“I left buckets of sweat on that stage,” musician Johnny Reno remembered via email. Looking back on his gigs at Lincoln’s historic Zoo Bar, the sax man added, “It was cramped, it was hot, it was loud as a train, the sound system was weak, I fell off that stage more than once. WE LOVED THAT PLACE!”

The Zoo Bar in Lincoln has been called an alley with a roof on it by local drummer Dave Robel. It was dubbed the Carnegie Hall of the Blues by Americana songwriting star Dave Alvin. The historic blues venue celebrates its 50th anniversary in July.

Some of the staff at the Zoo Bar. Front row, from left: Amanda Watters, Jean Johnson, Dominic Brazda, Tim Carr, Otto Meza, 
owner Pete Watters. Back row: Heather Murphy, Craig Jackson, Riley Agena, TJ Roe, Josh Hoyer.  Photo by Chris Bowling

Reno, a Fort Worth, Texas, musician and his band, Johnny Reno & the Sax Maniacs, packed Midwest clubs in the ’80s and ’90s with their blend of jump-blues and rockabilly. Reno was famous for charismatic showmanship that included playing his sax while doing spirited walks across tabletops and even on top of the bar.

“The exuberance of the audience at The Zoo Bar took us by surprise,” Reno wrote. “From the first song, the place went crazy! Non-stop dancing around the whole room. We played, they danced, on a school night too, and they stayed as long as we did! It was unpretentious, it was rowdy, and the audiences loved to dance.

“And, this is the most important thing,” Reno explained, “The owner, Larry Boehmer, was a musician, a music lover, and a friend. He was so friendly and accommodating, not your usual club management experience. He was a lot like [Austin, Texas, club owner] Clifford Antone, always looking after the musicians that came to his club. As much as anything, Larry was the reason we enjoyed playing The Zoo Bar, because he knew what it took to get up there! The long drives, the crappy road food, the even more crappy motels, we just needed a good place to do our music.”

Johnny Reno, center, with The Sax Maniacs. 1980s publicity photo, Photographer Bob Lukeman.

The late Boehmer was the sole owner and talent booker of the club beginning in 1977. In the early ’70s, it was his friends Jim Ludwig, Bill Kennedy and Don Chamberlin who had purchased the bar. Boehmer began bartending at The Zoo Bar while working on his master’s in fine art at UNL. He was a hard-core blues fan in the days when it took pilgrimages to Chicago to find old blues recordings on vinyl. He soon got permission to stock the jukebox with blues.

James Harman, left, with longtime Zoo owner Larry Boehmer  during Zoo Fest 2004. Nick Holt can be seen in the background. 
All three have since passed away. Photo by Conrad Good. 

Dave Robel was part of the second band to play The Zoo Bar in 1973 with The Megatones, one of Charlie Burton’s many bands through the years. Robel still gigs at The Zoo weekly as the drummer for the band Shithook, which plays live band karaoke most every Thursday at 9 p.m. 

Originally the bands set up along the north wall. “There was no stage, no PA, no lights,” Robel recalled via email. “Someone got the idea to put the bands in the back of the bar, east end. The problem was there was a foosball table there!  So we had to carry the damn foosball table out to the back alley, then set our stuff up. At the end of the gig we had to tear down our equipment and bring the table back from the alley into the bar. Pain in the ASS!!!  Luckily that was short lived — someone stole the foosball table from the alley!

Pete Watters took over as the sole owner of The Zoo in 2001 after Boehmer retired, and he’s been there over half his life. Watters became a bartender in approximately 1985 or ’86, when Keith Landgren was manager. He expected it to be a temporary job. When Landgren left in the mid-1990s, Watters took over as manager.

One of the many show posters that paper the walls of The Zoo in Lincoln. The Buddy Guy / Junior Wells poster represents the show that drew Watters to dig deep in his pockets to attend. Photo by Chris Bowling

Watters remembers his first experiences at The Zoo clearly. It was 1978. At that time the legal drinking age was 18, and some bars may have been lax in enforcing the law.

“I came to Lincoln when I was 17, and this was one of only two bars I couldn’t get into,” Watters said, laughing, “the other being the Uncle Sam’s Disco at 25th and O … I wanted to see what was happening in here, but yeah, I had to wait till my birthday.” 

Asked what the first band he saw at The Zoo was, Watters answered, “I think it was Magic Slim, but I’m not positive. Once I started coming, I started coming here a lot and a whole world was opened up to me. I knew who B.B. King was, and that was the extent of my blues knowledge … I was a big B.B. King fan. We would listen in the dorms all the time. I’d always played B.B. King records and stuff like that … I was a big soul fan and, and rock and roll fan. But, you know, I didn’t know Robert Cray, Albert Collins, Luther Allison and James Harman, The Bel Airs, you know, all that stuff. It was just wild, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Magic Slim on the Zoo Bar stage. An early photo taken for Zoo Bar promotions. Photographer unknown. 

“Luther Allison and Albert Collins and Magic Slim were just absolutely mind blowing to me,” Watters added. “Magic Slim became a good friend. But, the first time the James Harman Band came in here, I was just knocked out. I thought, I still think that’s one of the best bands I’ve ever seen in my life.

“One that was crazy to me was … you know, Robert Cray was $3 or Luther Allison was $3, $4, and $2 for some things that I couldn’t believe how good they were. All of a sudden there’s a band I’d never heard of, and they were a big jump in the cover. It was six bucks or $8, something like that. I was really poor. It was not easy, but I said, man, I’ve seen all these unbelievable things for two or three dollars. I’ve gotta check out this $6 or $7 or $8 thing. And that’s the first time I saw Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. And I had no idea who they were before I saw that … But the only reason I went is because The Zoo Bar had never let me down,” he said, laughing. “And so I said, this must be important, this must be good. But I didn’t know who they were until this, until I saw ’em.”

Zoo Bar calendar, likely 1984. Note the mind-bogglingly low cover charges, week-long Magic Slim stint and multiple dates by many popular artists including Johnny Reno. From the archives of Dave Robel.

Thanks to Boehmer’s dedication to booking the most acclaimed original blues artists he could, the young Watters and The Zoo audience learned about the best of this uniquely American music by seeing and hearing the best. This was music that wasn’t heard much outside of small urban clubs. 

In 1974, Boehmer hired a rising star in the blues world, guitarist Luther Allison, to play The Zoo. The contract was drawn up on the side of a paper sack. Allison was the first national act to play The Zoo. Allison continued to perform at The Zoo Bar until a few months before his death from lung and brain tumors In 1997. Boehmer also made a valuable Chicago blues connection with musician and promoter Bob Riedy, booking Magic Slim at The Zoo. Magic Slim played the Nebraska bar before he had even played the North Side of Chicago. Magic Slim and Boehmer built such a bond that Slim moved his family to Lincoln in the early 1990s.

So many musicians had special ties to The Zoo Bar thanks to their friendships with Boehmer, Watters, the staff and the highly discerning, ready-to-dance audiences. A gig at The Zoo helped a touring band get established.

Boehmer retired to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, in 2000. In 2011, he was diagnosed with cancer and threw his own birthday party as a way to celebrate his life and gather his friends together. People came from Lincoln, Omaha and around the country, including Boehmer’s longtime hero and friend Charlie Musselwhite. Boehmer lost his battle with cancer in 2012. Musselwhite returns to The Zoo as a headliner for this year’s 50th anniversary celebration.

“One of the most wonderful things about The Zoo is that you get to meet the players,” Catharine Huddle said via email. Now retired, Huddle was a journalist at the Lincoln Journal-Star. She traces her introduction to The Zoo to 1975. “Slim and Nick [Holt, Slim’s brother] were the people I got to know best, but I’ve probably met at least one person from every band I’ve seen there … This is a family. I could not be more fortunate to be a part of it. All bars have regulars … but I think the bond that ties Zoo Bar patrons together is unusually strong. Just think about it: 100 people came from all over the country for Larry’s birthday in Arkansas. I know, because I counted and wrote all their names down. That’s amazing.”

“I learned so much from Larry,” Watters said. “I always remember thinking to myself, Larry’s seen this business from all sides. He’d seen it as a traveling musician, and he’s seen it as a club owner and as a promoter … It sounds like kind of a cliché, but I still have, ‘What would Larry do?’ moments.”

“I feel lucky for having lived most of my life where a place like this can exist. As a fan, as a musician, and as a person.” Dave Boye said via email. Boye is a longtime local bass player who’s played over the years with Charlie Burton’s bands. Boye also joins drummer Dave Robel in Shithook.

Boye points to the local music scene and such musicians as “Josh Hoyer, Levi William, [the late] Sean Benjamin and Kris Lager. All people raised and fed from the music of The Zoo as they came into their own. And all thriving because of it.” 

Josh Hoyer (left) plays the Zoo in May of 2023 with his band Soul Colossal. Myles Jasnowski is on guitar. Photo by Chris Bowling

These days there is third generation of younger Zoo Bar musicians such as guitarist Myles Jasnowski, who has been leading a late-night Wednesday residency with his latest band, Vibe Check. Now he’s also the guitarist for Josh Hoyer & Soul Colossal.

Hoyer joined The Zoo community when he turned 21, performing at the weekly jams and with his own bands. Hoyer started bartending at the club in 2006 and “booking bands in tandem with Pete in 2007.” He stepped away from his role at the bar to focus on heavy touring with Soul Colossal. In 2021 he returned to help with booking again, including for the annual ZOOFEST outdoor street festival.

ZOOFEST has happened most years since the 25th anniversary. The festival missed a year due to COVID-19, a challenge The Zoo weathered thanks to to-go orders and the generosity of its community. This year’s ZOOFEST is Thursday through Saturday, July 6, 7 and 8. The ticketed event happens on an outdoor stage in front of the bar on 14th Street between O and P streets. Find all the details in this month’s Hoodoo column.

“I have been blessed to play hundreds of shows in 38 states and nine countries,” Hoyer said, “and there still is no place like The Zoo Bar. It sounds crazy, but when the vibe is jumping it is almost as if you are transported to some place that is a mix of a Southern backwoods juke joint and Fraggle Rock, located in New Orleans or Memphis or perhaps another planet. It is greasy and joyful, funky and church-like. It truly is the best club in the world in my humble opinion. It can be magic — I’ve seen it.”

“It’s my favorite thing that happens in The Zoo Bar,” Watters said. “It’s just when you can tell the crowd is feeding off the band and the band’s feeding off the crowd. And … this energy just is magic to me. It’s amazing … Now I said this long before I owned The Zoo, it’s, I just think the only place that I’ve ever been in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I would, if I could be anywhere in the world at this moment, I wouldn’t. I’d be right here.“You got a crowded room of smiling faces and you had a little tiny bit to do with that. You brought it together. It’s pretty satisfying.”

If You Go

  • The Zoo Bar, Lincoln
  • July 6-8
  • $120 for three nights, $40 Thursday, $50 Friday, $50 Saturday in advance. Prices increase at the gate. Advance tickets available at the bar or on ticketweb.com.

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