First Ave To McClellan: May We Cut In?

Is the dance party dead at First Avenue?

In the last year or so the late-night dance crowds at the club have dwindled to economically perilous numbers. Roughly 400 to 500 people are showing up to dance on Friday and Saturday nights--or about a quarter as many as just a few years ago.

Although First Avenue is revered as a showcase for rock bands, the dance crowds have made up a large chunk of the club's revenues, owing in part to the comparatively low overhead costs. "It used to be a majority of it until we went off the deep end and made it concerts, concerts, concerts," says Allan Fingerhut, who opened the club as the Depot in 1970. First Avenue has also been hurt by competition from glossy upstarts such as Escape and Tonic.

But Fingerhut is vowing to reclaim the dance-club turf. At his behest, former assistant general manager Chris Olson has returned to the club (after a roughly six-month hiatus) and will be overseeing late-night programming. Olson says that he'll be revamping the dance formats throughout the summer.

The personnel shake-up is, at least in part, a rebuke to longtime First Avenue manager Steve McClellan. "Steven, bless his heart, doesn't think at all about dance nights," Fingerhut says. Asked how McClellan reacted to having the duties wrested from his control, Fingerhut is of two minds. "He's not all that happy, but he's happy-go-lucky," he allows. "So he'll live with it." McClellan will continue to oversee band booking.

McClellan insists that he was never in charge of the dance nights and dismisses Fingergut's meddling. "He's going to run them from San Francisco," McClellan scoffs. "That's what he told me."

Recent promotional gambits have not gone well. A couple of new weekly events intended to bolster the nonconcert hours were failures, with neither karaoke nor lip synch/air-guitar contests drawing large weekend crowds. Both have now been shelved. In recent weeks, First Avenue has returned to a straight dance format on weekends, featuring DJs such as PD Spinlove. And Olson says go-go dancers, giant smoke rings, and "other weird visual things to enhance the night" are part of his future plans.

But the club's financial stability also continues to be dogged by a lingering dispute between Fingerhut and his longtime friend and business partner, Byron Frank. Fingerhut had sued Frank in Hennepin County District Court over a contract dispute related to the club, but the parties reached a tentative settlement in November. As part of that agreement, Frank would gain a larger ownership share of the First Avenue building in exchange for giving up his interest in Fingerhut's California art galleries.

But according to Fingerhut, the suit has not yet been wrapped up because the parties are still waiting on an appraisal for the galleries. "It's like herpes," he sighs. "It keeps on coming back and back." No doubt he hopes dance nights will be as resilient.

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