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Remembering The Ranch Bowl:
The Markel Years

"Everything has to come to an end. I had my time." -- Matt Markel
story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: Aug. 23, 2007


This is 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.

Instead, this 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.

But before 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 track.

Back then, 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.

Those tables 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 order.

The set-up 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."



The 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.

Everyone has 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.

Last Thursday 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.

"It was 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.

Larry Good, 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."

















"It was a good time while it lasted. I'm not sad about it, because it was in terrible shape."
























"I think I probably had a reputation as a hard-ass, but I had to give them tough love. They had to grow up."


Markel 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 could work.'"

Their first 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 hamburgers."

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.

"My mom 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."



His 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.

"I didn't 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."

Despite Warren 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 enjoyed it."

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."

The station's 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.

"The worst 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."

After McGregor 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."

BJM Studios, 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.

"With the 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."












"Even Stanley Jordan went bowling. Green Day went bowling. Everclear bowled a lot. The tour managers enjoyed it."
















"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."



Another 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."

Markel said 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 strokes."

He recalled 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 the roses."

Markel decided 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.

These days, his focus is on continuing his recovery from his strokes while working as a volunteer at Lakeside Hospital and writing his book.

Simply put, could there ever be another Ranch Bowl?

"No," 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 of me."

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Published in The Omaha Reader Aug. 23, 2007. Copyright © 2007 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.