The Passing of a Music Godfather

Rest In Peace Matt Markel, 1951-2014

EDITOR’S NOTE: With the family and Matt’s participation, Chris Hamel has been working on a history of the Ranch Bowl due to be released this Fall. To share your memories and stories of Matt and the Ranch Bowl, go to http://www.theRanchBowl.com

Matt Markel was the godfather of the Omaha music scene, says Nikki Boulay, a local radio deejay who worked with Markel at 93.3 K-ROCK, Omaha’s first alternative radio station in the ’90s. And if you connect the dots that lead to the national attention Omaha receives today as a music town, one of the first dots is Matt Markel.  

Markel, long time Omaha music promoter and owner of the Ranch Bowl, died Friday morning after a prolonged battle with antiphospholipid syndrome, according to the family’s post on Facebook. An evening wake was scheduled for Tuesday and funeral services were Wednesday morning at St. Robert’s.

He is regarded by many as a seminal figure in Omaha’s rich musical culture and is remembered well for bringing mega acts like Pearl Jam, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Green Day to play Nick and Eric’s, the Ranch Bowl’s tiny concert hall, when they were still struggling bar bands.

Rick Galusha, Associate Professor of Arts and Sciences at Bellevue University, Pacific Street Blues radio show host, and all-around rock’n’roll historian called Markel Omaha’s  “preeminent impresario” — professor-speak for a top-shelf culture provider.

Galusha cited Markel as fundamental to reinvigorating a flailing Omaha musical tradition from the early 1970s that provided venues and promoted bands who had received national critical acclaim, but could not draw enough people to fill the Omaha Music Hall or the Civic Auditorium — bands like the Ramones, Thin Lizzy and the Talking Heads. Places like the Music Box at 22nd and Capitol had closed and Markel made it possible for people to not only see great bands in Omaha, but on the right week to see three or four great bands.   

In the mid 1970s, Omaha was a bit of a backwater culturally, Galusha said.  “Matt helped to change that,” he added, by creating a vibrant live music scene. Omaha consistently receives a top 10 rating from a magazine like Fobres as a great place to live. “Matt was a guy who made that possible.”  
“I have no idea how Matt knew which bands were cool, but he did,” 311 drummer Chad Sexton said recently when asked about the band’s early days at the Ranch Bowl, where as teens they would go to play pool, hang out and see bands.

Sexton remembers Markel and the Ranch Bowl fondly as the place where 311, the best selling rock act to ever come out of Omaha, “learned to be a band” by watching groups like the Smashing Pumpkins and Firehose.

Along with discovering and promoting national up-and-coming bands, Markel was an early supporter of and mentor to 311 who for a while had a standing Monday night gig at the Ranch Bowl.  

Sexton credits Markel with having introduced the band to the grittier, drier side of life in the rock’n’roll circus — the business side.  “Matt had a feel for the business … he was open to new things and he always gave us a fair deal.”

Markel, whose lifelong love affair with rock’n’roll included his own high school band, the Squires, called it “instinct.” “I have a passion for music,” he said in June — an understatement of cosmic proportions to anyone who knew him.  

But Markel also possessed an instinct, and passion, for business. “Matt was a great marketing kid,” Larry Good, Markel’s longtime business partner and longer time friend said.  

After graduating from Creighton Prep and then Creighton University with a management degree, Markel worked in the hotel industry as a “turn around man,” where he would oversee the restructuring of failing hotels. Good said Markel had a talent for fixing broken businesses and that was central to why he thought Markel would make a good entertainment business partner.  

In the Spring of 1976, Good paid a visit to his boyhood chum and Creighton schoolmate who was working for Hilton Hotels in Myrtle Beach, S.C., with a proposal to buy the “bowling alley that sits on a hill” back in Omaha. Good’s pitch worked and he and Markel purchased the Ranch Bowl from its founder, I.B. Ziegman on a three-year contract with an option to own.

The Ranch Bowl that Good and Markel purchased in 1976 would seem but a distant relative to the Ranch Bowl that folks remember from the ’80s and ’90s and that’s in large part due to Markel’s creativity and business savvy.  

The old Ranch Bowl offered 24 lanes of bowling, a full service (cloth napkins and tablecloths) dining room, a reception hall that hosted weddings, class reunions and political events and it even included a nursery where day-league bowling moms could leave their kids.

“The dining room had the greatest beef ribs and the best reuben in town,” Good said. In 1980 the Ranch Bowl started providing live entertainment in the dining room in the form of a country band called Sweet Country, and a comedy/music routine called Skid Roe and Johnny O.

The music bug bit Markel hard and the great Ranch Bowl metamorphosis began. Markel added more and more bands, most of them local: Bozak and Morrisey, the Firm, High Heel and the Sneekers, Finest Hour and Sunday Night with the Rumbles were regular Ranch Bowl fare.

The dining room was eventually closed and the space was committed exclusively to live music.  Markel began booking original bands like Siouxsee and the Bansheess, the Rainmakers and the Meat Puppets. He and Good repurposed other spaces:  some front offices became Matthew’s Pub, the nursery became a billiard hall named Snookers, the dining room was remodeled into a bar with a full fledged concert hall that Markel named after his son’s, Nick and Eric’s.

Good sold his share of the business to Markel in the late 1980s. Markel then pushed harder and harder to promote music in Omaha. Using the Ranch Bowl as the flagship for his operations, the business grew in scope and scale. Markel began using other venues in Omaha and Lincoln and booking bigger acts like Alanis Morissette, Blues Traveler, Ziggy Marley and Collective Soul.

June 1991 saw Markel add another weapon to his rock’n’roll promotional arsenal – radio. In Washington, D.C., he purchased the rights to broadcast on a newly offered frequency from the Federal Communications Commission. This was the origin of K-ROCK (KRRK) 93.3 FM that promised to “Rock the ’90s”.

At terrific expense, Markel remodeled the Ranch Bowl once again, putting in studios and office space for the new radio station. The earliest format of K-ROCK was face melting heavy metal, the likes of which had never been heard on Omaha’s airwaves. The blistering guitar screeches of Metallica, Slayer and Iron Maiden had head bangers believing they had died and gone to heaven.

It was considered a bold move by any measure but Markel dismissed it as an easy choice. “Metal was big at the time,” he said with a chuckle.
The metal dream was short lived though, as Markel tweaked K-ROCK’s format to a more alternative rock sound that played bands like 10,000 Maniacs, Mathew Sweet and REM.

With K-ROCK Markel established unfettered access to advertising for upcoming shows and he emerged as a nearly unstoppable force. Bands and their agents loved the idea that the show promoter also owned the media and could sell the show as much as he liked.
Boulay recalls one artist telling her, “No, you don’t get it. There is no place like this in the world.”

And really, to a number of local bowlers, pool shooters, volleyball players (outdoor volleyball courts were also added), beer drinkers and kids who just wanted to hang out in the vibe, Markel had created a space that was like no place in the world.

And the sentiment wasn’t exclusive to only musicians. Amal Sawaged, a waitress and bartender at the Ranch Bowl for 33 years who many knew as “Mama,” remembers Markel as a compassionate boss. “Matt would always ask about your family.” When Sawaged’s son was born, Markel had a banner made and hung that proclaimed a “Prince is Born.”

She said that Markel really loved young people and treated them with respect. Sophia John would agree with that and say the same about his treatment of women. John is station manager for what stands as the most K-ROCK-like station left in Omaha, 89.7 THE RIVER. She worked with Markel in the late ’90s at the Ranch Bowl.  “In an industry run by men, Matt trusted women more,” pointing out that women ran a number of operations at the Ranch Bowl including Shirley Guzzeta who oversaw the bowling alley.

Even though he had his finger on the pulse of what was happening in music, it was his habit of never judging anyone that John says made Markel a special boss and person. He treated no-name bands like they were super stars, she said, while at the same time he was never intimidated by celebrity. John remembers Matt telling singer/songwriter Jewel that she “should fix her teeth.”

Markel’s legacy of supporting local talent and bringing great music to Omaha’s music scene is indelible. His work as a father, husband and music promoter left many the gift of cherished memories. He sold the Ranch Bowl in 2005 and it was eventually sold to WalMart. Some say that there are places in the big box retailer where you can still smell stale cigarette smoke and beer, a sort of haunting memoir of old Ranch Bowl patrons. Now if you go you’re just as likely to hear the sad strains of the Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge.” And if you do, you’ll know who brought them there.

posted at 01:45 pm
on Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

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