Two patrons sit in the famously steamed window at Zootz dance club in Portland in an undated photo. The venue opened in 1987, closed in 1999 and is still fondly remembered by thousands of former dancers. Credit: Courtesy of Zootz Appreciation

PORTLAND, Maine — Early one morning, at the end of the previous century, the turntables finally stopped spinning. DJs packed up their records in the glare of closing time lights as drenched, exhausted dancers left the floor one last time.

Then Zootz, the storied dance and live music venue known for an inclusive, eclectic and safe vibe, closed its doors for good.

But it never disappeared altogether, living on in the hearts, minds and souls of its loyal patrons. That’s why this weekend, hundreds of them will gather together and conjure up the Zootz of old, partying like it’s the end of the century again.

On Saturday night, the club’s original owner, Kris Clark, some of the original DJs and Space Gallery are hosting a Zootz reunion dance party. It’s the fifth such event Clark has put together over the years, with some of them drawing 500 people.

Clark opened Zootz at the top of Forest Avenue in 1987, and sold it in 1994. It continued to operate with different owners until 2000 and always retained its reputation for musical variety and as a safe place for all.

“Zootz was the place I was able to connect with a like-minded tribe for the first time in my life,” said former patron Jennifer Bowdish. “It was a place where you could let it all go. It was beautiful, pulsing, sweaty madness. It was cathartic and incredible. A place where you could leave it all on the floor.”

Thursdays were known for DJs and dancing. Friday nights were chem-free for all ages. Sundays catered to cooks, waitstaff and other service workers.

“The DJs loved that because they tipped like crazy,” Clark said.

Kris Clark opened Zootz in Portland in 1987, creating an open, welcoming atmosphere of fun and dancing for all. This weekend Clark is hosting a Zootz reunion dance party, 23 years after the venue closed for good. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Along with DJs, Zootz hosted many local and national acts, including Soundgarden, Dinosaur Jr., Fugazi, Twisted Roots, 6Gig and Sam Black Church.

Clark had a chance to book Nirvana for $1,500 before they were famous. But the band could only play on a Tuesday, and Clark didn’t reckon the act could draw a crowd that early in the week, so he passed.

“I would have lost $1,400, but I could have said I met Kurt Cobain,” Clark said.

On Fridays and Saturdays, he kept the club open until 3 a.m., two hours after alcohol sales had to stop at 1 a.m. That meant dancers younger than 21 were welcome after hours.

“It was safe if you were underage. To give kids a place to express themselves and dance was so special,” said former patron Callie Viney. “There will never be a place that comes close to how special Zootz was.”

Clark purposely opened his club outside the Old Port. He didn’t want drunken barhoppers wandering in on a whim. Clark wanted Zootz to be a destination for dancers and music lovers.

He also made sure everyone was welcome — gay, straight and folks who weren’t sure yet.

“We could work or play there without judgment,” said Lynne Sterling, a member of a 2,000-person Facebook group dedicated to the defunct watering hole. “It was safe for the LGBTQ community, for teens on underage night, for punks and party people.”

It was a different world back then, points out Portland native Rob Hoyt — where you could get beaten up, or worse, in Maine just for being gay.

“Zootz was a place where everyone was welcome,” Hoyt said. “Today’s world couldn’t possibly understand.”

Sometimes, people would come in, see same sex couples dancing and ask Clark if Zootz was a gay club. He always said yes — even though that was not strictly true — reasoning he’d rather not have anyone there who’d have a problem with that.

“I figured they’d self-sort themselves out,” Clark said.

Clark continued working as a music promoter after he sold the club. He also worked at a bike shop, bought some rental property and helped various political campaigns over the years.

“I’m semi-retired now,” he said.

Kris Clark stands in an empty room at Space Gallery in Portland on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022, where he’ll recreate his iconic nightclub Zootz for one night this weekend. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

But he still gets enough requests to hold Zootz reunions every so often.

Saturday’s reunion will feature two rooms and five DJs, including Chris Gauthier, FK!1 (Fred Kennedy) DJ Mike Said, DJ Deb Dufresne and Dereloid. One room will be dedicated to music from the Zootz era, and the other will play tunes the club might be enjoying now, if it still existed outside the hearts of those who loved it.

Clark said it’s not hard for him to understand why Zootz patrons remain so loyal to a club that’s been gone for decades.

“It was more than a club. It was a community,” he said.

Annemarie Heisler thinks it was — and still is — a community.

“Zootz was a magnet for people who loved music and dancing, and we all cared for and looked out for each other in a way that seems so special and rare now,” Heisler said. “At the reunions, I’ve connected with people I never knew beyond dancing my heart out next to them during some of the most special years of my life.”

Peter McLaughlin, music programmer at Space, said he expects there will be more than just old Zootz fans at the show this weekend.

“I’ve talked with people from 25 to 75 who say they are coming,” McLaughlin said.

After Saturday’s party, Clark isn’t sure when the next one might happen.

“I’m in my mid-70s now, and I’d hate to promise and then not deliver,” he said. “Talk to me in a couple years.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated when Zootz closed. It was 2000.

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.