Ken Mueller was following doctor's orders on October 11, 1999, when he transferred ownership of Durant Inc., the parent company of the Grizzly Rose country dance club, to Robert "Cowboy Bob" Berliner. A heart attack had forced Mueller to retire his decade-long title as the King of the Grizzly; rather than continue as the club's chief, he and his wife would spend a good deal of time on a beach in Mexico, concentrating on living an easy, stress-free life.
If Mueller's physician had known what would happen to the Grizzly Rose in the next six months, he might have forbidden his patient to follow the play-by-play.
In January, Berliner was discovered to have accepted investment money from felon David St. Germaine, who'd been convicted of bank fraud in Massachusetts and whose financial involvement in the Rose constituted a violation of county liquor laws -- a discovery that set in motion a federal probe of both St. Germaine and the Grizzly's financing and calls for Durant Inc. to appear before the Adams County commissioners to explain just what was going on. The discovery also led Berliner to sell Durant Inc. to an out-of-the-blue buyer named Wayne Jones, an urban cowboy who stepped up to the auction block in mid-February -- before anyone even realized that bids for the company were being taken and right before Berliner was to appear before the commissioners.
But many more people have been involved -- as in the large number of individuals who worked for Mueller but either quit in disgust with Berliner or were asked by him to leave, and the long-term customers who disapproved of Berliner's overhaul of the former Grizzly environment.
There have also been many lawsuits filed against Durant Inc. for activities that took place during the Berliner reign, the most recent of which finds Mueller claiming that Berliner's sale to Jones was illegal and attempting to reclaim his former club and revive its good name.
Whoever emerges as the victor in that suit -- whether it's Jones or, as several sources suspect, Mueller -- he's going to have a helluva mess to clean up. Jones recently filed for a Chapter 11 company-reorganization bankruptcy, claiming that the financial stress of a thirty-day liquor-license suspension -- imposed on the club by the Adams County commissioners for liquor-code violations (namely, being financed by a felon) -- was more than he, his staff or the business could take. (Jones will be legally allowed to take a drink at the Grizzly Rose at 4:49 p.m. on Friday, when the suspension is mercifully lifted.)
If Mueller is reinstated as owner, though, his plans will have to entail more than the return of live music and bins of cold beer. Under Mueller, the Grizzly was one of the nation's most esteemed mid-sized country-music venues, known for its family-friendly vibe and its ear for new talent. (Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks are among the mega-stars who performed there during the tender years of their careers.) Unfortunately, Mueller's discretion on matters of character wasn't as finely tuned in mid-October, when he handed over his club to Berliner, a man who brought zero nightclub experience to the establishment. Mueller, Jones and Berliner all failed to return numerous phone calls, but based upon accounts provided by former employees and current Grizzly associates, it appears he also brought zero class to the place.
"When Ken was in charge, the Grizzly Rose was a family establishment, and it was a fun place to work. Bob wanted to run the business like a used-car dealership, and he did not care about anyone he worked with," says Ame Hayhurst, an office manager under Mueller who was forced to resign three months after Berliner took over. Hayhurst says Berliner accused her of falsifying a time card, a charge she denies. "Bob would tell people straight to their faces -- he didn't care who was standing around -- that they were stupid and didn't know what they were doing. I am a very strong person, but I left that place every day in tears. I was doing my job and doing it well, and here's this person telling me I'm crap."
To some, though, Berliner's apparent lack of sensitivity was minor among his character flaws. His female employees say he had an unprofessional attitude toward them, which was evident in the outfits he made the cocktail waitresses wear. "Before Bob, they wore jeans and a Western shirt, tied up to look country," Hayhurst says. "When he came in, it was these very short shorts and a very short top that ties in the middle. It was bad -- I got twenty to thirty e-mails a day from people saying how much they were disgusted, that it was like a country-music Hooter's. Older couples, families do not want to come in and see half-naked women at a country bar."
Donna Costa, a former manager of the Grizzly Rose's cocktail waitresses who quit after working with Berliner for a few months, says Berliner routinely discriminated against potential waitresses on the basis of appearance. "I would sneak peeks at the applications," Costa says. "He would write things on there about these girls -- many of them pretty, smart girls who had lots of waitressing experience, but who maybe didn't look like supermodels. It was obvious discrimination and, in my opinion, sexual harassment." Among the comments Costa observed on the applications were "Not the look -- missing teeth," "Food experience, too big-boned," "Tall, attractive, but NO," and "Experienced -- too big, has kids," "Not very attractive" and, sometimes, simply "Fat and ugly."
"I hired one girl who was just awesome," says Costa. "She made like $80-$100 a night in tips; the customers loved her. She was a bit bigger than some girls, but really pretty and very pleasant. Bob came up to me and said, 'Excuse me, do you want my guests to vomit?' I eventually was pressured to let her go, just because Bob thought she didn't have a good figure." Costa also claims that Berliner -- who was arrested in Littleton in 1996 on charges that he sexually assaulted his former girlfriend, charges that were later dropped -- tolerated an environment where waitresses' rights weren't protected.
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"I've worked in a lot of clubs, even a strip club, and Bob's behavior was totally unprofessional," Costa says. "He would drink with the waitresses; he would dance with them and be drunk on the dance floor. One time he shoved a handful of whipped cream into this waitress's mouth because she'd done something to annoy him. I've just never felt the way I felt at the Grizzly at any other place I ever worked."
Berliner appeared to be in over his head from the moment he took over, says Marno McDermott, owner of the Stampede, another area country-Western-themed nightclub. Though McDermott's club has picked up some of the Grizzly Rose's business lately -- particularly by scoring some live performances that were canceled either by the Grizzly or by wary booking agents who'd heard about the chaos -- he contends that he'd prefer a competent, friendly competitor to the Cowboy Bob variety. "When Ken owned the Grizzly, we had a good relationship. We never badmouthed each other. It was friendly," he says. "But when Bob got it, he kind of wanted to start this little war. He would badmouth us, flier our parking lot, stuff that you just don't do. I never did it back, because I didn't want to stoop to his level. But it was just bad business."
"People host a dinner party for twelve people and think they can run a nightclub," adds John Fenstermacher, operations manager at the Stampede, "but it's not like that. These are not just bars -- they are multimillion-dollar corporations with hundreds of employees. I don't think Bob ever got that." He says that once, after he'd kicked Berliner out of his club for flipping his partner around on the dance floor, Berliner vowed that he was going to put the Stampede out of business. "Yeah, I guess that's kind of amusing," Fenstermacher says, "considering what's happened."
What has happened is a lot to consider. The Grizzly Rose nightclub -- one of Colorado's entertainment gems -- has been reduced to providing a set for some ridiculous, and seemingly endless, human drama. Everyone liked it better when it was simply a setting for the kind of drama that only plays out in country songs.