The Last Supper Club
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.
"It would host a golf tournament every summer--that's pretty unusual for a club to do things like that," notes Pearson. "They were just a pillar of the community. Fraternities held meetings there. Wedding receptions, black fashion shows, black hairstyle competitions. If you talk to anyone in the African-American community, they will have some ties or some memory or some function that they attended at the Riverview besides just going there to dance." Friday nights between six and ten o'clock took on a special aura, as local soul and jazz bandleader Billy Holloman held down a standing gig for years.
It was the place where middle-class blacks could network. Lettie McCoy, a 49-year-old civil servant who frequented the club from its opening day until its last Friday remembers feeling like she actually owned a booth there.
"Me and my girlfriends would always be there because you were kind of up higher," she recalls. "I'm a people watcher, and you could see people coming in." The club's title was just as appropriate inside, where social ritual brought patrons from table to table to mingle and flirt. "This was where you could find a group of black people that felt like you did," she continues. "They worked all week; these were professionals. And they would be happy to see you."
Owned and run by three generations of Fullers, the Riverview had the kind of atmosphere where rival football coaches could bring their kids and boast of certain victory in Saturday's game. The milieu felt like family, especially during dinner hours. "Every time I went in, there was somebody I went to high school with, or my old schoolteacher was there, and we could just sit down and talk about what was going on in the community," remembers Charlie Adams, a leader of the Black Police Officers Association and chief of security for the mayor, who guarded at the View for years. "You'd go up there and listen to the nice musical group, and you didn't have to worry about anything. You ran into other professional people there. And sometimes you would run into some people that were on the other side of the law, who would probably tell you something that you needed to know."
Adams was as aware as anyone when the Riverview began to encounter problems with a rougher clientele in the Nineties. In 1994 a longtime friend of the club first addressed Jimmy Fuller Sr. about the problem squarely: There were a number of patrons on a particular night that had guns on them.
"I had told my dad about this before," says James Fuller Jr. "But he just didn't want to put metal detectors in because he was afraid it might hurt his regular customers. He said, 'There has never been anyone shot inside the Riverview, and I'm not about to put in metal detectors.'"
About a month later, a gunman opened fire in the crowded bar area after closing time, then used a barstool to smash one of the windows and make his escape. That was the beginning of the end, says Fuller Jr. now, sitting at the club's dimly lit bar on a sunny day before New Year's. The windows are boarded up, blocking a bright view of the snow bank outside and the river and skyline beyond. The bar is lined with glasses, which 30-year-old James Fuller III is counting for resale.
"It really ended with the metal detector," says the 62-year-old, a note of continuing disbelief mingling with resignation. "I mean, this was a supper club, and having to go through a metal detector, be patted down, go through the purses....It changed from a supper club to a bar."
When a 1998 Minneapolis police mandate forbade off-duty cops to work security jobs in the wake of a spate of excessive-force complaints, the club began to grow more dangerous. Without a police presence to hem in those people "prone to commit violence," as Fuller Jr. puts it, unruly guests simply moved to the parking lot. One night in 1998, a patron was shot in the lot. After staggering into the restaurant, he died on the floor--an incident that passed into community lore. At one point, when Fuller Jr. had taken over the business from his father, he sat outside the club with his pistol, waiting for a threatened drive-by that never came. Eventually the violence took its toll on his nerves.
This past November, three security guards were shot, allegedly in retribution for the ejection of a rowdy patron. Though all three survived, Fuller Jr. was amazed when the rest of the security team resumed their duties. They feared that without their presence, the place would shut down. But this time they were talking about wearing vests and carrying guns. Fuller Jr.'s daughter, Daphne Hill, then head of security, even asked if she could borrow her father's gun for target practice.
"That was it for me," he says. The business had been losing money for years. Offers for the six-acre property were on hand. It was time to close.
Many longtime Riverview patrons bitterly blamed the after-ten crowds of Fridays and Saturdays--the hip-hop audience--for the trouble. In part the split was generational. "I can honestly say that I've never been at the Riverview when something has happened," McCoy points out. "But you chose the time that you would be there."
As Adams says, "We knew to get there for the happy hour at six, and we knew the school bus was coming at ten. [Then] it was time for us to go. I'm serious: That's the way all the older professional adults in this community would talk about the Riverview."
But the hip-hop crowd was huge--and necessary to keep the View financially afloat. It took only a relatively small percentage of "knuckleheads," as Adams calls them, to trash bathrooms, throw food on the floor, succumb to fisticuffs, and otherwise leave the impression of rampant disrespect. One fight even knocked down the 85-year-old Fuller Sr., an event as disturbing for the family as it was to the community that revered him.
There is a pervasive sense, among a certain class and age and color of Minneapolitans, of betrayal by the young, and also abandonment by the powers that they helped into office. Exclusion was nothing new to Jimmy Fuller Sr., who had to fight for his place in the Minneapolis establishment; some say he could have helped the club survive its bouts of violence. His son remembers the elder Fuller being turned down twice by the city council when first seeking approval to open the View, and later taking the case to court. "I said, 'Why don't you just quit, Big Jim? You know, take your money and enjoy your life.' He said, 'I'm not gonna let these people beat me.'"
Eventually the city council, and a succession of mayors, came to value the club, at least as a crucial campaign stop in the black community; In 1993 the business cosponsored a get-out-the-vote rally that helped elect Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. Thus many patrons were shocked when, a few weeks after the November shootings, new street signs were erected along West River Road that banned parking from midnight to five o'clock in the morning. Tickets were duly distributed to cars lining the street.
"For 20 years, when we had an overflow of a nice crowd, we would have all our people park up and down the river," Fuller Jr. says. "There are about 300 parking spaces, but we could have up to 600 people in the club. When I finally got a hold of my alderman, he basically said the police told him to do it, and he apologized for not saying anything. The first weekend the police started handing out tickets...that's when I knew something was going on."
Fuller Jr. says police officers and the city council were verbally supportive after problems began. He adds that officers expressed an interest in driving by the club more often. "Then after the shooting, the police officer came in, and I'm thinking it's for support, just to show police presence. I offered him some drummies and stuff like that. He basically was looking for cups on the table after 1:15 [a.m.]. He gave me two citations for that. Then the third thing was, the fire department came in, and after 20 years told me that my janitor's closet was not in compliance with the rules and regulations of the fire department. And then we had a health inspector come in at midnight, the Friday before we closed.
"So it was a real indication, those four things, that they wanted me closed--and with all the violence, all the citations, the combination of all of it together was overwhelming. There's no way you could operate a business like that."
James III is more vehement on the point: "Instead of putting up those signs to make people upset, they could help us control the flow. I drive by a lot of these clubs downtown, and they've got police officers sitting outside in cars on the streets. And they won't even provide that service to us."
Inspector Tim Dolan of the Fourth Precinct confirmed that the police applied pressure to the club in comments to the St. Paul Pioneer Press on December 23. "We tried every little hammer we could use," Dolan said, citing the 34 police visits required at the club last year. When contacted by City Pages, he added: "They were going well over what they thought was a safe limit of people inside, so they brought it on themselves."
"Safety at the club was a major issue, which I have to believe was the influencing factor in [the city] discouraging people from patronizing the club," says council member Joe Biernat, whose third Ward includes the Riverview. "I wanted to work with the club to promote their business and help them," he adds, "but in exchange what we received were more police calls and more problems. Hawthorne is a neighborhood with many challenges, and I simply cannot afford or support a police officer helping close the establishment at closing time. How could I tell people in that neighborhood that a police officer's not available because he's sitting in a parking lot at a bar for 45 minutes." Biernat is quick to point out that he worked to include the club in an ordinance that allowed bars in the downtown business district to close at 3:00 a.m.
But Fuller Jr. suspects that the city's long-range designs on the upper Mississippi corridor may have diminished official support at a critical moment. "I think that whole Riverfront development project has a lot to do with it," says James Fuller III. "And I think that's why we haven't seen support from those people that campaigned here."
Biernat denies such a connection. "Clearly the upper-riverfront plan promotes entertainment uses, and I think a vibrant, safe place to congregate would certainly fit well within the plan," he says. "The plan always envisioned high-density housing and an entertainment complex near this vicinity, but that was phase two, which is at least 20 years out. The plan in no way dictated the current viability of the Riverview."
Whatever the city's intentions, the facts on the ground speak their own truth: A cultural bastion of black Minneapolis will not be an anchor of the beautified riverfront of tomorrow.
The fate of the Riverview may illustrate the problems of audience polarization in a town where the black population seems big enough to support only one club. As KMSP's Robyne Robinson comments, the View belonged to the black community. "It was the one social establishment in Minneapolis that was FUBU--for us, by us--a place you were always welcome...and not a suspect, like in the Warehouse District."
"We only have one black club in this city, and that's probably the problem too," says Adams, the mayor's chief of security. "Because I've been to clubs in Detroit; East St. Louis; Little Rock, Arkansas; all over--and I've never seen one fight in these clubs. People tell me one of the reasons you won't see any fights is because there are so many clubs for people to go, so you won't have several gang flashers going to one club."
It's likely that younger patrons will find someplace else to go: The Quest, South Beach, or perhaps First Avenue. But the part of the community that seems most damaged by the closing of the Riverview is its solidly middle-aged clientele.
"This was a place where they could actually socialize with their old friends, actually come in here and see somebody that they haven't seen in 15, 20 years," Fuller III says of the Riverview's older crowd. "They're the ones that are going to lose out. They don't want to go over to St. Paul"--that is, to the club's smaller competitor, Arnellia's, which has encountered security problems of its own in recent years.
Ultimately, the Riverview represented the black community--the whole community--and its difficulties were those of black Minneapolis. Gang violence. Police problems. Civic neglect. Regrettable coincidences, all.
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