Boise's Beautiful Bouquet

Norman Davis and Mark Ellsworth
News of the Blues: Summer 1994

The Bouquet has been a Boise landmark for more than ninety years. Many Boise businesses have faded with time, but the Bouquet is as alive and vital as ever--more more so. The new proprietors recently tore out the big kitchen that dominated the center of the club for almost two decades. They needed the extra room to handle the capacity crowds that show up regularly for a good time.

The Bouquet became Boise's first full-time blues bar last fall when it was purchased by musicians Barney Southard, Ken Harris and Phil Garonzik. The trio manages the club and plays in the house band, the Hoochie Coochie Men. As blues is the main attraction, they renamed the bar the "Blues Bouquet." It's finally become what it always wanted to be," says Southard, "a blues bar."

Like the blues, the Bouquet haas had a colorful history dating back to the turn of the century. It was doing business at 711 Main Street in 1902, a rough and tumble place with card games and call girls and frequent fisticuffs. The bartenders kept saps and billy clubs behind the bar to use if necessary to keep things orderly.

The centerpiece of the old Bouquet was an ornate, gargantuan, Brunswick back bar of cherry-stained mahogany, manufactured in Boston in 1903. It was so large it had to be broken down into 14 sections, which were shipped around Cape Horn to San Francisco, then sent by wagon train to Boise.

The back bar, still the predominant feature of the Bouquet, was originally installed in the Overland Hotel's ballroom. The hotel was torn down in 1904 and replaced by the Eastman Building. The owners of the Bouquet wanted that bar, but it was too tall for their 711 Main location, so they bought it and put it in storage for several years. When they finally located a building large enough to install the bar at 821 Main, they moved the Bouquet there.

Al Berro first saw the bar when he was sixteen. Al was a boxer from Jordan Valley. His dad owned a bar there, but Al says his dad's back bar was "scroungy as hell," compared to the Bouquet's. Al thought, "I'd like to own that bar someday." But he never dreamed it would happen.

After World War II, Berro came back from a stint at the Portland shipyards and bought a barber shop in Boise. The address was at 711 Main. Al didn't know until years later that it was the first location of the Bouquet. Around 1975, when the Belgravia Apartments (a notorious cathouse in the old days) were remodeled, workmen found two half-pint whiskey bottles under a sink. They were embossed with the Bouquet's name and address at 711 Main Street and the date 1902.

One of Berro's customers and friends was Tony Uranga, who owned a couple of bars in town. Uranga asked Berro in 1955 if he'd like to be his partner and buy the Bouquet. Al worried about the price, but eventually said yes and borrowed the money to do it.

"When I bought it, it was a pretty good place," says Berro. "Bob King and Johnny Callas owned it then. King had owned it since 1934. It was a club where they played cards. It wasn't legal, but Boise was a lot more wide open then and the city police would ignore it if the games didn't get too big. We played rummy, pan and a little poker at night." Sometimes those "little" poker games turned out to be pretty big. Berro remembers losing $5,000 to his janitor in one month. "I just couldn't beat the guy!" he complains.

Berro became sole owner of the Bouquet in 1960. His partner, Tony Uranga, wasn't satisfied with the returns on his investment, so Al bought him out. Uranga went on to open the first club in Jackpot, Nevada. Berro managed the Bouquet, tended bar, dealt cards and acted as bouncer. He didn't need the billy clubs behind the bar when somebody got out of line, he just used his fists.

A drunken fighter caused quite a stir one slow Monday night. Only 30 or 40 people were in the bar when a guy Berro had kicked out earlier for raising hell, came back shooting. He fired three shots. One went right through the front wind. Another shot hit a patron who ducked behind the Foosball game, bleeding profusely. Everybody else hit the floor. Berro grabbed the gunman from behind and held him in a death lock until somebody grabbed the wild man's gun. It's amazing nobody got killed in the scrape. The fighter went to jail for a few days.

The Bouquet Sportsman's Center was just a tavern until 1968. A place where you could buy a beer or a cigar, get something to eat, or play some cards. A change in police chiefs brought a change in attitude towards gambling. Card games were no longer openly tolerated. The cops sent in stool pigeons with marked money to plan pan, then busted everybody. Berro was arrested three times that summer. He decided that without card games for income he'd have to get a liquor license.

In the early 70s, Boise began its first downtown redevelopment, leveling a number of historic buildings in the process. The Idaho Statesman reported on March 25, 1975 that the Bouquet would soon become a parking lot "while waiting for construction of the proposed downtown shopping mall." The Boise Redevelopment Agency offered Berro a price for the Bouquet which he thought was unrealistic. He fought the agency in court and eventually received an amount double their original offer.

Berro invested his returns in a building at 1010 Main, the site of the old Grenada movie theater, where Al had seen his first cowboy movie. The building was also the site of the Manitou Hotel, noted for its fancy ladies upstairs. It took three years to remodel the place, but finally the back bar was installed and the matching woodwork completed. Keith Cox, manager of Tom Grainey's and former bartender at the Bouquet, remembers that it took him eight-and-a-half hours to completely clean and oil the bar.

For a while there were still some card games in the basement, operated by a dealer who rented the space from Berro. A door in the front of the club opened to a spiral staircase that went downstairs. You had to know someone to get through that door. Eventually those card games were also shut down by the police.

The Bouquet began bringing in live music in the late '70s. At first, just light jazz groups, but then bands like Chops, Wilson-Fairchild and Billy Braun began making regular appearances. The Robert Cray Band was one of the first big blues acts to appear in 1978. Bonnie Raitt played there in 1979. The Bouquet soon became one of Boise's hottest clubs. It also developed a reputation as one of the best places to get busted for smoking pot in the back parking lot.

In the early '80s, after 29 years, Berro decided to sell the Bouquet. He was having problems with his family, who were involved in running the club. "I was just disgusted," he says. "I thought, Hell, I'm gonna sell out." He was introduced to Chris Findlay and Tom Rexroad who arranged to purchase the club in 1984.

The new owners inaugurated Boise's first regular Monday blues night. What started as a loose jam quickly turned into one of the Bouquet's busiest nights. Rexroad helped introduce the members of Chicken Cordon Blues to each other at the Monday night sessions.

Because of the success of blues night, the Bouquet began booking more blues bands. Many top-name acts came to play, including Albert Collins, James Cotton, Rory Block, Taj Mahal, Curtis Salgado and Eddie Shaw. The Paul deLay band from Portland performed regularly, as did the Hi Tops, David LaFlamme and the Big Sky Mudflaps. John Laufenberger of the Pranksters remembers rehearsing with the Hi Tops and writing some good songs down in the Bouquet's basement.

In 1986, financial and management problems led Findlay and Rexroad to part ways. Findlay ran the bar in 1987 and then tried leasing the bar to an independent manager. The financial troubles continued however. At one point, credit and money was so tight that the bar would wait for patrons to come in and buy drinks with cash. Then they would send someone over to the liquor store to buy supplies for the evening.

In 1989, Bob Dreyer bought the Bouquet and spent more than $200,000 dressing up the place, remodeling the floors and bathrooms. Dreyer then leased the club to a restaurant group from San Diego who turned it into a Mexican restaurant called the Bouquet Bar & Cantina. Along with the food, there was live music and later, comedy acts, but more management problems forced the club to close.

About the same time the Bouquet closed its doors, Barney Southard and Ken Harris ran into each other at a Boise High School 25th reunion of the Class of 1967. The two had known each other since they both played in high school bands as teenagers. Southard, a veteran musician, had been playing drums with bands like the Jaywalkers and the Chasers. Harris had been living in Boston for 20 years, playing blues up and down the East Coast with various groups.

Southard and his wife Dee were interested in opening a blues club and asked Harris if he'd be interested. "We though, if we could just get this guy to commit," says Southard, "we might have something." Harris agreed to give it a go and started making plans to move back to Boise. They called up an old friend, Phil Garonzik, who had played reeds with Barney in the Boise band, Palindrome, and also put in some years with Fat Chance, the Jaywalkers,, and the Chasers. Garonzik agreed to become a third partner.

Initially, the group planned to open a club called "Wang Dang Doodles." They scoured the city looking for the right location, checking out the Riders Bar, the Watering Hole on Vista and the old Cedars Bar on 8th Street. Southard called the real estate agent who had sold he and his wife their home. The agent turned out to be former Bouquet owner, Chris Findlay.

Findlay introduced the group to the Bouquet's owner who like their idea of a blues club and agreed to a lease. Because of the long reputation of the Bouquet, the new operators decided to retain the name and call it the Blues Bouquet. About four months after the demise of the Bouquet Cantina, the Blues Bouquet opened its doors.

The Hoochie Coochie Men because a five-piece band with the addition of guitarist Mike Trail and bassist Bud Gudmundson. They played almost every night for a while, developing a fast following. Later in the fall, they began bringing in out of town acts like Too Slim and the Taildraggers, and Jimmy Lloyd Rea and the Switchmasters. The success of these shows opened the gates for the wealth of blues talent that followed.

In the few months the Blues Bouquet has been open, Boise blues fans have been treated to entertainment by such artists as Pinetop Perkins, Jimmy Rogers, Phillip Walker, CoCo Montoya, Sam Lay, Robert Lucas, Duffy Bishop, Smokey Wilson, Dave Chastain, the Lloyd Jones Struggle, Mark Hummel, Margo Tufo. The Holmes Brother, Long John Hunter and many local and regional blues acts.

Most out of town artists are pleasantly surprised at the Bouquet's good acoustics, large stage and especially the enthusiastic crowds. Mark Hummel said it was "the best place we played on the last tour."

"It's going well--we can't imagine it going much better," says Harris. It's going well enough that they undertook a major remodeling job in the middle of winter, taking out the kitchen and adding 50 more seats. Plans for the future include possible restoration of the upstair floors and the old theater balcony, which is now closed.

The Bouquet's new proprietors are devoted to the blues and want to bring in everybody worth listening to eventually. Artists they'd like to present include Koko Taylor, Otis Rush, Lonnie Brooks, Jimmy Smith, Brother Jack McDuff, Debbie Davies and Edgar and Johnny Winter.

The Bouquet has lived through half-a-dozen wars, prohibition, the depression, multiple owners, shootings, arrests, three address changes and the Boise Redevelopment Agency. It has also logged a number of strange and unusual events. Longtime patrons remember the night Billy Braun came in wearing an Easter rabbit suit and streaked the club. John Laufenberger recalls paying Paul deLay a compliment one night that Paul misinterpreted as a pass. A number of club goers remember the night ten years ago when Albert Collins walked the length of the bar, blasting his Telecaster while picking up and downing shots of Jack Daniels without missing a note.

Bartender Marsha St. John opened up the Bouquet one afternoon recently and was astonished to see a figure seated at Ken Harris' keyboards on stage. When she walked closer to see who it was, the figure vanished and a dove flew off the keyboards and into the office. Marsha opened the door, then went looking for the bird. It flew down from the rafters, glided past her head, landed again on the keyboards and then flew out the door. Could the ghost of some long gone piano player be putting its seal of approval on Boise's premier blues club? Like Old Man River, the Bouquet just keeps rollin' on. The 91-year-old bar looks as good as ever these days as it gazes down at an audience of young and old, rich and poor, white and black, quiet and rowdy, all there to listen to the blues and have a good time--something you can always count on at the Blues Bouquet.