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Omaha Magazine

Psychedelic Godfathers and Punk-Rock Gods: A Look at the Rich History of The Music Box

Jun 25, 2021 04:43PM ● By Chris Hatch
black and white front of building called Music Box

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Nils Erickson recalls looking up in awe at famed harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite. Erickson was getting ready to run sound for the burgeoning blues legend during a packed show at The Music Box in downtown Omaha. 

Then, Musselwhite did something Erickson didn't expect. He pulled the youthful sound technician aside. "He told me, you know, some of these kids run sound, but you look like you know what you're doing.” Erickson said. 

“Get the sound...then go dance." 

That's what The Music Box was for so many people, a chance to stand mere feet away from rock idols and blues gods—and it was a place that so many countless Omahans used for that purpose exactly. 

It was a place, and a chance, for a young kid to run sound for a man who would become an icon, and—above all—a place where you always, always could dance.

When Jimmy Carter was president and a comic-strip cat that hated Mondays as much as he loved lasagna was only a couple months old, there was one place to be on a frosty, pre-Thanksgiving night for those who wanted to rock out.

That was when people like Omaha native Nancy Neurohr attended shows at The Music Box. 

“It was considered kind of an underground, hippie place in the early ’70s.” She said. Remarking that the signature atmosphere was very different than what you’d see at a show today. “It was smoky and dark.” She recalled.

The fabled Omaha concert hall loomed large in Omaha’s early days of rock, roll, and all the rest.

That was the first Music Box. The OG before anyone used the term OG; a ballroom located in downtown Omaha where big bands played and military boys, who were soon-to-be-men, would find themselves staring at a girl and all that war-honed bravado would suddenly melt into the shiny shoes they were swaying in.

Ask anyone over the age of 70 who’s from Omaha about it. Or, look it up online with just a few quick words in the Google search box: “The Music Box, Omaha, NE” and you’ll see how the place served as more than just a place to listen to Glenn Miller’s latest hits. 

It was a place to find young love; a place where young people of a certain age could forget about the bleak, uncertainties of a war raging across the ocean and instead focus their glowing eyes on the person they were about to ask to dance. It was a place where many, many young couples met and you’ll see it in their wedding anniversary notes from local publications, gilded remembrances of a place long gone but a moment never left behind.

Erickson, owner of Rainbow Recording Studios and resident historian of The Music Box has a few stories of his own. 

Not from the big band days. But from days when The Music Box was landing big bands.

He’ll tell you of packed houses and wild moments. He’ll mention nights spent with Frank Zappa’s band, The Mothers of Invention, and casually drop tales of interactions with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead.

“Jerry thought his guitar kept going out of tune,” Erickson said, recounting one of the two times the world-famous group played The Music Box. “So one of my friends actually loaned him his guitar to play. And then another friend of mine recorded him. You would have a little tiny tape deck, a little reel-to-reel tape deck. And Jerry was kind of moping around, afterwards, because he thought he had done a really terrible job. And he and my buddy actually sat there and listened to the show, and then Jerry was like 'oh, that's not so bad.'”

Erickson recounts the mid-week shows, giving thanks for the central location of The Music Box and crediting the Lincoln Highway and its Omaha through-line that cut from Chicago to Denver as a big part of why such massive acts would come to town on a Wednesday or Thursday night.

“Almost every week,” Erikson recalled. “A lot of bands would just pick up a date at The Music Box to get gas money. Where someone else was paying them a couple grand, we might be paying them a hundred bucks.”

He remembers asking for spare change in front of the building and, when that didn’t work, digging deep into his bag of teenage tricks.

“You’d get your hand stamped and then your friend would lick their hand and you’d put your hands together and get two for the price of one!” he said, laughing about the old ways they used to monitor the entrance to shows.

As the years progressed, so did the music, even if the building and its patrons remained the same age.

In the late 1970s, the Ramones would stomp out onto the stage at The Music Box, wearing their patented leather jackets and dark glasses, and sneering with the perma-smirk glower of the too-cool punk-rock bad boys.

Soon one of the Ramone boys would shout out a wild, staccato, four-number countdown, and they would rocket-launch into the opening strains of their hit song about Rockaway Beach and the simpler times before they became rock sensations and front-line fighters against “the man” and disco. That was on Friday, Nov. 17, 1978—one of the last times people danced at The Music Box downtown. In the early 2000s, another venue called The Music Box brought to Omaha the neo-beatnik sounds of bands such as Grateful Dead cover band Dark Star Orchestra and Donna the Buffalo at 77th and Cass Streets, but that closed in 2004.

The hand stamps may be long gone, but the memories are indelible. 

This article originally appeared in the 60Plus section of the July/August 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.