Music History

The Little Bear Saloon Celebrates Its Fortieth Anniversary

The Little Bear Saloon, which is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year, is legendary — and not just to folks in Colorado. People around the globe have heard about the Evergreen bar, which was formerly a church, a drugstore, the Red Ram Saloon and the Round Up Dance Hall. “Visitors from all over the world are familiar with the Little Bear,” says Mark Anthony King, the venue’s talent buyer as well as a bartender and a manager there. “I’ve heard stories of people wearing their Little Bear T-shirts in Africa who’ve had people come up and say, ‘Hey, yeah, Little Bear, Evergreen! Yeah, we love that place.’”

King calls the Little Bear “a real, honest-to-goodness Western saloon with a honky-tonk kind of feel.” Amid the bar stools, walls, stairs and ceilings with people’s names carved into them, there are a number of license plates from around the country and other corners of the globe, like Haiti. “We just had somebody send us a license plate from Florida with a sign that said, ‘Little Bear Saloon, 2,000 miles to the left,’ that he took out of his bar,” King says.

And where license plates aren’t hanging, there’s memorabilia, including signed posters and T-shirts from the many musicians and bands that have played at the Little Bear over the past four decades, including Willie Nelson, who had a ranch in Evergreen in the ’80s and would pop in to the bar for a couple of songs with a band or by himself. Other big-name stars who have played here include Kris Kristofferson, George Thorogood, Neil Young, Gregg Allman and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band founder John McEuen.

The Little Bear still hosts live music six nights a week, and King brings in a variety of acts ranging from bluegrass and honky-tonk to funk, soul, rock and blues. “People just love to play on our stage,” King says. “The bands that come here just love the history that’s here. There are places that try to replicate that, but they don’t have the history. They’re trying to make it look old, whereas here it’s authentic.”

The Little Bear might be as authentic as it gets — and one reason for that is that not a whole lot has changed over the past few decades. A guy recently walked into the bar, King remembers, and said, “Man, I haven’t been here in thirty years. I had to come back and make sure it was still here. And holy cow — it looks the same! Nothing’s changed.”

King also heard from a guy whose sister had taken him to downtown Evergreen decades ago. “He thought there were a bunch of homeless people in town because there were people lying up and down the sidewalk,” King says. “He said, ‘Holy cow, there’s a lot of homeless people in this town.’ And she told him, ‘No, those are all the people who are passed out from last night at the Little Bear.’ They used to just crash out on the sidewalk.”

While the Little Bear gets packed and rowdy on the weekends, especially with bikers during the summer, the bar still attracts its fair share of regulars and visitors during the week. “I think it’s just that mystique and that history that people are aware of,” King says. “And when they come back to the Denver area, they have to make a trip up to the Little Bear.”

And then there are the bras that hang above the Little Bear’s stage. King thinks the tradition started in the ’70s or ’80s. A new bra gets added to the collection nearly every weekend, he says, guessing that there are currently close to a hundred hanging there. That’s because one New Year’s Eve before King started working at the Little Bear five years ago, all of the bras were cleared out of the place.

“One of the crews took all the bras off the stage, strung them all together and took them down to Evergreen Lake and strung them across the dam,” King explains. “So it’s been restarted since then, and there’s a whole new collection.”

The ReJuveniles will be back at the Little Bear, 28075 Highway 74 in Evergreen, at 4 p.m. Saturday, August 8, for a special 40th anniversary bash; find more details here.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon