at the time. I brought
in (program director) Bruce McGregor and told him to do whatever
he needed to do to compete with Z-92."
format eventually became dominated by pop-metal and heavy alternative
music. As a result, The Ranch Bowl began to book more and more metal
bands, a type of music that Markel said he never really liked.
shows were probably the metal shows," he recalled. "But
the thing about metal bands, I could advertise them on the radio
station. It all tied together, and metal also brought in the drinkers."
left the radio station, Markel said he programmed the station himself,
often logging in playlists until 2 a.m. It was a grind. He said
when Clear Channel offered to buy the station for $3.72 million,
he took the cash.
At around that
same time, Markel decided to build a record studio, he said. "I
always wanted to own one. I thought it all fit together. Mike Brannan
came in and said, 'I heard you want to open an recording studio.'
I never should have done it."
also located in The Ranch Bowl complex, was run by Brannan and partner
Dan Crowell, former members of the band Guerilla Theater who had
run a previous studio called Big Fish. (Brannan said in a 2000
interview that Markel had in effect bought out Big Fish and
it took a year and a half to create BJM).
Along with the
studio, came GetGo! Records, a label that released albums by a number
of local bands who recorded at BJM, including Pomeroy, Five Story
Fall, Lower Case i, and Clever.
record label, I just wanted to help bands out," Markel said.
"I always wanted to own a label, and I had enough room. I'm
sure it broke even or lost money. Those CDs didn't sell well. I
still have Pomeroy CDs lying around somewhere."
Stanley Jordan went bowling. Green Day went bowling. Everclear
bowled a lot. The tour managers enjoyed it."
probably would have kept the business, and would still be
booking shows, but I think it was happening for a reason.
God gave me a stroke to calm me down."
misjudgment from a business perspective was taking on the booking
chores for Westfair Amphitheater in Council Bluffs after being approached
by the facility's board. "In the long run, Westfair was not
a good idea," Markel said. "The best shows I did there
were Sweetstock and Shania Twain." The rest were losers.
But it didn't
matter because everything else was a gold mine. It seemed that Markel
and The Ranch Bowl would be around forever. What's the old saying:
"If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans."
It all came
to a crashing halt five years ago. Markel, who just turned 56 last
Sunday, was only 50 when the first stroke hit. "I waited two
days before I called the doctor," he said. "My wife, Dana,
was the Director of Marketing at the Qwest Center at the time. I
called and told her something was wrong. I couldn't dial a telephone.
She called the doctor, and he said I had had a stroke."
he spent three weeks at the University of Nebraska Medical Center
before being moved to Immanuel's quality living facility. After
his initial recovery, he said he suffered a series of "mini
trying to do payroll on Fridays with Sophia John, who now runs 89.7
The River, and not being able to count the money. "I was in
denial," he said. "I probably would have kept the business,
and would still be booking shows, but I think it was happening for
a reason. God gave me a stroke to calm me down. With the addition
of after-hours dancing, I was finding myself at the Ranch Bowl until
to 2 a.m. every day. God said it was time to slow down and smell
to walk away from The Ranch Bowl. Brannan and Crowell began operating
the facility in December 2002, and eventually purchased it for $3
million, Markel said.
his focus is on continuing his recovery from his strokes while working
as a volunteer at Lakeside Hospital and writing his book.
could there ever be another Ranch Bowl?
Markel says, "because it was unique. There will never be another
place like it. The thing about the Ranch Bowl that is miraculous
to me is that no one ever got killed there. With all my venues,
no ever got killed. I think it's a miracle. I think God took care
Published in The Omaha Reader Aug. 23, 2007.
Copyright © 2007 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.