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[whitespace] Bull Rider
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Queasy Rider: One of the Saddle Rack's feature attractions, the mechanical bull, will buck its last customer when the club closes its doors Aug. 5.

Happy Trails

After 25 years, the legendary country & western bar and nightclub the Saddle Rack rides off into the sunset on August 5

By Genevieve Roja

WITH A NAME LIKE the Saddle Rack in San Jose, the place should smell of earth and manure, but it doesn't. It should smell of grease and Naughahyde, but it doesn't smell like that, either. Its patrons should all drive Dodge Ram trucks and Chevy Suburbans--and there are plenty of them parked four nights a week out front in the parking lot--though there are the occasional imports.

The gals at the Saddle Rack should look like Dolly Parton and their clothes should shine like the studded rhinestones and sequins sewn onto her costumes, but sometimes they kind of don't. And for every fella sportin' a 10-gallon hat and a curlicued mustache, there's another clean-shaven fella wearing a backward Giants baseball hat and a Hurley T-shirt, with his thumbs locked into the belt loops of his Wranglers.

At "The Rack," as it is nicknamed by regulars, there is a combination of expectations and contradictions. So those making the pilgrimage to the mecca of cowboy decadence should know that for every Dolly that makes her way onto the dance floor, there's a J-Lo boot-scootin' right behind her. They should know that inside the western palace--which includes seven bars, three dance floors and two bandstands--everything and everyone converges. There's a mechanical bull, a barber chair, a few clients that are hair bears and honky-tonk men. There's usually a college crowd celebrating someone's 21st birthday or the gang from some high-tech company having off-line fun. Then there's the two-steppin' old-timers who have been here since Day One, when the Saddle Rack opened Aug. 13, 1976. All these friends in low places who have slipped on down to the country oasis that is the Saddle Rack--easily one of San Jose's greatest institutions--will gather one final time when the Saddle Rack closes its doors August 5.

Truth vs. Fiction

THE FACT THAT the Saddle Rack is really--no, really--shutting down is difficult to believe. For years it had been an ongoing rumor among Rack patrons that the bar was closing. Friends told friends, thus feeding the rumor mill and boosting business. "The Rack's closing! We gotta go before it closes!" "Are you sure?" some asked incredulously. "Omigaw we have to go and find out if it's true!" Cue squeals.

General manager Andy Buchanan laughs from the belly when he hears the latest rumor nugget--that the Saddle Rack lost its lease, which is the real reason why they're closing.

It couldn't be further from the truth. The future of the Saddle Rack changed in October 2000, when owner Hank Guenther sold the 6-and-a-half-acre property to developer KB Home. Neither the KB representatives nor Guenther disclosed the price tag on the property, although commercial real estate agent Brian Matteoni of Grubb and Ellis estimates its worth at roughly $12.5 to $13 million. In February the San Jose City Council voted to change the zoning at the Saddle Rack site, on the southeast corner of Meridian and Auzerais avenues, from manufacturing and commercial use to a planned development. On August 5 the capacious parking lot and club, at times resembling a supersized version of an Alpha Beta supermarket, will turn into Midtown Plaza, a market-rate, high density housing development with 233 condominium units. The one-, two- and three-bedroom units will cost between $300,000 and $400,000, and include 486 total parking spaces and a new city park. No units priced below market-rate are being offered.

Auzerais Avenue, the street that borders the Saddle Rack, will be blocked by two cul-de-sacs on each end. Cars attempting to travel down the length of Auzerais from Meridian to Race Street, and vice versa, will be blocked by each cul-de-sac. Guenther's Rack Properties, which owns the Saddle Rack, has agreed to build a new 48-foot-wide replacement street to the south of the new development. New traffic signals would be added at the intersection of the new street at Meridian and Race. The development, part of the city's Midtown specific plan, appealed to KB Home because it saw its potential in an area undergoing rapid redevelopment, according to Robert Freed, KB Home president and regional manager for Northern California.

"It's located near transportation--the freeway, the train station, light rail," says Freed, whose company eyed the property two years ago as an ideal spot for high density housing. "It has good access to downtown."

For more than 20 years, Hank Guenther has owned the property and the Rack. Originally Guenther had come to San Jose in the late 1960s to run the Sweden House, an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord, eventually changing the name to Bit O' Sweden. When the restaurant business started slowing, he successfully bought the restaurant out and opened the Saddle Rack. Buchanan, who met and befriended Guenther at the Eastridge Ice Arena when the two played ice hockey years before, became general manager. Guenther's club joined the rest of the country & western bars, including Cowtown in San Jose, the Horseshoe Club in Santa Clara and the Silver Saddle in Morgan Hill, the Rio Grande in Mtn. View, and Cheers in Sunnyvale. All have since closed and with the demise of the Saddle Rack, the sole surviving country & western venue in the Bay Area is Cadillac Ranch in Concord. Still, there's hope for the Saddle Rack possibly relocating.

"We will reopen," Buchanan told Metro last week. "I don't know when, but we will reopen."

Asked if the new location meant staying in San Jose, Buchanan replied, "Obviously, we've been in the community for 25 years, so we'd like to stay here. That'd be our number one choice."

The famous neon sign might not make the move, as well as some of the other Saddle Rack memorabilia, such as the electric chandeliers, wagon wheels and split wooden fences that adorn the bars.

"I think he's [Guenther] trying to sell it all," Buchanan says. "I think," he pauses, "let's put it this way. He's got something where he's got it locked for someone to buy the whole thing, to buy the name, the whole bit."

Cowboy Mystique

BEYOND THE RUMOR MILL, a John Travolta vehicle released in 1980 and called Urban Cowboy helped feed the Saddle Rack machine. Until then, the bar had been another player in the country & western bar scene, but with the cool factor associated with the movie, everyone shimmied into the Saddle Rack. In the same way that another Travolta film, Saturday Night Fever, catapulted disco dancing into America's nocturnal pastime, Urban Cowboy introduced two-stepping and mechanical bull riding into San Jose's vernacular. Audiences could come to the Saddle Rack and live vicariously like Bud and Sissy Davis night after night. The film was a hit and so, too, was the Rack.

"At the time the movie came out, it moved from a little country bar into a massive, and I mean massive, country bar," Buchanan says.

Beginning in 1981, the Saddle Rack hosted live shows and concerts featuring singers and rockers--heavy metal and country--on the way up and on the way down, Buchanan says. Over the years, they've booked such acts as James Brown, B.B. King, Garth Brooks, Huey Lewis, Roy Orbison, the Charlie Daniels Band, Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Martina McBride and an all-star roster of other bands and singers. And it's not all Texas-style bragging. Inside Guenther's office, just like in the movie where Wes attempts to rob Gilley's (which inspired Guenther's Rack), wood-framed photos of celebrity singers line the faux wood-paneled walls.

Guenther turned up the cowboy mystique when he incorporated a bull pen--yes, live bulls--in the back corner, where the dance floor closest to the bathroom now stands, around 1982. The story sounds familiar. On a busy Thursday night, Patty Gergel, 22 and a recent graduate of San Jose State University, tells her group of friends that she heard a rumor about the bulls.

"They got loose and started running on 280," she tells her sorority sisters.

"Shut up!" one of them screams.

"It ran on Meridian, not 280," says Buchanan, clarifying the rumor later that night.

Was it all the bulls?

"Just one. It jumped over a 10-foot fence. That was amazing to see. An 1,800-pound bull jumping the fence."

An automobile traveling on Meridian hit the bull and ended its spree of freedom. The bull arena didn't last much longer and in 1984, after their insurance company said they wouldn't cover it, Guenther shut it down. These days, the mechanical bull is one of the largest draws, with many just-turned-21, it's-my-birthday gonzos tanked on liquid courage lining up for a crack at it. (Wednesday bull riders pay $1; Thursday is free and Fridays and Saturdays is $2.) First, everyone must sign a waiver acknowledging that they will not hold the Saddle Rack liable for any injuries incurred. When one girl hops on--flanked in stiletto heels (stiletto heels!)--it's easy to see why it's a necessary agent. After several practice rounds, the bull ride operator begins testing the speed settings, so that people get bucked up, out, sideways, butt first into the soft mat. Friday and Saturday nights, Patty and her sorority sisters--Stephanie Sutton, 21, Michele Panzica, 21, and Ola Samuels, 22--know better than to line up for a ride unless it's a special occasion. Everyone watches the bull riders, cheering and clapping for the sure-footed, sturdier types who have either ridden a lot of horses in their lifetime or must have groins of steel.

"It's a really eclectic crowd," says Sutton, referring to the mix of downtowners, urban cowboys and Silicon Valley techies. She dismisses the bar's reputation as a "meat market," as it was widely known during the club's peak years in the late '80s and early '90s.

"There's gentlemen in here," Panzica says. "They ask you to dance, they walk us to the dance floor and walk us back to our seat."

What's valued here, Sutton says, are guys that dance well. Upon seeing some Marlboro man ride the bull, Sutton coos, "Oh, here's one going on now."

All four girls crane their necks to watch a piece of vintage Americana, a cowboy sexpot caught in the white spotlight, camel-colored cowboy hat, fitted long-sleeve shirt and ass-tight jeans burning in the brightness. A cold Budweiser for their thoughts?

"It's like having sex," says Samuels on how to stay on the bull, as she gyrates in her seat as if she were trying to keep an invisible hula hoop going. "It's, like, sloooooooooow."

"Is that going to be in the paper?" Patty asks.

"Oh no!" the girls groan. Down by the bull, a bartender just rang the bell, a celebratory response to someone who has just downed a shot while seated in the Margaritaville barber chair. While explaining how line dancers know which steps to accompany which song (it's determined by the tempo and a brave floor leader), Samuels gets plucked from her chair by the notorious, seventysomething Steve. Steve is one of the Rack's enigmatic regulars who doesn't sit down long enough for a conversation. Entertain his dancing fancy and maybe he'll talk. But when he's asked why he's come for 10 years straight, every night on his bicycle, he smiles slyly, "I'll never tell." And with one look at Samuels and his right arm extended, they walk off together toward the dance floor.

Photograph by George Sakkestad

End of the Line: Two-steppers and line dancers will have to groove elsewhere after Aug. 5.

True Heart

MORE SO than their tricycle races, in which adults on children's trikes pedaled through an obstacle course, and line dancers shuffling to "Achy Breaky Heart," the heart of the Saddle Rack is the music. The house band, Wild at Heart, has played every night for 10 years, changing its repertoire from time to time to accommodate the slew of contemporary, pop, country and country crossover hits like Shania Twain's "Man I Feel Like a Woman," the Corrs' "Breathless" and yes, even Britney's "Hit Me Baby One More Time." Every Wednesday and Thursday evening, patrons can sign up for open mic and sing, no holds barred, backed by Wild at Heart. But one of the reasons why it is so beloved by country music fans is that this is one of few venues where they can hear live country music. For years now, the Saddle Rack has partnered up with KEEN, KSAN, KYCY and currently San Jose's KRTY, promoting the concerts and shows at the Saddle Rack and at the surrounding arenas and musical venues. After every major concert at Shoreline or Compaq Center (formerly San Jose Arena), fans gather for the post-show at the Saddle Rack. And on several occasions, the talent from those shows comes too, guitar and microphone in hand.

Following a big Brooks and Dunn show May 5 at Shoreline, the show continued at the Saddle Rack, when Brooks and Dunn, Montgomery Gentry and Toby Keith jammed onstage for a while, says Nate Deaton, marketing director and assistant program director for KRTY, which co-sponsors vocalist contests and prize giveaways. "That was very cool."

"I love country music," says Sutton, who rode the bull on her 21st and nursed her groin the next day. "It's the best place to sing and dance to country music."

And without a place like the Saddle Rack serving as a showcase for upcoming talent, it's not likely that there will be another venue quite like it.

"Country music is a viable genre in Santa Clara County," says KRTY's Deaton. "I'm sure, in a short period of time, a couple of clubs that open up will have country music nights. But no matter what it is, it's not going to be the same. The Saddle Rack's legendary."

So as the weeks and memories become more precious, and longtime employees ponder where they'll work next, the Saddle Rack family holds tight for now.

"For me, it's been a fantastic run," says Buchanan about all the memories he's accumulated in the last 25 years. "I really enjoy it; I still really enjoy it. Otherwise I wouldn't still be here."

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From the July 19-25, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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