Matt Markel Finally at Peace
By Kyle Eustice
As a student at Central High School, The Ranch Bowl was a typical destination for wild teenage debauchery. Countless live shows, a video arcade and endless games of bowling made The Ranch Bowl a preferred weekend adventure. From Mudhoney and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones to Bad Brains and Omaha’s own 311, the bands I got to see transformed my understanding of music. Behind the scenes, legendary Omaha promoter Matt Markel was running the show—literally. I remember meeting him first as a young child and later on in my high school years. My father, William (Bill) Eustice, was lead vocalist/bassist for the local band The Firm. I used to visit him during rehearsals at The Ranch Bowl as a little girl and I can still visualize exactly how the venue was set up. I remember everything about The Ranch Bowl. Sadly, Markel passed away on Friday, July 18 after a ten-year battle with an autoimmune disease, which made it very hard for him to get around. He managed to show up to The Ranch Bowl reunion show a couple of years ago at Sokol Auditorium and it turned out to be the last time I ever saw him. He was beyond good to my father and always treated The Firm with nothing but respect. After all, The Firm essentially became the house band at The Ranch Bowl in the 1980s and brought a lot of people into the venue.
“When Matt first took over the Ranch Bowl, he went around town to the various music clubs to check out the local bands, noting who played well and who drew the best crowds,” Eustice recalls. “He decided The Firm was better at filling a club than playing the tunes note for note; we were pretty rough back then.
“Eventually, we were playing three-night weekends, three times a month,” he adds. “Basically, we were the house band. We were popular for some unknown reason–I suppose the fun was infectious.”
Whatever it was, Markel saw gold in The Firm and continued booking them for several years. Markel was rumored to have another side to him that was a little less than friendly, but that was something The Firm never saw.
“Matt was always more than encouraging and generous with us, saying that we always did a good job for him,” Eustice says. “We were often rewarded with more compensation than bargained-for like steaks and imported beer.
“Other bands had stories about Matt’s tough exterior and his no nonsense approach to hiring bands, but we never saw that side of him,” he continues. “To the contrary, we had the run of the place, much to the chagrin of some of his employees. The stories are endless and will be compiled in a Ranch Bowl biography due in November.”
Local writer and music aficionado MarQ Manner had similar sentiments to share about Markel. He really credits him for shining a spotlight on local music.
“Matt Markel brought modern rock music to the radio in Omaha and also gave those up and coming bands a place to play in town,” Manner says. “He gave many of us music fans a little piece of the outside world that we were a bit shielded from here in Omaha at the time. Omaha’s musical landscape would also look a lot different today and not be as strong as it is if he had not been so supportive of local musicians and artists.”
Omaha native and the drummer of The Firm Gary Foster has many fond memories of Markel and The Ranch Bowl, some not fit for print.
“One I remember clearly was that Matt was always very easy to talk to,” Foster remembers. “There was never any bullshit or phony attitude that you usually find with ‘music’ people. We talked just like a couple of friends and usually not about music. I was always amazed how easy going he was about our antics, both on stage and off. He always got a kick out of our drunken stupidity and corny jokes. He’d always grin in amazement or shake his head and laugh, then escape to his office to let the help deal with us.
“Unlike at lot of club owners, he seemed genuinely grateful to us for the crowds we drew and the money we made for him,” he continues. “He let us get away with just about anything, gave us liquor to take home at the end of the night and even gave us extra pay when he had especially good nights. Bill and I used to regularly drink a pitcher of rum and cokes per set. At the end of one particularly wild show, I passed out at the end of the last note of the last show, falling backwards on the floor behind the drum set. I guess Matt just shook his head and said that it would be safer for everyone if they let me stay there overnight. I woke up the next day on stage and went to the kitchen and made myself breakfast and waited for the cleaning crew to show up and let me out.”
While his life at The Ranch Bowl may have been a little crazy, at home Markel was married to his wife of 16 years, Dana Markel. He has three sons with former wife and gained two stepsons when he married Dana. Markel won the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards’ lifetime achievement award in 2010. And just this past year, Markel and childhood friend Larry Good had been working on a book about The Ranch Bowl. Markel’s passing is one that will definitely be felt for years to come.