Remembering the Ranchman’s, 1972–2020

It was the last of the nightclubs that brought big-name entertainment to Calgary during the 1970s.

The Ranchman’s bar and dance hall – not to be confused with the venerable Ranchmen’s Club, whose storied history in Calgary dates back to 1891 – was put up for lease this past weekend after a 48-year run as one of Canada’s top honky-tonks.

It launched in 1972, when there was no other place in Calgary where cowboys and cowgirls could go for an evening of eating, drinking and two-stepping.

Other Calgary nightclubs of that era featured the best in pop, blues and rock ‘n’ roll. Roma’s brought us Bobby Curtola and Frankie Laine. The King Eddie featured Buddy Guy and Buckwheat Zydeco. Lucifer’s gave us Fats Domino and Wilson Pickett. The Refinery presented Chuck Berry and Mary Wells. The Ranchman’s gave a 31-year-old promoter named Harris Dvorkin an opportunity to offer live country music as an alternative to the other genres.

Dvorkin was a veteran of the local night scene. He had opened his first club, the Blind Onion, at age twenty, before he could drink legally. By the time he assumed control of the Ranchman’s, a struggling restaurant formerly called the Bar-X Steakhouse, he had run a succession of clubs, most notably the Beachcomber, which was destroyed in 1972 by a fire that killed a 24-year-old firefighter. Dvorkin turned the Bar-X Steakhouse around by changing its name to the Ranchman’s, sacking the dining-room pianist, and putting in country singer Wayne Vold as a replacement.

Vold had little or no professional singing experience. But he was an authentic rodeo cowboy; a champion saddle bronc rider with trophy saddles and buckles to his credit. He could also draw a crowd. Country music enthusiasts from Priddis to High River flocked to hear him perform. By early 1976, the Ranchman’s was doing so well that Dvorkin and his partner Kevin Baker were able to add a $1-million, 250-seat show lounge to the rear of the existing restaurant, and bring in major country acts from Nashville. Dvorkin was written up in newspapers and magazines as the city’s best-known urban cowboy; Calgary’s answer to Mikey Gilley.

Ian Tyson, who opened the Ranchman’s show lounge, had the Nashville contacts Dvorkin needed. Some of them, however, didn’t know much about Calgary. Sunday Sharpe, whose main claim to fame was a country response to Paul Anka’s hit Having My Baby, was typical. “I remember trying to convince her we had running water up here and that the planes landed here,” said Dvorkin. Another singer, Michael Twitty (son of Conway), drove up from Nashville in February without knowing he should have anti-freeze in his radiator. “It was unbelievable,” said Dvorkin. “They had no idea where we were or what it was all about.”

By the early 1980s, the Ranchman’s had featured some of the biggest acts in country music, including Tammy Wynette, Kenny Rogers and Ronnie Milsap. Wayne Vold did a television show out of the room for three years. The urban cowboy syndrome continued to catch fire and Dvorkin expanded his operations to take over the Refinery, change its name to the Uptown, and change the focus from rock ‘n’ roll to country.

I saw many of these acts when I was covering the night scene for the Calgary Herald. Kenny Rogers invited me backstage to hear an a cappella preview of what was to become one of his biggest hits, Lucille. Tammy Wynette sat on my lap when she closed her show with Stand By Your Man.

Changing tastes in music and an economic downturn put paid to Dvorkin’s attempts to turn Calgary into Nashville North. He sold the Uptown in 1987 and spent time after that trying to keep up with the changes in country music. Nashville was out and Texas was in. Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard were replaced by Guy Clark and Hank Williams Jr. The music developed a backbeat, and began to sound like rock.

“We got totally lost,” said Dvorkin. “After running a true, credible, straight-ahead country place for so long, we didn’t know what country music was any more.” But he did know that when he put country rockers into the Ranchman’s, he drew a lot of satisfied customers.

His method of choosing the acts was unorthodox, but effective. He would check them out during trips to Texas. If he went into a room and the dance floor was full, the bartenders were sweating, and the servers were rushing back and forth, “I knew that this was a wonderful band and we must have them.” Among his featured acts at that point were Hoyt Axton, former Motown star Bobby Taylor, and Johnny U & Dodge Country.

While the other clubs of the 1970s gradually fell by the wayside, the Ranchman’s continued to grow and flourish. By the beginning of the 21st century, only the King Eddie was left standing, and it was on its last legs. It closed in 2004 when the building was condemned. The Ranchman’s, by that time, had increased its indoor seating to 1,150, making it the biggest nightspot in Calgary. Featured acts now included the likes of Shania Twain and Paul Brandt.

Dvorkin died in April 2017 at age seventy-six, after a long struggle with pulmonary disease. The Ranchman’s was sold to a business consortium led by former Back Alley owner Doug Rasberry, who vowed to maintain the club as Calgary’s home of country music and rodeo culture.

That all came to an end on St. Patrick’s Day of this year, when the Covid-19 pandemic forced the Ranchman’s to close its doors indefinitely. With nightclubs not due to reopen until Stage 3 of Alberta’s relaunch, and no timeline set for when that might happen, it became clear after six months that something had to be done. Realtor Rob Campbell told the Herald the current economic downturn ultimately forced Rasberry and his partners to seek a new owner for the club. “Hopefully, we can find a buyer to carry forward the tradition.”