Five years after its closing, the legend of
Hairy Mary’s remains
The Smashing Pumpkins, Mudhoney and The
Dave Matthews Band bellied up to the iconic
bar at Hairy Mary’s. Photo courtesy of
The year was 1991. President George H.W. Bush
was in the White House, Paul “Pee Wee Herman”
Rubens was arrested after being caught masturbating
in an adult theater, Nirvana’s iconic “Nevermind”
was released, and Cityview didn’t even exist.
Times were changing, and Des Moines was no
different. The downtown area seemed barren in
comparison to what it is today. Many buildings
were used as storage, which is exactly why Jeff
Wright and John Limke thought it would be the
perfect area to open a new live music venue
on Southwest 2nd Street (the current home of
the High Life Lounge and el Bait Shop).
“We opened the original Hairy Mary’s in 1991
in an old empty warehouse,” said Wright, who
owns Church of Choppers and along with Limke
and Brad “Fatty” Smith also owns FTW Company,
GT Lounge, Kung Fu Tap and Taco and Big Tomato
The name was based on a local beauty that caught
“I was drinking and a waitress at Julio’s was
hot and had great, long hair. Oh yeah, and her
name was Mary, so it was born,” he said. “I
wonder what ever happened to her?”
The neighborhood was so desolate, some local
officials didn’t even know Mary’s existed.
“I remember being outside, and we had been open
for probably a year, and a police officer rolled
up and asked about the bar,” Wright said. “I
told him we had been open for a year, and the
cop said, ‘This is my beat, and I didn’t even
know you guys were here.’ It was a totally underground
club, and we were a lot better known nationally
than we were locally.”
Today, the 80/35 Music Festival has become a
big draw for local music fans, but Wright says
Hairy Mary’s was the original 80/35 party.
“We used to tell the bookers we’re at 80 and
35. We would always get the best shows on Sunday,
Monday and Tuesday after they played the bigger
Midwest cities over the weekend,” he said.
The building was a perfect location for the
venue, but the former tenants left something
not so desirable behind.
infamous Hairy Mary’s bathroom. Photo
courtesy of Iowa Underground Archives
“They used to store hogs in there, and when
we had big shows like the Smashing Pumpkins
or Mudhoney, the wood would start to sweat,
and you could smell the hogs,” Wright laughed.
“I remember we probably had 800 people in there,
and it was so hot and sweaty, steam was rising
off the building. People actually called the
fire department because they thought the building
was on fire because there was so much steam
rising from the body heat.”
The Smashing Pumpkins played the 300 capacity
club in July of 1993, only a few days after
their breakthrough album “Siamese Dream” was
released. A long-time patron, Bobby Hanson,
remembers the show.
“It is one of those shows you think about and
wish you could go back to just one more time,”
he said. “I remember a lot of people couldn’t
get in. They were way over capacity, and people
were squeezed in anywhere there was room. I
remember people hanging from the posts trying
The club, considered the CBGB of Iowa — an iconic
music venue in New York City where bands like
The Ramones and Blondie got their starts — was
so well known on the national level that the
music magazine Alternative Press voted the bar
Best Live Music Venue.
“Bands loved playing there because we liked
to party. There were a lot of wild times down
there,” Wright said. “We didn’t set out to open
theme bars or throw bacon festivals; we did
it for the love of music.”
Other bands that played the original location
included Fugazi, Monster Magnet, Firehose, Clutch,
X, Supersuckers, Ween, Dumpster Juice, House
of Large Sizes and a relatively unknown Dave
“I remember seeing Dave Matthews Band there
with probably 15-20 people,” Hanson laughs.
“Nobody knew who they were when they played.
But that was the great thing about Mary’s; a
lot of great bands played there before they
broke it big.”
Wright said one of the more memorable nights
was when Lollapalooza made a stop at the Iowa
State Fairgrounds in 1993. Some of the bands
on that tour included Primus, Alice in Chains,
Dinosaur Jr, Fishbone, Babes in Toyland and
Tool. The night before the show, Hairy Mary’s
became a pre-party location for the tour.
“All these bands came down to party, and a bunch
of people got on stage, and it turned into a
super jam,” Wright said. “I remember J Mascis
hanging out and shooting pool with some dudes
from Alice in Chains, and I remember Babes in
Toyland stopped playing and pulled the plug
because a dude from Fishbone wouldn’t get off
the stage. It was total chaos, and I don’t think
we closed down until 3 or 4 in the morning.”
Although the parties were known to survive many
challenges, the secret service shut one celebration
down during the floods of ’93.
“The water was close, but for some freak reason,
we had power, and the bar was dry, so we just
moved the speakers outside and started partying,”
Wright said. “Then the secret service came by
in the row boats and told us to stop and turn
the music off because Bill Clinton was going
to be coming by as he toured the flood areas.
The cops made us close everything down, but
we just moved everything to [Mike] Clabaugh’s
“The party always went to my place after the
bar closed,” said Clabaugh, a long time bartender
at GT who played at both locations with numerous
bands and is currently the singer/guitarist
for The Jitz. “At the time, no other venue could
compete, and what was so cool about Mary’s was
the fact they appreciated bands that played
Along with playing the venue, many bands used
the location as a practice space or a place
to hang out and party before or after a gig.
“Fugazi called us up the night before their
show and asked if they could use the bar as
a practice space in the morning,” Wright said.
“They showed up, and we told some friends, so
we all just partied and listened to them practice.
We put some plywood on the pool tables and turned
it into an indoor skate ramp. It was like a
20-hour marathon with Fugazi.”
The bar also had a strong following of regulars
who came down regardless of who was playing.
Kim Huch Hanson, who is married to Bobby but
didn’t know him at the time, was one of those
“I hung out a lot and remember eating a lot
of Pop Tarts there. I think you could get a
package of Pop Tarts for like 50 cents. And
you could get them hot or cold,” she laughed.
“I remember the night before Lollapalooza. There
weren’t a lot of people there, but it was so
cool to see all of these bands that I was going
to see the next day get up on stage and jam
Kim and Bobby still frequent Wright’s and Limke’s
establishments to this day.
“Those guys brought the party environment to
Des Moines, and people are still talking about
it,” Kim said. “Mary’s was the perfect storm,
and I have lots of good memories. Bands heard
it was a wild place and actually wanted to stop
and play Des Moines. There have been other venues
in Des Moines, but there will never be another
place like Mary’s.”
All good things must come to an end, though,
and after advancing the metro music scene in
only a handful of years, Hairy Mary’s closed
its doors in 1994.
“We were totally burned out,” Wright said. “Working
10 bands a week for years takes its toll. We
sold it and moved on to our other ventures.”
But that wasn’t the end of Hairy Mary’s.
The second location
In early 1997, Shawn Crahan of Slipknot had
taken over the Safari Club, located at 2307
University Ave. But as Slipknot began to attract
more attention from record labels, the bar became
a burden and Cranhan closed the Safari Club
in late 1997, selling it to another owner.
“Shawn sold the bar to a kid who was running
it into the ground, so Jeff approached me about
joining up with him and John to reopen Mary’s,”
Fatty said. “I was in the media/bar business
at the time, but I loved live music so we decided
to do it.”
The bar was remodeled from its previous incarnations
and reopened in 1998.
“We gutted the place but still wanted to keep
it punk rock,” Wright said. “I travel a lot,
so when Fatty and I go out of town, we try and
search out the Hairy Mary’s of the towns we’re
To many, one of the most memorable aspects of
the University Avenue location was the bathroom.
When patrons talk about the bar, the bathrooms
usually come up. But Wright says you can’t always
judge a book by its cover.
“People always said the bathrooms were bad,
but we kept them clean. Those bathrooms got
bleached and scrubbed as much as any other bathroom,”
Wright said. “It just had a graffiti look and
feel to it.”
Even as the memories of the bathrooms remain,
it was all about the music. Fatty started booking
bands for the new location and brought an unknown
duo to town for a show that wasn’t very well
“We had booked The White Stripes, and only nine
people paid to get in,” Fatty said. “I called
all the media outlets, telling them about this
great band coming through, but everyone blew
me off. A few weeks later, they were on ‘Late
Night with Conan O’Brien’ and the MTV Awards
One of the local promoters helping book shows
was David “DaVo” Wilkins, who was originally
booking through his company, Axiom Promotions,
at the Safari Club.
“The scene revolved around the bar, which you
don’t really see anymore. People were there
every night, no matter who was playing,” said
Wilkins, owner of Axiom Body Piercing Studio
at the Skin Kitchen and webmaster for Iowa Underground
Archives. “The new Safari Club was being promoted
by other people from out of town, but when Jeff,
Fatty and John came back, they brought it back
to the local, independent promoters.”
Wilkins believes a lot of the shows taking place
wouldn’t have happened if the Mary’s crew wasn’t
“All those guys were very supportive of me and
the shows I was putting together,” he said.
Wilkins also felt the sting of helping break
local bands only to see them become popular
and not return.
“Nobody knew of these bands, but then they would
go on and become big,” he said. “It’s frustrating
as a promoter when you book a band and nobody
shows up. Then six months later you try to get
them back, and they say no.”
But what may have been a burden to the promoters
was a blessing for the fans.
“That was the beauty of the job, catching bands
right as they were on the way up,” Fatty said.
“I remember seeing At The Drive-In the first
time they came through, and there were like
five people there. The next time they stopped,
we were well over capacity.”
Other bands that played at the new location
included Queens of the Stone Age, Mastodon,
L7, Biohazard, The Melvins, High on Fire, Linkin
Park, Murder City Devils, Fu Manchu, Cursive,
Fear, Earthride, William Elliott Whitmore, Exodus,
Captured! By Robots, Hatebreed, King’s X, Misfits,
Agent Orange, Slipknot and North of Grand.
“The Queens of the Stone Age show was so packed,
and we kept losing the power, so we had to have
a guy hold the breaker with a pool cue,” Fatty
said. “I also remember their bassist Nick Oliveri
playing buck naked and breaking shit.”
A motocross event also brought back some fond
memories for Fatty.
“There was a motocross event in town, and they
all showed up and were driving dirt bikes in
the bar,” he said. “One dude put his bike on
top of the bar and caught the bar on fire, and
people went nuts. It was a blast.”
Fatty eventually passed the booking reins to
Gus Ramirez, who brought in a number of acts
from 2000 to 2005.
“The type of bands that played there were underground.
Their motive wasn’t about being signed; it was
more about touring and making it across the
country,” said Ramirez, who is a co-owner of
Bombay Bicycle Club. “It’s nothing like it is
now, though. When I was booking the club, I
was on the phone all day, aggressively calling
people. There was no email or Facebook. It was
calling people and promoting shows with flyers.”
Des Moines’ location in the middle of the country
offered a unique experience for bandsand fans
“I remember seeing a lot of Bay Area bands play
their first Midwest date at Mary’s, and the
same goes for the east coast bands. Their furthest
show west would be at Mary’s. They would be
on a bill together, and a year later you’d see
them touring together in another part of the
country,” Ramirez said. “As much as people think
of it as a live venue, it was the locals that
kept that place alive. Just like any other bar,
you need a great group of regulars, and Mary’s
As years passed, Wright, Fatty and Limke knew
it was getting time to pass the torch.
“We were our own worst demons and partied hard.
There was free beer for the bands and plenty
of wild parties,” Wright said. “We’d start drinking
as soon as the bands showed, and they loved
it. And after the bands would play here, they
would tell their friends.”
Bands including Queens of the Stone Age, Jucifer
and 3 Inches of Blood have given Mary’s shout-outs
while gracing other stages in Des Moines. Local
act The Vandon Arms even started a band so they
could drink for free at Mary’s.
“We all lived together and would have drunken
sing-a-longs. We thought we could put a group
together and get free beer if we played Hairy
Mary’s,” said guitarist Clint Meek.
Although the party was still going, other projects
started taking more of the owners’ time, and
Hairy Mary’s eventually closed five years ago
“You can’t be a 40-year-old guy booking punk
shows. I never wanted to be that guy,” Wright
said. “It’s a young man’s game, and there were
plenty of newcomers — like Sam Summers, who
was a little kid passing out flyers at Mary’s
— who were ready to take on the task.”
Between the two locations, more than 3,000 bands
played the stage.
“I have played in a lot of rock and roll bars,
and Mary’s was by far the best venue,” Clabaugh
said. “A lot of bars only had cover bands, but
Mary’s was the first to say no cover bands,
and they opened the door for a lot of local
bands to get on stage. There was only one Hairy
Mary’s, and there will never be another one
The spirit of Hairy Mary’s lives on in other
places around Des Moines, though. Remnants of
the bar can be found at GT as well as Kung Fu
Tap and Taco, and a painting from the bar can
be seen at Vaudeville Mews.
“Mary’s touched a lot of people, and without
them even knowing, it still is,” Fatty said.
Although Wright, Fatty and Limke no longer operate
a live music venue, they know people are still
working hard to create a strong music scene
“Sam Summers is doing a great job at Wooly’s,
they’re booking some good shows at Vaudeville
Mews, and Frankie is doing great work over at
Gas Lamp,” Fatty said.
Even with new venues popping up, getting people
out to see live music is still a tough task.
“Technology has made it easier to promote, but
it’s still a challenge to get people out to
the shows,” Wright said. “People used to go
out for shows; now they’re too busy updating
blogs and using Instagram.”
Would Wright and Fatty do it again?
“No,” Wright quickly answers. “I’m an artist
by trade, and I spent 20 years of my life promoting
other musicians and artists. Plus, I probably
lost 10 years off my life from all the partying
“I think about all the good times I had at Mary’s,
and I wouldn’t trade them for the world,” he
said. “But I would never do it again.” CV