Varsity Theater concert calendar empty; owner accused of sex crimes 'on the legal lam'

The Varsity Theater boasted an active concert calendar through last fall. Now, it's empty.

The Varsity Theater boasted an active concert calendar through last fall. Now, it's empty. Jay Boller

The Varsity Theater, once a major player in the Minneapolis concert landscape, has gone dark.

The Dinkytown venue has not hosted a concert in 2017. Its events calendar is bare for the remainder of the year, save for one comedy show in May. Its social media accounts went dormant in November. Varsity employees did not return multiple calls and emails requesting comment.

This much we do know: Waves of bad PR slammed the Varsity's owner, Jason McLean, throughout 2016. 

McLean, 62, a former actor/teacher with the Children's Theatre Company Co., is alleged to have sexually abused five female students in the 1980s, according to civil lawsuits filed in 2015 and 2016 with Hennepin County District Court.

In September and October of 2015, just before the allegations against McLean and Children’s Theatre Co. surfaced, the Varsity hosted high-profile shows every week: Concerts from Eagles of Death Metal, WAVVES, Dweezil Zappa, Owl City, and Lianne La Havas, plus comedy sets from Hannibal Buress and the Sklar Brothers. The venue's capacity (962) makes it an ideal spot for acts too large for Cedar Cultural Center (625) or too small to fill First Avenue's Mainroom (1,600).

Citing the cases against McLean, several international touring bands -- including Against Me!Baroness, and Warpaint -- relocated 2016 gigs initially scheduled for the Varsity. Popular Twin Cities DJ Jake Rudh cut ties last January following calls to boycott his monthly Transmission dance night. The venue last promoted a show via social media on November 18 of last year.

The legal process isn't going well for McLean either. He failed to appear for a deposition on January 24, according to court records. 

“The bottom line is Jason McLean has gone on the legal lam,” says Jeff Anderson, the Minneapolis attorney representing McLean's alleged victims. “We had served him with the subpoena and a notice of deposition, even though he’s gone to some length to evade service of process, and us, for almost a year and a half.”

Anderson contends it became clear McLean was involved in “chicanery and shenanigans” when his lawyer – Jon Hopeman, who’s represented fraudster Denny Hecker and Ponzi schemer Tom Petters – withdrew from representation. As far as Anderson knows, McLean has no current lawyer.

Should McLean fail to appear for future depositions, Anderson says he will likely ask the court to enter a judgment and award damages. McLean's businesses -- including the Varsity and the nearby Loring Pasta Bar -- could be used as collateral, Anderson says.

“He took these kids, who were teens, and made them believe he was having a romance with them, and a love affair," Anderson alleges. "It was criminal sexual conduct and he belongs behind bars, not behind some business facade.”

The Varsity last issued an official statement during the Transmission fallout. 

“The Varsity has 60 employees who depend on their jobs for a living,” senior manager Lynn Nyman said. “No one alleges the employees did anything wrong. They are the people who are most harmed by a boycott of the business."

Hopeman, McLean's then-lawyer, offered this statement following news of the first lawsuit in 2015:

“Mr. McLean had no involvement in or knowledge of the activities for which [Children's Theatre Co. founder] John Donahue was convicted in 1984. Mr. McLean intends to defend against this lawsuit with all his might and to clear his name.”

McLean -- who could not be reached for comment -- re-opened the 101-year-old theater in 2005. The venue is still courting private events.