Recently Conifer musician Jeff Scarborough got a disturbing call from the Little Bear Saloon. His gig scheduled for Nov. 28 was canceled, the club employee said, and so was the 29th, and so was any foreseeable performance Scarborough might try to book at the Little Bear.
It was unwelcome news, of course, and a bit baffling to a musician with Jeff’s credentials. He’d learned to play the guitar when he was 12 and led his own band in high school. During the turbulent 1960s, Scarborough recorded tracks on numerous albums for the rock combo The Arrows, toured clubs in England and Germany, and did a hair-raising four-month stretch entertaining American troops in Vietnam. During a successful 27-year career as a cameraman with WNBC in New York, he never lost his love of, and talent for, rock ‘n’ roll, and when he retired to Conifer a few years back, he leapt into the local music scene with gusto. Most notably, Scarborough formed the 3eatles, a popular all-Conifer Beatles cover band that’s had local audiences twisting and shouting since 2005 and frequently does live spots on KQMT’s “Breakfast with the Beatles” radio show.
“I wasn’t really sure what was going on,” he says. “I’ve played the Little Bear many times, with a lot of different musicians. I know the people over there, and I like them, and they all know me. And here I was getting blackballed.”
Turns out, the reason was both perfectly simple and, to Scarborough’s way of thinking, completely unacceptable.
“He said his boss went nuclear when she found out I had played Raven’s and Sammy’s,” Scarborough says. “I was told a long time ago that if you play Little Bear, you can’t play Cactus Jack’s, and I accepted that. But I’ve been playing clubs since ’65, and I’ve never heard of any place that says you have to play them exclusively.”
Neither the Little Bear’s owner, Judy Jeronimus, nor anyone else at the landmark Evergreen honky-tonk responded to repeated requests for comment on the policy.
But numerous other local bands have the same ax to grind concerning the historic venue. While several performers contacted by the Canyon Courier complained of being blackballed by the Little Bear for playing other area clubs, only “Jimi” agreed to discuss his experience at any length, and then only on the condition that his name and that of his group not be used.
“We still play around here,” Jimi says, “and Judy pulls a lot of weight.”
Like Scarborough, Jimi maintains that his blues band enjoyed a long and amicable relationship with the Little Bear until financial concerns pushed it to expand its territory.
“Little Bear doesn’t pay as well for smaller bands — you only get the ‘door,’ ” he says, referring to the cover charge patrons pay to get inside. “That’s OK on a Friday night when there’s a good crowd, but on a weeknight you don’t really make any money. And when they’re only booking you a few nights a month, you’ve pretty much got to branch out.”
And it didn’t take long before his band’s growing success jeopardized their appearances at the Little Bear.
“I was told straight-on by the management that we were no longer welcome there because we played Cactus Jack’s,” Jimi says. “We’d only played Cactus Jack’s two or three times in a year. I’d never heard of anybody who said you can only play their club, and it’s become well known up here that if you play the Bear, you can’t play anywhere else. I think it’s ridiculous.”
Just a short riff down Main Street from the Little Bear, Cactus Jack’s owner, Gary Mitchell, handles the subject with kid gloves.
“I don’t care if they play somewhere else, but if a band that plays the Little Bear wants to play here, I always tell them they’d better ask for permission from Judy first,” Mitchell says. “The only thing I ask is that if somebody’s booked at the Little Bear on Friday, I would rather not have them here on Saturday, the very next night. But that’s more of a preference than a requirement.”
Stephen Farrar, general manager at Sammy’s Tavern on Stagecoach Boulevard, speaks more bluntly.
“Many of the people we book say they were cut by the Little Bear,” Farrar says. “I’ve been in this business for 12 years and never saw anything like that before. The more a musician promotes himself in the community, the better. People will go to see a band they like wherever they’re playing, and if a band plays other venues and builds up its audience, it’s better for them and it’s better for us.”
And it’s the small-time musician, Scarborough says, the one trying desperately to build an audience, that suffers from the Little Bear’s alleged ban on playing around.
“They make a distinction between small, local musicians and bigger, better known ones,” Scarborough says. “They’re not going to tell a Denver band they can’t play anywhere else. To disrespect your local bands this way just doesn’t make any sense.”
As the owner of Raven’s in Aspen Park, Victoria Gibson shares Scarborough’s sympathy for struggling local talent.
“I’m familiar with the Little Bear’s policy because it’s happened to a lot of the bands who play here,” Gibson says. “We have a lot of great musicians up here, and there aren’t that many venues with live music. I like to support local musicians any way I can, and to say that I can only work you once a month but you can’t play anywhere else is unfair.”
Again, because nobody at the Little Bear chose to weigh in on the subject, the saloon’s specific booking criteria are unclear. But if it does ban local groups that play the field, it’s reasonable to wonder why.
“The Little Bear has a certain status, and I think they had a monopoly for years and they don’t like the competition,” Scarborough says. “They book national bands, and I have no doubt they get a half-dozen CDs every week from musicians who want a booking, so they don’t have to care about local bands.
“They think it’s OK to demand absolute loyalty from any local group in return for letting them play there, and that’s pretty childish, when you think about it.”
“I think their idea is that people won’t pay a cover to see a band at Little Bear if they can see them for free somewhere else,” Jimi says. “That’s a valid point, but if they would just drop the cover and start paying their bands the way everybody else does, that wouldn’t be a problem. And I think that most people go to a club because they like the atmosphere of that particular club. If a band’s playing Cactus Jack’s without a cover and Little Bear with a cover, they’ll pay the cover because that’s where they want to be.”
Fact is, the Little Bear name does hold a certain cachet in the music business and, whatever Jeronimus’ booking philosophy may be, the old roadhouse still draws acts from across the country and regularly packs the house on weekend nights. But according to every person quoted above, the club’s perceived indifference to mountain-area performers is costing it in local goodwill.
“The way they treat local musicians has turned off a whole lot of people in this community,” Jimi says. “They’re only shooting themselves in the foot.”
“Every musician I know is really annoyed with the Little Bear, but most of them wouldn’t say so publicly because they’ve got careers to think about,” adds Scarborough. “This is an affront to local musicians and to this community, and it’s going to hurt them in the long run.”