Once billed as the “world’s largest log cabin,” this former Route 66 taxidermy museum is now the ultimate music venue. Celeste Sepessy travels to Flagstaff to catch a show
Photography by Ryan Williams
It’s Saturday night and the dance floor’s split: Clubmasters and cuffed jeans versus Stetson hats and cowboy boots. However, there’s no rivalry here. The band is on, the lights are low and everybody — young bucks and old-timers alike — is here to dance away the worries of the working week.
Up on the stage, Pat Roberts and the Heymakers are giving dancers an upbeat rockabilly groove to move to — imagine a blend of classic country-western and early rock ’n’ roll. Coiffed pompadour and sideburns, cowboy shirt with pearly snaps, straight-leg jeans with a 1950s cuff and a bandanna tied around his neck to top it off — Roberts not only sounds like the perfect marriage of Elvis and Johnny Cash, he looks the part too. “Good rockin’ lady won’t do me wrong,” he croons, shooting a sidelong glance at Amanda Lee, his bass player and best gal. She’s hard to miss, with a baby-blue Western dress lined with fringe as white as her victory-rolled locks.
It’s Roberts’ first time playing The Museum Club in Flagstaff — a monumental occasion for this Arizona native who got his start playing Prescott’s Whiskey Row at 17. In the late ’60s, Roberts’ older brother bought the Rod Hart & The Hustlers album Live At Don Scott’s Museum Club. “We didn’t have that many albums, so we listened to that record about a thousand times,” he says. “The Museum Club became legendary in our minds.”
Hunkered down on historic Route 66, The Museum Club really is legendary. Equal parts music venue, bar and tourist trap, the Flagstaff club has provided a country-western oasis to college students, natives and travelers alike for decades.
But the massive log cabin isn’t just a rowdy refuge. The Museum Club is Flagstaff, according to Martin Zanzucchi, who owned the club from 1978 to 2003. The retired Flagstaff native still owns the property. “It really represents Flagstaff’s history on Route 66,” he says of the building, which he listed on both the Arizona and National Registers of Historic Places in 1994. “You have to think about Route 66 back then; business owners needed attention-getting devices to lure travelers into these places.”
Built in 1931, The Museum Club was originally the Dean Eldredge Museum and Taxidermist, and Arizona’s own version of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Eldredge — “a collector of fine and unusual objects” who was covered in tattoos, as Zanzucchi describes him — packed the museum with more than 30,000 eccentric specimens, including a two-headed calf, countless Indian curios and a six-legged lamb. It’s unsurprising that visitors quickly dubbed the museum “The Zoo.” Two stuffed mountain lions prowled atop the building, which Eldredge billed as the largest log cabin in the world. (He would later tout it as the biggest in the country, then state.)
Eldredge died of cancer, and the end of Prohibition brought a new owner, saddle maker Doc Williams, and a new purpose: nightclub. It was a success, to say the least, but it wasn’t until 1963 when The Museum Club truly came into its own.
“Don Scott is really the fella that put the club on the map,” Zanzucchi admits. Scott, who played steel guitar for western swing legend Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, decided he had enough of the touring life. His solution? Raise his family in Flagstaff and run the state’s most successful country music club.
Under Scott’s ownership, Bob Wills, Willie Nelson, Wanda Jackson, Waylon Jennings and a flood of others (many of whom were his friends) poured through the club on their way to Las Vegas or Los Angeles. “If you were a star in the ’60s and you were traveling Route 66, you had to come through Arizona, and you had to play at The Museum Club,” Zanzucchi explains.
Even better, Scott used his reel-to-reel recorder to tape the best performances. One such recorded performance: Roberts’ well-worn record of Rod Hart & The Hustlers’ album Live At Don Scott’s Museum Club.
Some 50 years later, nothing much has changed.
Inside, neon signs glow against the wood-plank dance floor polished smooth from decades of boot soles dancing in the night. A wilderness of taxidermy animals overlooks the regulars, who are likely nursing a beer under the cabin’s wagon wheel and antler chandeliers. Two bars flank the dance floor; on one, a blackboard advertises future shows “Coming to The Zoo.”
The Museum Club’s reputation as northern Arizona’s go-to country-western venue certainly holds strong. As in decades past, The Zoo is a little bit country, a little bit rock ’n’ roll. Depending on the night, you’ll find national touring acts, such as leading country artist Jo Dee Messina and psychobilly group The Reverend Horton Heat, or local favorites like vintage honky-tonk band Trailer Queen.
Brea Burns, Trailer Queen’s perfectly classic frontwoman, sees the club as a time capsule. “It’s keeping what music is really about alive. It’s a throwback to simpler times,” she says.
In recent years, it was common to have a line out the door, according to Gary Nelson, the club’s general manager in the early ’90s. The Zanzucchi days were always packed, thanks to Flagstaff’s “pretty jumping” bar scene and a steady flow of great musicians.
Its nickname, The Zoo, also took on a whole new dynamic; the club drew a rowdy crowd looking for — perhaps a bit too much — fun. “That’s what happens when you mix country music and alcohol, and stir vigorously,” Nelson says.
These days, you’ll see the joint packed for Wednesday’s dime beer night, the weekend and big-name concerts. But the crowd and their reasons for visiting The Zoo are the same; white-haired cowboys (and their girls) and slick greasers alike slide across the dance floor to the most iconic music of decades past — and present.
And some even come for the ghost stories, which are aplenty. Scott and his wife died in the building, and many believe their spirits have stayed behind. Maybe they fell in love with the place like so many others, Zanzucchi says. “It’s one of a kind. They don’t want to leave.”