The original Zootz neon sign in 1989. Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away – OK, actually right here in Portland – there was a nightclub called Zootz. Located at 31 Forest Ave. near Portland Stage, the club was opened in 1987 by local visionary and music lover Kris Clark, who owned and ran it until 1994.

Zootz stayed open for about six years after Clark sold it, but the Clark years are considered by many to be the quintessential ones at an establishment known for its inclusiveness as much as its music.

On Saturday night, there’s a Zootz reunion happening at Port City Music Hall. The dance party/walk down memory lane will feature sets by many of the original DJs who will be spinning the genres that defined the place: industrial, new wave, house, Belgian new beat, acid house, techno and trance. Behind the turntables, you’ll find Chris Gauthier, Bob Look, Dale Charles, Fred Kennedy, Larry Love, DJ Overload and DJ Deb.

I caught up with Clark, some of the DJs, a doorman-turned-bartender and a couple of Zootz regulars, and they painted a clear and vivid portrait of why the club holds so many memories for so many people – and why Saturday night will be not just a dance party but also a family reunion.

Kris Clark in 1993 at Zootz. John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

It all begins with Clark. A self-described ’70s hippie, Clark’s life changed when a friend gifted him with the album “Talking Heads: 77.” “Then I discovered The Clash, New Order and The Cure, and one day I cut my hair off and dyed it black,” Clark recalled. He started putting on dance parties in Waterville and ended up moving to Portland, where the music obsession continued and led to the opening of Zootz .

“I had no idea if it would work, and it did,” Clark said. “A lot of people connected there, and it turned out that Portland just kind of needed it.” During the entire time Clark owned Zootz, Friday nights at the club were for all ages because Clark recognized the need for a place for younger music fans to go. Clark also wanted to be sure that people in the gay community knew they were welcome. “A good third or half of my friends were gay, and I really wanted a place that was just safe to come to and dance and be whoever you want to be.”

Eric Flynn started going to Zootz when he was 19 and ended up working as doorman and bartender. “Zootz was an integral part of my life. That was where I found my tribe,” he said. Flynn looks back at his time spent at Zootz with a keen sense of appreciation for what the place stood for. “It wasn’t just the blend of music, it was the blend of people, and everyone got along.”

DJ Deb DuFresne worked at Zootz from 1988 to 1992 and, like Flynn, spoke of the sense of community. “Zootz captured a moment in time when a group of creative and diverse people came together and bonded over music and dancing.” She said her favorite parts of being a DJ there were the friendships and the chance to play a wide range of dance music, in particular acid house, industrial and techno. “There were no limits,” said DuFresne, who credits her time at Zootz for launching her career as a DJ in New England.

A busy night on the dance floor at Zootz. Photo by Joe Breggia

Chris Gauthier was a Zootz DJ from 1988 to 1990. He summed up his love for Zootz with two key words: people and music. “It’s like making cookies. You have to have the right mix of sugar, right mix of chocolate chips, and then it’s just magic, and that’s what Zootz had during that era.” Gauthier said the sound system Clark installed was first-rate, and combined with an open-minded community of club-goers, it made for an enthralling experience. “When you’re in a room with that really good sound like that and you’ve got this really accepting community that is focused on that music and they’re totally immersed in the music, it’s a synergy, it ignites.”

DJ Bob Look spun at Zootz for nearly two decades and under three different owners. His Sunday night shifts, which I was lucky enough to catch on a number of occasions, featured the famous clipboard on a rope, which hung down from the DJ Booth. Requests for ’80s alternative tunes by bands like The Smiths, The Cure, New Order and Depeche Mode would be frantically scrawled by the likes of yours truly, and Look would cram in as many as he could. “I knew I was having a good night when the windows would steam up. That would mean it was really hopping,” Look recalled. “Everyone came together and got along really well. It became almost like a family.”

Ivory Reiger was a Zootz-goer from opening day. “Zootz was my high school, really … it was the place where all of my formative relationships sprang from.” Reiger said she and her husband, Tony, also a Zootz-goer from the heyday, will both be at the reunion.

There’s a line in The Smiths’ ’80s alternative classic track “How Soon is Now” that I’m reminded of: “There’s a club if you’d like to go, you could meet somebody who really loves you.” While you might not find love Saturday night at the Zootz reunion, you will find a whole lot of smiling faces and bodies on the dance floor. You’ll also find acceptance, because that’s the Zootz way.

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