First Avenue's Black Tuesday

In the 24 hours before First Avenue declared bankruptcy, employees were told to cash their checks, gather their things, and wait.

Seven people dressed up as "First Avenue" at this year's Halloween party at First Avenue--and didn't win the costume contest. "That was a bad omen," says Ian Rans, who hosted as Max Headroom on what turned out to be the nightclub's final night. The winners were a human Connect Four game, Jesus and the devil, and in third place...well, this requires more explanation: "Ever seen the graphic, 'Every time you masturbate, God kills a kitten?'" says Rans. "And there are these two brown things chasing after a kitten? One of those brown things."

Two nights later, on Tuesday, November 2, the local gypsy punk band the Knotwells were performing outside First Avenue on the sidewalk for a crowd of about 20 people. Their gig at the 7th St. Entry had been canceled earlier in the day, when it was announced that the club would be closed indefinitely starting at 1:30 p.m. That was the time set by Allan Fingerhut, who founded the club 35 years ago, for filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The day before, he told employees to cash their paychecks rather than deposit them.

"We were told to run to the bank," said marketing assistant Mean Larry on Tuesday, when he called to tell me the news. "There are some paychecks here for people that aren't going to be paid. We didn't get paid for Halloween. Isn't that funny? One of the three longest days of the year for all of our staff, and the only payment they got was a couple cases of Bud at the end of the night."

First Avenue's 130-plus employees weren't informed about getting their personal belongings out of the club until around noon on Tuesday. When I arrived at about 1:00 p.m., longtime sound engineer Randy Hawkins was hastily loading up monitors, leased by the club from Downtown Sound, into a U-Haul truck outside. He looked stricken.

The door to the Mainroom was open, and inside, employees were gathering their stuff, or just hanging out on the balcony near the office, saying goodbye to the room. Nathan Kranz and Sonia Grover, who booked the club, were talking about where to relocate that week's shows.

"Kerry better get elected or this is gonna be a really shitty day," said Kranz.

Rumors that the club would expire along with its liquor license on November 1 had been flying for days. On Friday, news came that Fingerhut would be evicted within a week, and former managers Steve McClellan and Jack Meyers would take over. Along with Byron Frank, Fingerhut's longtime business partner and childhood friend, McClellan and Meyers had become Fingerhut's landlords. This was no secret to employees, of course.

"To tell you the truth, I kind of feel like we're in the middle of a divorce," said stage manager Conrad Sverkerson. "And it's like, 'Okay, do you want to stay with your mom or with your dad?' Those of us who've worked here a long time just want to kind of keep the family together. I think they're putting their interests above the interests of the people who work here and the community."

Back in 2000, Byron Frank had helped First Avenue buy its own building from Ted Mann's Hollywood Theatre Co., which had owned the property with an option to demolish it ever since Fingerhut leased the old Greyhound bus station in 1969 and turned it into a nightclub. F-Troop, the investment group Frank formed with Fingerhut, also included then-managers McClellan and Meyers. In exchange for putting up more money than the others, Frank got a share of the profits. How big a share became the focus of a contract dispute in 2003, when Fingerhut sued Frank in Hennepin County District Court.

The settlement appeared to settle things: Frank gave up his slice of the Committee, Inc. (the business), and Fingerhut gave up his slice of F-Troop (the property). Today Frank owns 60 percent of the building, while McClellan and Meyers each own 10 percent. A trust set up by Fingerhut for members of his family owns the remaining 20 percent.

But in June of this year, Fingerhut suspended McClellan and Meyers, who had been running the business together since 1979. Fingerhut, having long since withdrawn to his art gallery business, gave the hands-on job of operations manager to longtime First Avenue staffer Chris Olson.

My first question for Olson on Tuesday was whether he was still on good terms with Steve McClellan, the legendary manager he replaced.

"When Steve and Jack left," he said, "we were all on good terms with them, everybody in the office, pretty much. So when they decide what they're going to do, hopefully they're going to let us know. They also might just put a big 'help wanted' sign outside and start from scratch."

As a crowd of staff and press gathered at First Avenue, talk grew looser among the mourners. "It comes down to two rich guys who don't get along," said Louis Dunlap, an employee who is the son of former employees Chrissie Dunlap and musician Slim Dunlap.

Minutes later, Dunlap was doing wheelies on the club's wheelchair downstairs.

"Who's going to take the wheelchair?" somebody yelled.

"I'm taking it," Dunlap said.

The issue of whether First Avenue's new landlords turn it into a parking lot is a personal one for Dunlap. "I spent almost every day of my life down here since I was three, four years old," he said. "What the hell am I supposed to do?"

Dunlap witnessed the club's storied '80s up close. "I remember meeting Prince right there when I was 10, and being taller than him," he said. "I remember seeing Prince wipe out on his motorcycle when they were filming Purple Rain right there. I played pinball here most of my childhood, and watched my dad buff this floor here."

Within minutes, Olson announced that everyone had to get out. We all walked out into the sunlight, where several of those present had started getting teary. Olson, the last one out, locked the door behind him. Employee Carolyn Hansen said, "I think a round of applause is, uh..." And at that, there was some clapping. But mostly it was a quiet end.

"Hey, let's everybody back up," said Ian Rans. "Once more with more feeling."

Hansen and Olson hugged, their eyes filled with tears. Others shouted goodbyes to friends in passing cars. "Let's all go to the Quest and have a beer," said Kranz, to a round of laughter. The Quest, booked frequently by concert behemoth Clear Channel Entertainment, provided First Avenue its fiercest competition.

By the time the group had gone to Eli's for a round, and later the Triple Rock, I was on the phone with Allan Fingerhut, who sounded despairing and defensive. Fingerhut said he was forced out: It was his landlords, he said, not the city or the county, that were pushing for his eviction for failure to pay property taxes. F-Troop, he said, proposed raising his rent to $20,000 a month, up from about $7,200 a month. Meanwhile, Frank, McClellan, and Meyers had filed several lawsuits against him, which he couldn't afford to fight.

"They will drop these lawsuits if I just turn over First Avenue, its name, its liquor license, to them," said Fingerhut. "Then they won't have to evict me. So you connect the dots." (To read a complete interview with Fingerhut, visit my blog, Complicatedfun.com.)

None of the plaintiffs would comment about their lawsuits on the record, and F-Troop spokesperson LeeAnn Weimar, another former First Avenue employee, said she could not address Fingerhut's specific claims. "I know that the parties on this side of the fence have offered him many options legally that I felt were good, secure, reasonable options," she said, "and he didn't choose any of them."

At press time, it was not certain whether First Avenue would reopen next week or next year, or what the club would be named in either case. ("I can tell you this," said Weimar. "It won't be called The Club Formerly Known as First Avenue.")

The known facts are these: As of Tuesday, November 2, Fingerhut and Frank had not spoken to each other directly since 2003. At 1:30 p.m., control of the club was handed over to a bankruptcy trustee, John R. Stoebner. Stoebner met with representatives of McClellan and Meyers on Friday, November 5, at which time the parties reached an agreement that Weimar says might get the venue up and running again as early as November 13. A bankruptcy court judge is scheduled to hear the case on November 12.

Meanwhile, First Avenue bartender Tracy Lindgren has e-mailed the mayor and other city politicians asking them to speed up the approval process for a new liquor license.

"Hello, they've only been serving liquor for over 34 years," she says. "I think they have enough practice."

 

For more First Avenue photos, interviews, and links, visit Complicatedfun.com.

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