From the patio of the Riverview Supper Club, you can see something like the future of Minneapolis taking shape. Across the Mississippi and a hundred-odd yards downstream sits the Grain Belt Brewery, where laborers on scaffolds are busy sculpting the industrial stone into modern office spaces. Nearby sites will be converted to parkland, retail strips, townhouses, and dot-condos in the coming years--all part of the city's massive redevelopment plan for the upper river corridor. Adopted last year, the blueprint includes land under and around the Riverview, the oldest African-American-owned club in Minnesota. Yet unlike the Polish Palace bar upriver, the club wasn't singled out for survival in city plans--or even mentioned.
That is, until last month. After a series of shootings in its parking lot, and under pressure from the city, the glass-enclosed restaurant and nightclub closed for good on December 10--a week before the Minneapolis Community Development Agency described a rough proposal to build 196 apartment units and 12 townhouses on the club's current site. Whatever the area's future, the Riverview will never be part of it.
If black discontentment with white Minnesota often seems to consist of regrettable coincidences--and the sense that coincidences aren't necessarily coincidental--the club's closing represents perhaps the unhappiest one in years. Situated a few dozen yards from a water-ski dock, "the View," as it was aptly known in the black community, looked out on the full Minneapolis skyline. Three days a week for 20 years, well-dressed black Minnesotans could gaze out at the river and feel, as many patrons put it, "comfortable." Founded as a jazz club, and continued as a disco and a live R&B establishment, the View was synonymous with class: Civic leaders had long come here to mix with the city's black professionals. Yet no one in the city emerged as the club's champion when violent incidents endangered the venue and its patrons. And ultimately, an ill-timed string of minor collisions with police and city inspectors hastened the end.
Proprietor James T. Fuller Jr. is at least glad his father wasn't alive to see the plywood boards go up over the windows. James T. Fuller Sr., known to friends and customers as Jimmy, had passed away a year before, having retired to a nursing home after nearly 50 years in the club business. The dogged entrepreneur had done well in his vocation, leaving his son an estate that funded the View through its increasingly lean years. Fuller Sr. had watched what the world came to know as the Minneapolis music scene germinate amid the neighborly good times of his north Minneapolis pub, the Cozy, which he opened in the Sixties and sold to the Department of Transportation in 1977, when an expansion of I-94 was nigh. Both Prince's Grand Central and the Jimmy Jam-Terry Lewis band Flyte Tyme played regularly at the Cozy in the Seventies, when downtown clubs feared the presence of a mostly black clientele.
When Fuller Sr. opened the Riverview in 1980, at the age of 70, the connection to Prince and his spectacular milieu transferred to the jazz-oriented supper club. In the venue's first year, Flyte Tyme even held a special workshop and concert for the band members' various teenage music students, who brought their families for the occasion and enjoyed a dinner beforehand. The mirror-lined, booth-cushioned interior embodied the sort of elegance immortalized in Purple Rain (an ambiance that, let's be honest, First Avenue has never had).
"If you wanted to impress a young lady, that was the place to go back then," says longtime patron Ron Pearson, who was 14 years old when he attended that Flyte Tyme workshop in 1980. Later he brought his future wife to the View on their second date. "You could be sitting at a table and Jimmy Jam or Terry Lewis might walk by, and you could pretend, Oh yeah, they're here all the time."
The staff was always friendly. Men dressed in suits. (Years before the club began enforcing a dress code in hopes of discouraging the attendance of gang members, you wouldn't be seen at the Riverview without at least a shirt and tie.) And while the room's rep was based in part on early bookings of national acts like Melba Moore, Johnny Hodges, Millie Jackson, Bobby Blue Bland, Doc Severinsen, the Stylistics (who played pinball with young James III), and the Radiators, it was also the starting point for local soul man Alexander O'Neal. (On first listen, Fuller Jr. thought he couldn't sing.) Prince could be counted on to attend the occasional BET Def Comedy Jam Thursday as recently as a couple of months ago, and everyone from Muhammad Ali and Evander Holyfield to Sinbad breezed through.
The Riverview joined a host of clubs that bubbled up around the wellspring of enthusiasm surrounding Prince and the Time--spots like the Oz and the C-Sharp Lounge. But the View outlived them all, in part because of its flexibility: As national acts upped their fees, the place went disco, tried karaoke, enlisted live DJs. Yet the club maintained and nurtured a sense of itself as a community foundation--the best face, if not the geographical heart, of black Minneapolis.