The Place We LovedMar 03, 2020 12:49PM ● By Sean McCarthy
Regardless of what Homer Simpson famously said, rock ’n’ roll did not achieve perfection in 1974. And despite what that graying Gen-Xer aunt may believe, rock didn’t reach its zenith in 1991 with the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, and Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted.
Truth be told, each decade produces its equal ratio of masterpieces (a handful, maybe 50-100), and a mountain of forgettable stuff. Every Green Day’s Dookie came with a slew of Reel Big Fish’s Turn The Radio Off. Every Pearl Jam’s Ten came out at the same time as dozens of Cold’s A Different Kind of Pain. But even those “lesser” records were likely the life soundtrack of a diehard fan who was lucky enough to see them play live.
The Ranch Bowl hosted all of the above-mentioned bands at some point in time. And except for those who believe in a Poltergeist-style existence where the spirit of the departed haunts the current space occupants of today (in this case, the Walmart near 72nd and Hickory streets), the Ranch Bowl is but a beloved memory to many who came of age in the ’80s, ’90s, and early aughts—but two documentarians are hoping to change that.
Austin Anderson (of Workaholics and America’s Got Talent fame) and Jeff VanRoy (owner of Dundee Digital) spent the better part of 2019 interviewing bands, parsing through grainy live footage, and openly soliciting for any fan stories, photos, and videos about the Ranch Bowl. Their goal is to make a documentary about the storied live venue and its owner, Matt Markel, who died in 2014 from antiphospholipid syndrome, a rare autoimmune disease.
Markel and his friend and business partner, Larry Good, purchased the Ranch Bowl in 1978. The two phased out the restaurant that was part of the bowling alley and began to incorporate live music. Good handled the accounting portion and oversaw the bowling alley, leaving Markel to handle music operations. He sold his share of the Ranch Bowl to Markel in 1987.
“The bowling alley paid the bills, the music was the gravy,” Good said in a phone interview.
Markel started the music performances by adding a country-western band once a week. Then, over three separate decades, he began to add rock, jazz, blues, and ska. Those who caught Pearl Jam, Green Day, or Red Hot Chili Peppers at the Ranch Bowl still wear that distinction with pride.
“Some of the biggest bands would be on (David) Letterman the day before, and then they’d play the Ranch Bowl the night after,” VanRoy said.[gallery columns="2" ids="41214,41221"]
He added that they currently have more than 40 interviews for the documentary, but they’re still craving content.
The whole project began last February when Anderson hosted a podcast with Jeff Degan, a morning host on channel 94.1 (KQCH). Degan previously worked at 93.3 K-ROCK, the radio station that operated inside the Ranch Bowl. During the podcast, Degan and Anderson began swapping stories about the venue.
Soon after the podcast, VanRoy reached out to Anderson (the two are lifelong friends) and asked if he wanted to do a movie about the Ranch Bowl. They put up a website, which encourages visitors to submit their photos, videos, or stories.
VanRoy and Anderson were frequent patrons, but neither knew Markel closely. VanRoy’s most memorable concert at the venue was seeing Less Than Jake (he won tickets from a radio station). Anderson also won tickets on the radio to his most memorable Ranch Bowl show: Vanilla Ice (during his nu-metal phase). It was Anderson’s first concert without having his parents chaperone (his cousin took him).
“It left a big imprint,” Anderson said of the show.
As of January, VanRoy and Anderson had interviewed members of 311 and Blue October, as well as Markel’s widow, Dana. Anderson said he wants to assemble more interviews in early 2020 when the touring season winds down for many bands. He’s hoping to use his connections from Workaholics to interview Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“I have faith as long as he [Flea] remembers playing there, we’ll be able to get that interview,” Anderson said.
Continuing the interviews through the spring has pushed back the film’s release date. Anderson originally wanted to unveil the movie at the 2020 Omaha Film Festival. At this point, the release date is sometime in 2021.[gallery ids="41219,41228,41224,41222,41217,41211,41218,41227,41216"]
While the majority of Ranch Bowl’s lore comes from the live shows, the bowling alley is an integral part of the venue’s storied past. Anderson said the alley provided bands some relief from being cooped up in a tour bus or in a hotel. One of Anderson’s friends told him about a time when he spent hours bowling with two “normal dudes.” His friend was unknowingly bowling with the notorious clown-makeup-wearing Insane Clown Posse. The two, sans clown paint, politely excused themselves and said they had to get ready for a show.
“And then they transformed into the clowns and sprayed Faygo all over everyone,” Anderson said. “That’s the kind of place the Ranch Bowl was.”
In addition to housing a bowling alley, a radio station, and music venue, the Ranch Bowl was also home to Markel’s office. The office was a reflection of his personality, Dana Markel said in a phone interview from Overland Park, Kansas.
Like Markel, his office was guarded (you had to go through two locked doors to get there). It was also piled with stacks of CDs, mostly promotional copies from up-and-coming bands, and piles of contracts. But Matt had a system, Dana said.
“There were booking contracts all over the place, but he knew which pile had which booking contract,” she said. “He went a hundred miles an hour all the time.”
While the majority of Ranch Bowl acts reflected the grunge and nu-metal trends of the ’90s and early ’00s, Markel also booked acts that appealed to his own musical interests. Blues greats B.B. King and Buddy Guy played there. Dana said her husband’s approachability helped him make friends in agency circles on both coasts.
“Matt was an introvert who did not do drugs or drink. But in the Ranch Bowl, he just loved being around the people,” she said.
Markel’s declining health led him to sell the Ranch Bowl in the early 2000s. Dana said within one year, he went from doctors telling him he had the heart of a 25-year-old (when he was 36) to needing emergency heart bypass surgery. Dana said she’s looking forward to seeing the finished documentary, even though filming it was tough.
“It was a difficult interview because I miss him a lot, but I’m also very proud and amazed by what he was able to accomplish with sheer willpower and drive and creativity.”
If you have photos, videos, or stories to submit about the Ranch Bowl, visit ranchbowlfilm.com.This article was printed in the March/April 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.