Best Of :: People & Places
Those who hadn't set foot in the Varsity since it was closed to the public in 1991 were surprised to find the art deco landmark lovingly preserved when it reopened in January. Remodeled and refurbished by Loring Pasta Bar owner Jason McLean to be a multipurpose performance, film, and art space, the current theater stands as a culmination of many renovations. It opened as a movie house called the University Theatre in 1915, with Paramount motion pictures and Friday-night amateur vaudeville. For years, the room was small enough to be dubbed "the Dinky," eventually giving the Dinkytown neighborhood its name. But when the theater reopened in 1939 as the Varsity, the event marked an expansion and transformation of the theater. Designed in the streamlined modern style by revered Minnesota architects Jacob J. "Jack" Liebenberg and Seeman Kaplan (who gave us the Suburban World, Uptown Theatre, and Oak Street Cinema), the Varsity became known for its towering marquee--a depressing symbol of decline when it eventually fell dark at the end of the '80s. The Varsity's brief life as a nightclub in the early '90s required a cleanup job. But subsequent owners John and Laura Mowers undertook the largest recent renovation, installing offices in the mezzanine, putting in a new roof, and pouring a level floor for their photography studio, all while conscientiously keeping the vintage look of the interior--besides new plumbing, the bathroom "lounges" are very much as they were in 1939. What was left to do, when McLean took over last year, was turn the studio back into a theater, a project that involved remodeling the backstage, installing some $250,000 worth of theatrical lighting and sound equipment, and putting in seating (provided by air mattresses on movable bleachers). Now the lobby doubles as a bar and café, opening into a tall room lined with red velvet curtains. It's the perfect venue, in other words, for the mixture of movies and live performance that packed the house 90 years ago.
Okay, it might be in a mall, and Uptown may not be Frogtown, that far more bluesworthy locale of the late, great Blues Saloon. But the smell of barbecue sauce wafts out of the Famous Dave's vents like a Kansas City breeze, the drinks flow like an outdoor street party in New Orleans, and if you imbibe enough, the mix of harmonicas, guitars, crooners, and the piped-in railroad sounds will make you swear you're in a Chicago club underneath the Loop. Add the inviting stage, roomy dance floor, great sightlines, vintage posters, and a consistently stellar blues calendar, including Moses Oakland's freewheeling Sunday night open blues jams, and you've got the area's best blues, bar none.
Good happy hours sprang up all over town this year, with impressive relative newcomers--Chino Latino, Imperial Room--coexisting peacefully next to some of the old standbys--Liquor Lyle's, Green Mill. In addition to some very cheap drink deals (well drinks for $1.50? What year is it, 1988?), some rather fine cuisine was added to the bill in a number of joints. The trouble is, many of these cheap drinks and eats were, well...cheap. Tiny glasses, small portions. The whole trend made it hard to feel swanky and posh, even when 16 sheets to the wind. No such problem at Rossi's, the place on Ninth and Marquette downtown that boasts two rooms: a more restaurantlike "Tavern" and a "Blue Star Jazzroom" that feels like some of the best Chicago jazz clubs. What the rooms have in common is a wonderful array of food for what's called a 2-4-6 happy hour (2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. in the Tavern, 10:00 p.m. to midnight in the Blue Star every day). The menu changes every week, but you can, for example, get a half-pound cheeseburger or a barbecued pork sandwich for $2. (We'd suggest the steamed mussels in white wine sauce.) For four lousy bucks, try a plate of the oysters Rockefeller. If you're feeling a little heavy in the wallet, you can drop all of $6 on a spicy pork chop or a Louis DeMars steak sandwich with fries. And all of these are very generous--not happy-hour chintzy--portions. Of course, you need a little help working up your appetite, so the Blue Star room has two-for-one drink specials from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., and the drink prices aren't sky-high. (Five dollars for a mid-shelf cocktail is about the norm.) The overall effect is that you're a high-class, high-stakes roller, even if your whole point is to save as much as possible. The hours do leave one question, though: What do you do between 8:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m.? Buy something at regular price, you cheap bastard.
After six albums and years of live performing, Dan Israel still hasn't quit his day job at the Minnesota State Capitol. Well, day jobs tend to pay better than night gigs, and Israel's regular-guy quality is part of his appeal. He's the next-door neighbor who gets home from work, takes out the garbage, pays the insurance bill, and then sits down to write a hummable folk-rock tune. He's studied the Dylan songbook seriously, which is apparent in his pretty, unassuming melodies and ragged voice. Lyrically, Israel is more New Morning than Blonde on Blonde. He writes about everyday stuff and celebrates fundamentals--consider some of his album titles: Love Ain't a Cliché, Mama's Kitchen, and Time I Get Home, his latest and finest.
Seattle and New York have Toys in Babeland. San Francisco has Good Vibrations. For years it seemed as if every other city was comfortably enjoying its sex shopping but us. Finally, Minneapolis is fortunate enough to have its own discreet, women-owned adult store. The most obvious advantages over the usual porno retail warehouses are good lighting and a lack of skeezy old men with disappearing hands. But a friendly and knowledgeable staff that can assure their customers that they're not perverts is perhaps even more important. The Smitten Kitten is for the serious shopper who wants to handle the merchandise and marvel at the soft, lifelike "skin" of a personal massage unit, or for the couple looking for instructional videos to attempt a new position they read about in Savage Love. A politically correct sex shop may sound stuffy, but how puritanical can you really look in a faux-leather harness?
When you hear it, you know it: the same undeniable spirit that was in the air the first time we heard Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, or Kat Bjelland exorcising herself into a mic, or Mason Jennings budding in his living-room practice space, or the Rhymesayers blooming in the Entry, or Melodious Owl lifting the Turf Club off its moorings at a show this past February. "The town is exploding," one barfly said that night, and ain't it the truth--what with the sudden hum of the Current and bands like the Gleam (as first heard on Jack Sparks's The Other Side of Country), who cut their teeth drinking and playing at a corner bar in rural Minnesota and are now poised to take the Cities by storm. The eight songs off this debut prove that alt-country's torrid affair with the land of sky-blue waters is alive and shit-kicking, so it's about time we all start referring to these guys the way their kick drum head does: the Goddamn Gleam.