Few clubs stick around for 50 years. Even fewer remain independent. And fewer still drive the national conversation for decades.
That’s what First Avenue, the iconic Minneapolis venue that’s proved pivotal for artists including Prince, Hüsker Dü, and Lizzo, while serving as one of the Midwest’s chief musical beacons, has done.
“The mission remains the same as it has been for 50 years: to provide music and community,” says Dayna Frank, who has owned and operated First Avenue since 2009. “We operate under the same vision and values as we did in 1970, which is a place where everyone is welcome and where everyone can come and express themselves and be exactly who they are.”
But while First Avenue’s core tenets may have remained the same, the venue has evolved since Joe Cocker christened the space — then known as The Depot — during his “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” tour on April 3, 1970. As times have changed, so has First Avenue, cycling through names, the types of programming it books, and the very owners and operators of the space.
Now a local empire, with rooms of all sizes across the Twin Cities, First Avenue captures the spirit of the few independent venues like it that remain: A resilient and innovative cultural institution, continuing to place the interests of patrons and performers above all else, and hardened after its fair share of lean, precarious years.
“Staying independent, it’s just been a part of our ethos for so long,” says First Avenue General Manager Nathan Kranz, who has been with the venue since 1998. “It’s just baked into our business.”
Before First Avenue was a Midwestern musical institution, it was an institution of another sort. In 1937, the building at the corner of Minneapolis’ First Avenue and Seventh Street opened as a luxurious Greyhound bus depot, with trendy art deco design and then-noteworthy amenities such as public phones, shower rooms and air conditioning.
When the depot relocated in 1968, it attracted local entrepreneur Allan Fingerhut, an heir to the Fingerhut catalog fortune, who caught wind that theater magnate Ted Mann was leasing out the building. The 25-year-old Fingerhut was new to the music business but recognized the room’s potential.
“I noticed there were great sightlines,” Fingerhut told Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages in 2003. “Every other building out there had all these posts and poles. … It was gritty downtown. I was young and foolish. But to me it was a magic room.”
Danny Stevens, a musician with ties to the local live music business, helped Fingerhut secure a license, and Fingerhut went about building a venue in the mold of Bill Graham’s Fillmore clubs.
“The concept of The Depot” — its name upon opening — “was to be somewhere between a barroom and a big room,” Fingerhut told City Pages.
When Cocker arrived in town to open the room in April 1970, excitement was palpable, and then some.
“Not since the truck drivers’ strike of 1934 is it likely that there has been such excitement, such chaos, such congestion, such noise just off Hennepin Avenue as there was Friday night when Joe Cocker and his Grease Band played for the opening of the town’s newest night club, The Depot,” the Minneapolis Tribune wrote the next day.
It wasn’t empty buzz, either.
“There is Fillmore West, there is Fillmore East and just when we were beginning to think that never the twain would meet, we now seem to have a Fillmore Upper Midwest,” the Tribune concluded.
The club quickly attracted luminaries including Rod Stewart, Frank Zappa, the Kinks, Jethro Tull and B.B. King, but fizzled almost as quickly, closing its doors in June 1971.
The closure was brief. In July 1972, Fingerhut and Stevens partnered with Cincinnati-based disco club chain American Events to reopen the venue as Uncle Sam’s, and the club rode disco’s wave until it receded later in the decade and American Events pulled out.
The venue was floundering once again, but staffers Steve McClellan and Jack Meyers persuaded Fingerhut to let them rebrand the establishment and embrace live music once again. Fingerhut ceded day-to-day control to McClellan and Meyers, who rechristened the club as First Avenue on New Year’s Eve 1981 and set the stage for a legendary decade.
“People might think the scene is very vanilla or very homogenous,” Frank says. “But the scene in Minneapolis is actually incredibly eclectic. We have an amazing hip-hop scene, we have amazing R&B and soul artists, we obviously have great indie-rock. We have country, alt-country. We have electronic. The scene is so diverse.”
That dates to the ’80s, when First Avenue and Seventh Street Entry, the 250-capacity club adjacent to the 1,550-capacity main room, launched the careers of Twin Cities talent, from funk-rock iconoclast Prince to punk bands Hüsker Dü and The Replacements.
The club earned a national following when it was famously featured during performances in Prince’s blockbuster 1984 film “Purple Rain,” but the influx of visitors threatened its outsider nature.
“The success of Prince almost killed First Avenue,” onetime First Avenue DJ Kevin Cole told Magnet magazine in 2005. “When people saw ‘Purple Rain,’ for the next two years after that, we had people coming down wearing purple trench coats with studs in them.”
Prince himself expressed frustration about the club’s newfound notoriety, telling Rolling Stone in 1985 that previously “you’d be yourself, and you’d feel comfortable,” but that now “it felt a little strange.”
But the “Purple Rain” glow faded, and First Avenue soldiered on, attracting the biggest names in alt-rock, hip-hop, R&B, world music, and more in the late ’80s and ’90s.
As the new millennium approached, however, First Avenue began to change once again.
“When we first started there, they would have dance nights most nights,” says talent buyer Sonia Grover who, like Kranz, has worked at First Avenue since 1998.
Kranz’s first time at the venue was for one such event, in the early ’90s, and they were an institution — but one that fundamentally influenced First Avenue’s role in nightlife. Because the dance nights began at 10 p.m., hard-ticket shows had to be done by about 9:30, forcing early start times.
“People were accustomed to it, both concertgoers and agents, but that doesn’t mean everyone loved it,” says Grover. When once “insane” dance night attendance numbers declined, it necessitated a change.
Kranz, Grover and their peers identified the need for a fresh strategy as First Avenue underwent one of its biggest changes to date: Dayna’s father, Bryon, who had worked with the club’s management since the ’80s as a financial adviser, helped Fingerhut purchase the venue outright from Mann, who had served as lessor for three decades.
Byron immediately set about modernizing the venue’s facilities and practices — “Some of the things that old rock clubs didn’t always aspire to,” says Kranz with a laugh — but Fingerhut quickly forced him out following a financial dispute.
“Those next couple years were pretty weird,” Kranz says. “We were living halfway between the old days and where things ended up going.”
In 2004, Fingerhut’s ownership culminated in bankruptcy, and Byron teamed with McClellan and Meyers to buy the club.
The acquisition “happened at a real auspicious time,” Kranz says. “Nobody wanted to go through bankruptcy again. We were like, ‘How can we merge the freewheelin’, rock ’n’ roll office with some actually good business sense and run this thing the right way?’ That’s what Byron was definitely able to bring in.”
When Kranz and others suggested “more of a concert-forward approach as opposed to relying on dance nights,” Byron listened, and as the strategy proved financially beneficial, he directed the money into improving the venue.
“We had the talented staff, we had the great location, we had the historic club, we had started to learn how to run a business, but we were also in a woefully outdated building that had had 30 years of deferred maintenance,” Kranz says.
The decade was a prosperous one and even included Prince’s return to the venue. Days before the Purple One played Target Center across the street on July 7, 2007, his team got in touch with First Avenue about an aftershow — his first performance at the club since 1987.
The show came to fruition, but as he was wont to do, Prince arrived in the wee hours of the morning, and the police shut the show down early.
“Our production person was just like, ‘Yeah, I saw the setlist. He would’ve gone for a couple more hours at least,’” Grover says.
The debacle led First Avenue to negotiate a standing after-hours agreement with the city known as the Prince Permit, allowing the club all-night operation should the Minnesota legend perform there again. While it wasn’t used during his lifetime, the club invoked it after his passing in April 2016 so it could host three till-dawn dance parties in his honor.
By then, First Avenue had been operated for several years by Dayna, who took over the business to keep it independent after Byron suffered a stroke in 2009.
“What would Prince want right now?” she recalls the First Avenue team thinking. “He would want people dancing, and he would want them dancing all night, because that’s what he loved. We had people flying in from Chicago: they’d land at midnight, they’d dance from 1 to 5 a.m., and then they’d get back on a plane and fly back. It was unbelievable that we were able to put that on.”
The parties speak to First Avenue’s centrality in Twin Cities culture, which has helped the venue acquire several local venues, including Minneapolis’ Fine Line and St. Paul’s Turf Club and Palace Theatre, while booking gigs at several others, such as Northrup Auditorium and Cedar Cultural Center. The concept for a 10,000-capacity open-air community performing arts center at Minneapolis’ Upper Harbor Terminal, to be operated by First Avenue, was approved by the City Council in 2019.
Pollstar Boxoffice reports over the last 36 months for the main room show an average 1,107 tickets sold and gross of $23,442.
“It’s all been really natural and organic,” Dayna says. “Whatever stage the artist is at, whatever kind of room or type of room they want, we want to be able to help them.”
Adds Grover: “We love being involved every step of the way. We want to develop the band in the market.”
The coronavirus crisis has complicated matters for First Avenue, which like most venues throughout the country has seen business dry up. But Dayna expects the venue to emerge stronger than ever – as it has for its entire half-century history.
“First Avenue has been about supporting music and community for 50 years,” she says. “We’re not going to let this stop us.”
This article originally appeared in VenuesNow.