Nightlife, Next Exit
The kids start lining up 20 deep outside the back door of the Venue relatively late most weekend nights, and on this particular Friday, it's 10:45 before there's any real action on the dance floor. The Venue is actually under the roof of a place called BeBop, which is the anchor tenant in an aging strip mall on 109th Avenue Northeast in Blaine, a good 15 miles north of downtown Minneapolis. BeBop is your standard-issue sports bar, with lines of electronic dartboards, an outbreak of flickering mounted TVs, full ashtrays, and piles of spent pull-tabs. Occasionally a door between the two joints opens, filling the place with the electronic thump of dance music.
"That shit-hole bar next door?" a female BeBop bartender jokes, nodding toward the Venue. "That place will be full in 30 minutes."
Tom Lovaas, who has been the general manager of both bars for four years, has told me he expects to draw about 1,500 clubgoers tonight, a good number of them under 21. Tonight's a KDWB night, meaning someone from the local Top 40 station will be spinning music, the radio station's banners will be emblazoned all over the club, and a $5 cover will get you in (also, drinks are free for women for part of the night). Wednesdays are sponsored by B-96, an "urban" radio station, and Saturdays are 93X nights, where sponsorship from the hard-rock station brings the same kind of specials, if not quite the same crowd.
"It's like this every weekend and Wednesdays," Lovaas says, over the din. "It's the only place like this in the area, and it's the kind of place where people want to go."
Lovaas escorts a reporter and his friend to the front of the line, where paper wristbands are affixed to their right wrists as proof of legal drinking age. We're led to a "VIP" section—a raised section of floor about three feet high that looks out over the club. There is a stamp required to get past the guy working a velvet rope, but it's all yours for an extra dollar on the cover charge.
The club is painted all black, with giant framed photographs of Bono, Cobain, Madonna, Marley, and Morrison adorning the walls. Three DJs in a booth in the middle of the room—slightly larger than the main floor at First Avenue—are segueing Black-Eyed Peas into Sean Paul at a healthy volume, and about 500 people fill the dance floor under a dizzying nonstop light show. Across the way, three girls are doing a sort of soul-train dance on another raised floor—another VIP section that comes with a "bottle charge." To get up there, your group of up to four has to buy a bottle of liquor, usually for $150.
"Those breasts," says my friend Chuck, motioning toward a surgically enhanced blonde manning one of the three beer tubs in the room, "are hilarious." Judging from the line of dudes waiting to get a dollar-bottle of Budweiser, Chuck's opinion is in the minority.
By about 11:15, the club is noticeably more crowded, and Lovaas's prediction of 1,500 patrons seems about right. What's striking, though, is that even though we're in Blaine, the place is hardly all white. There's a large contingent of African Americans, along with a number of African and Latino immigrants. This fazes no one. Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl" is followed by "Billie Jean," which is sped up via computer from 133 beats per minute to 137 to match the Stefani tune. The 24-year-old track by Michael Jackson makes the place go nuts.
A group of white girls keeps engaging in what can best be described as a tongue fight, wherein one grabs another by the back of the head and they start making out voraciously. Occasionally some random guy will join in. Usually these impromptu scenes break up in a few seconds. The point, it seems, is less sensual than a burning desire to be seen. Everyone dresses as though they'll be found on an MTV spring break promotion, and everyone seems to have digital or cell-phone cameras. The posing and preening for the camera and everyone else is nonstop, a habit of exhibitionism hardly found at downtown clubs. Clothing, one might say, is nearly optional.
Turns out the ladies all work together at a Wal-Mart in Monticello. "I used to come here all the time," says one of them, Karra Andrews, who says she lives in Buffalo. "But I'm too old now. I'm, like, 28."
One of her cohorts is urging Andrews not to talk to me any more than that. "That's Tiffany, and she's only 21 years old," Andrews continues. "She comes here all the time because she's young. She comes for the boys."
Eventually both of them are explaining why they would rather come here than, say, downtown Minneapolis, even though the drive would be roughly the same, at least for Andrews. "It's not real rowdy, and the bouncers keep it under control," Tiffany Newcombe, who lives in Becker, offers. "From my experience, if I go to [clubs downtown], there's going to be theft, rape, and fights."
Newcombe then says that she isn't racist, but that there are "gangbanger" elements in a lot of clubs that she won't go to anymore, and that, overall, she feels plenty secure in the heavily monitored chaos at the Venue. "I'm here every Wednesday and every Friday, at nine o'clock on the dot," she concludes. "It's all about the free drinks."
The Venue has been doing this kind of brisk business for a while, about four years now. And it's hardly alone. As the Twin Cities' outer-ring suburbs have continued to sprawl, suburbanites have found ways to get their kicks closer to home, courtesy of a growing number of nightspots that have grown up around the outer metro. The days of the wood-paneled suburban watering hole are gone, it seems; these clubs feature decor and amenities that used to be found only in the city. And what's more, these venues are pulling in numbers that are making downtown club managers envious.
Club owners and patrons alike began taking note last fall, when Myth opened in Maplewood in September. The club drew immediate attention with a slew of prominent live bookings ranging from Nickelback and Twista to the old standby Billy Idol. Not long before Myth's debut, another upscale dance club called Valentino's had opened in the old stockyard district of South St. Paul. While the targeted clientele in these bars and others like them may vary—dress codes in some places, quasi-military security in others—they add up to a thriving nightlife scene outside the traditional haunts of Uptown, downtown, Grand Avenue, and the West Bank. On a website called TwinCitiesNightClubs.com, nearly half of the roughly 55 hotspots listed are outside Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Much of this has to do with the changing demographics of the Twin Cities. Practically any owner or manager from these venues will tell you that their clientele is drawn almost exclusively from nearby suburbs and growing towns—even in Wisconsin—and that there's an expansive audience waiting to be tapped. And most of them will acknowledge a truism about the businesses they run—namely that they are integrated, and the crowds are more racially mixed than anything you'd see in the Warehouse District on a weekend night.
The suburban clubs are thriving for several reasons. In terms of overhead costs, it's simply cheaper to run a business in the outer rings. Rent, for instance, can be six dollars per square foot cheaper in Maplewood than in Minneapolis—a significant savings when you consider that most clubs worth their salt encompass at least 10,000 square feet. In addition, bar owners downtown have bemoaned the increasing property taxes in the city, along with a host of sales tax surcharges that have gone toward funding things like the convention center. "Downtown is becoming residential," notes James Ryan, general manager of the Quest in the Warehouse District. "That drives up land values and leads to beautification. Beautification costs money at some point, and we all feel the squeeze."
It's not so much that these places are luring people away from the city—few Minneapolitans seem to be traveling regularly to Blaine—but that people from outlying 'burbs are increasingly disinclined to make the trek into town. For this, the downtown scene is suffering. Patrons' complaints about the prospect of going downtown vary: Parking is too expensive, gas prices are too high, DUI enforcement has become more stringent—and, of course, you can't smoke in the city's bars. Lovaas at the Venue notes that he's seen an influx in customers, mostly black, from places like Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center for the simple reason that they can have a cigarette in his club. And there's some truth to the notion that suburban residents fear venturing into the city for reasons of personal safety.
As Lucas, one KDWB DJ who regularly works clubs in the 'burbs, puts it: "Who wants to truck their ass downtown to get drunk and risk everything else?"
But there's also a cultural dimension. "In downtown, there are certain clubs you go to that are lily-white," Lucas continues. "And there's plenty of people in the local dance scene that aren't into that."
"Of course those bars are racially mixed," says the Quest's James Ryan, who is black, "and you know why? There's not a racial component to them. Downtown places look down their noses at blacks or Asians or Latinos. So they're gonna get shook down and feel unwanted. That racial profiling doesn't go on elsewhere. You go out downtown and take a couple brothers with you and see how hard it is to get in. They all got this preconceived notion of, 'Homeboy ain't got any money.' It doesn't go on outside the city."
Not that these places are necessarily dens of high culture. "People feel they can have a good time," Lucas says. "These are just party bars."
If there's any place that's trying not to be just a party bar, it's Myth. Perched on a sloping hill in a maze of suburban retail strips near the Maplewood Mall, 10 miles north of downtown St. Paul, Myth is perhaps the most unlikely player in the club business. It opened last fall under the ownership of Mike Ogren, a St. Thomas graduate who has operated other bars and clubs in the area for years. Though the official line is that Ogren invested his own personal wealth—as much as $15 million—in converting the space into a premier live music and club venue, others have speculated that there's a consortium of entertainment business investors involved.
Whoever's behind Myth, there certainly appears to be no expense spared. Ogren isn't available for an interview, I'm told, but a general manager, Derek Bunnell, happily gives me a tour of the place. Upon arriving, I'm greeted by a rather militant doorman, thick in the neck and shoulders, with a blond buzzcut and a radio device in his ear. While he pages Bunnell through a lavaliere mic, I take note of the signs explaining the dress code.
"Minnesota's premier nite club needs sexy customers to match," it begins. "Sexy ensembles for the ladies are appreciated and handsome attire for the fellas." It goes on to list a number of apparel items "discouraged," including baggy pants, flip-flops, sweatshirts, baseball hats, and T-shirts. "Dress to impress," it concludes.
Though it's just after 9:00 p.m., early evening in clubland, there's a host of Ramsey County Sheriff vehicles in the vast parking lot outside the entrance, some with dog patrols. (Myth hires the off-duty cops to the tune of $1,300 a night; the Quest, by contrast, will spend $600 on a night where tight security is needed.) Early birds are greeted by metal detectors and bag searches as they pay a $10 cover.
Inside, Bunnell, a cherubic 36-year-old dressed in a black suit with a black dress shirt and a tie, points out the DJ booth. It's equipped with satellite access for instant video downloads. There are three sleek bars, lit from the inside, on the main floor, and roughly 15 flat-screen televisions mounted throughout the club. They're all showing a vintage video by Kool & the Gang. Bunnell notes that the dance floor holds "800-plus adults," and there's seating for 500 or more patrons on the lower level alone—all this in a three-floor venue with a stated capacity of 4,400. By contrast, Escape Ultra Lounge, the upscale dance club located on downtown Minneapolis's Block E, has room for 1,000 people in 12,000 square feet. The stated capacity of Quest, with 20,000 square feet, is 2,200. In short, Myth, with some 36,000 square feet of space, is huge.
"What we're proud of is that no matter what size your wallet is, we've got a place for you here," Bunnell says.
We head to the backstage area, which has a door that opens to a back lot with five slips for touring and production buses. (Acts that come to the Quest and First Avenue, by contrast, have to settle for permits that allow parking on the street.) The hallway winds toward two state-of-the-art dressing rooms, complete with leather chairs and couches, two bathrooms each, two flat-screen TVs, and internet/fax hook-ups. Bunnell talks about recent shows by the Time and Tommy Lee, the Mötley Crüe drummer who did a DJ tour. He then points to racks of hanging bras, slips, and dresses—the accoutrements of the "Vegas-style interactive dance show" that's slated to run at 11:30. Bunnell promises that it's like nothing else in the country.
I ask Bunnell, who's been in the bar business with Ogren for years, if he could imagine opening such a space in this location just a few years ago. "Probably not, but there's an audience now," he says. "Where else but out here are you going to find 36,000 square feet and four acres of parking?"
We're joined mid-tour by another manager, Jeff Kehr. Kehr is also 36 and portly, and dressed much the same as Bunnell. "Seven or eight years ago, the whole nightclub scene changed," Kehr says, adding that he and the rest of the Myth brain trust spent two years scouting nightspots across the nation. "It's all about Vegas and Miami, where they've moved from going family-oriented back to adult-oriented. We're just modeling ourselves after the major nightclubs and casinos." Myth employs 125 people, and has 60 bartenders, waitresses, and security guards working on a night like tonight.
The tour then moves upstairs to the second level, which holds a bar and balcony overlooking the dance floor. Up here, there is a VIP section that requires a bottle purchase. On the third floor, there is a "white room" resembling something out of an Austin Powers movie—white leather couches and chairs with DayGlo-green pillows right out of the swingin' '60s—that's reserved for private parties and includes an outdoor terrace overlooking that four-acre parking lot.
Kehr will only say that "millions and millions of dollars" went into the place, and declines to say what kind of revenue and expenses Myth has each week. But he estimates that the place sees 5,000 customers a week; some club scene insiders estimate that Myth clears $150,000 net on a month with no live acts—just on regular business. Some figure that Myth can't make money back with those kinds of numbers, but Kehr assures me that the business is "absolutely sustainable."
Around the corner is another private bar, adjoined in turn by three private suites that look out on the dance floor. Each suite has a theme: the Elvis, with couches and pillows done in white and gold; the Boss, named after Springsteen, with denim decor; and the Prince, done up in the inevitable purple. The suites, according to Kehr, can go for anywhere from $500 to $7,500 a night, with a four-bottle minimum. Bottles available include Jim Beam ($180), Grey Goose ($240), and Cristal ($580). I wonder aloud who would spend such money, and ask Kehr if they've been catering to NBA players. "Not yet," he says earnestly.
Outside the Boss suite, at the bar, I talk to Clifton Davis Jr., who says he's from Detroit and in town on business. It's his first time at Myth—a decision he made based on word of mouth in his hometown and in Milwaukee. "I wanted to see what Minnesota has to offer, and I heard that this was a good place for black people," Davis, 34, says. "Detroit is Detroit and New York is New York, but this place is cut from the same cloth. Next time back, I'm getting a suite."
Back downstairs, Kool & the Gang gives way to deft, seamless remixes of songs by Prince, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and OutKast. The dance floor is about half full, but customers are standing three-deep at each of the main-floor bars—maybe 1,000 people in all. The decor is sparse and shiny—glass fixtures emitting low-level mood lighting and metal barstools are the rule.
At one of the bars beside the stage, there's a large Asian contingent. It's nearly 11:30, almost time for the "interactive dance" show. "Shot girls," a stable of waitresses in very low-cut black dresses, are selling test tubes filled with liquor for two dollars apiece. They come with names like Blueball, Scooby Snax, and VCR (vodka, Coke, and root beer), and every one tastes like candy.
Jay Vang, a "computer graphics supervisor" from the suburb North St. Paul, is awaiting the Vegas-style revue. "The whole thing about this place is that it's all about being big," Vang, who is 22 and of Hmong descent, says. "That's what I like. It's the atmosphere."
If the crowd is racially mixed, the musical vibe is not: Hip hop and R&B are the dominant genres emanating from the DJ booth—even on a so-called Top 40 night, it's clear that youth culture is African American culture. Even in white suburbia, it's a hip-hop nation. "Look around the world, and the whole thing is black culture," Quest's Ryan says. "Every kid emulates it now. It's everywhere."
Then the onstage curtains part, and a troupe of six or eight dancers comes stomping out toward the audience. They are multi-ethnic men and women, and they unveil a choreographed routine to a remix of Britney Spears's "Toxic." Cell-phone cameras are held aloft all around the club, pointed toward the stage. Attention is paid to one woman in particular, a blonde whose main fashion statement is a white bra. She appears to be wearing a headset mic, but she's not making a sound as she lip-synchs to the song. Within minutes, the curtains close. Show's over.
Outside the club, a group of white young men are having a little run-in with the cops and their dogs. One of them gets dragged toward a squad. Another is screaming into his cell phone, trying to reach another friend. "I said we're at Myth, you dumbass," he shouts repeatedly. "And if you don't come and get us, we're all going to jail!"
There has been a lot of fretting in some local rock circles that Myth would sound the final death knell for First Avenue, booking acts that normally would play the legendary Minneapolis club. But the truth is that Myth's business plan has little overlap with what goes on in clubs downtown. "We absolutely want to see First Avenue around forever, and maybe we can last that long," Derek Bunnell says. In fact, Myth is an in-between venue, booking acts that are too big for First Ave and too small for places like the Xcel or Target Center.
"Until this point, there was no mid-range venue in the Twin Cites," says Jeff Kehr, noting that the competitive space Myth occupies is more analogous to the Orpheum or the State Theater. "We've created a niche that makes us a stepping stone for bands that are on the way up or on the way down." Kehr cites an early show at the club by Korn, a band that had seen its arena-sized fan base taper off in recent years. The next time through town, according to Kehr, the band was back up, sharing a bill at the Target Center.
Live acts aside, though, Kehr says the club's focus has turned to dance nights, especially the Top 40 Friday nights and hip-hop Wednesdays. Those nights have been successful, and Kehr says the club is loath to book touring acts on those nights for fear of losing its loyal dance-nights base. Most of the touring acts have been booked by industry heavies like Live Nation and Clear Channel, but Myth has its own in-house booker as well. "To tell you the truth, we'd love to turn that whole part over to an outside promoter," Kehr says. "There's too much overhead. We'd be happy running a bar and dance business."
That doesn't mean that downtown clubs aren't affected by Myth. Observers point to the practice of clubs renting out their space to promoters for shows at a baseline fee that is the industry norm when bookings aren't done in-house. "You know how many guys can afford to keep up with a $10,000 room rental?" says James Ryan of the Quest, referring to what he says Myth charges promoters as a starting point on live shows.
What Myth does, according to Ryan and other club managers, is take advantage of inexperienced promoters on one hand, or use conections to longtime, well-heeled promoters on the other. Either way, the high rental rates drive up ticket prices, beyond what clubgoers would be willing to pay downtown. Though it may seem counterintuitive, Myth would rather have a big-name act than a packed house, and promoters can sell managers and artists on the state-of-the-art PA and first-class amenities of he club.
"Nobody can afford that," Ryan says, agreeing that bottle charges and venue rental are where Myth makes its nut. "If you're going to try to make all your money back right away, the whole market will get inflated."
Ryan says a normal fee for the bands that Quest and First Avenue like to book would be $4,000 to $6,000, with $10,000 being the high-end charge for theaters like the Orpheum. The end result, according to Ryan, is that the market value for a touring act becomes inflated, and ticket prices jump to cover the artist guarantee. Ryan points to the Billy Idol show, which he says he wanted to bring to the Quest, for what he assumed would cost $8,000.
"Suddenly Myth is outbidding everyone, and the show jumps to $22,000," Ryan recalls, noting that the capacity of his club is 2,200. "Nobody can outbid that; we're too small, we can't sell enough tickets." By the end, Ryan figures, the price tag on the Idol show was $32,000: "Is Billy Idol worth that in this market? No. But that's the starting point next time he comes around."
Sue McLean, a longtime independent promoter in town, says she rarely deals with Myth, because she doesn't book acts the venue is interested in. "The only thing I lost to them was Jonny Lang," McLean says. (Lang's going rate had been around $20,000 for a show; observers estimate Myth paid more than three times that much.) "My niche is not what they're looking for. They're playing with casino-style money."
Still, McLean acknowledges that Myth has been "aggressive in going after shows," and that "relationships probably got ruffled" when promoters started moving shows to Myth. "It's really a location thing, but it's also a size thing," she says. "You're going to see fewer shows at Roy Wilkins."
Whatever the effects on local booking, Myth shows no sign of slowing down. Kehr claims that business has been good through the club's first seven months out of the gate, and there are plans to open a chain of clubs across the country, likewise called Myth, in the suburbs of cities like San Francisco and Houston. For Sue McLean, there's no cause to worry. "From what I've seen," she says, chuckling, "there's plenty of room for everyone to lose money."
If you ask regulars on the suburban club scene about their favorites, you're likely to hear one refrain time and again: You're going to love Valentino's.
The place is an anomaly, housed in a building dating to the 1880s that used to serve as office space for cattle traders during South St. Paul's heyday as a stockyard district. The Exchange Building was fully restored in the late 1990s as a bed and breakfast, which failed, and subsequently rechristened in October 2004 as a high-end nightclub. The owner, Rich DeFoe, declined to be interviewed, but on my second visit I meet Jared Lacina, a general manager. Lacina, a cousin of former Minnesota Viking Corbin Lacina, is 6'-8" and 285 pounds. The crowd, some 1,500 people strong, parts without a lot of urging whenever he walks through.
Between the antique woodwork and decor; the fine Italian restaurant in the basement; and the two floors of club space full of the requisite flat-screens, audio, and lighting; it's evident that Valentino's aspires to be something great. The place is bright, in stark contrast to the black walls still in vogue at so many places. The dance floor in the main level is spacious and open, and small stages featuring hired dancers are tucked around the corners of the room. Intermittent strobe bursts bathe the room in light, and upstairs you can watch the action below from a balcony.
Off the main hallway is another bar, which has its own separate DJ and a hook-up vibe: There are low-slung couches crammed into every corner of the dimly lit room. Perfect strangers sit on each other's laps. But in the end, Valentino's functions like so many other clubs, with the omnipresent Lucas, the DJ from KDWB, the usual playlist of Sean Paul backed with the anonymous thump, thump, thump of the next remix, and, of course, the shot girls.
Lacina readily concedes that it's a strange spot for a nightclub, surrounded by nothing but car dealerships and residential neighborhoods, but he notes that Valentino's rarely has an off night. "This is it now," he says. "Downtown isn't done, but this place isn't for people who like downtown."
Outside, parking is free, and a squad car lingers to monitor the activity there. James Ryan of the Quest gets especially exercised over the advantage suburban clubs enjoy when it comes to parking and club access, noting that city-owned ramps downtown have jacked up prices lately, and the city has started towing cars on First Avenue after 10:00 p.m. "The City Council, like a lot of city councils, is in a crunch and needs to raise revenue," Ryan allows. "But what they don't understand is that it's expensive, it's intimidating for people to get their cars towed, and they're driving people away. Give the people who want to come downtown a break."
One patron at Valentino's who does still go downtown is Shane Clark, a 25-year-old building manager from Cottage Grove. But he continues to visit Valentino's at least once a month. "I like to switch it up, and I hit Myth, and Spin downtown, but this is my favorite," he says. "It's in my hood." But Clark echoes some of Ryan's criticisms about downtown. "It's easier to hang out here for all kinds of people of color," he tells me. "Downtown has tension—some of it's racial, some of it's with the cops, some of it's just the hassle. Out here, especially this place, nobody goes for none of that."
Noy Werst, a 30-year-old Laotian from Eagan, says she frequents the club two or three times a month. "This is where I can be me," she says. "It's not like downtown, where you feel like you have to audition to be in a place."
At the end of the night, I speak to an interracial couple who've been cuddling on one of the couches in the lounge downstairs. She's Desiree Cobb, 38, and says she's African American and French. He's Jay Masanz, 31, a self-described German Hispanic. They both live nearby, and have their own reasons for coming to Valentino's. But tonight they've met each other for the first time. Desiree is clear about why she's a regular out in the 'burbs. When she first came here 13 years ago from Racine, Wisconsin, she felt like she had "to be more black, or less black, or something."
Here in the outskirts, she doesn't feel the same kind of pressure. "I used to go downtown, but now these places make it so none of that matters," she says, sitting on Masanz's lap. "It's about time the Twin Cities were like this. People better realize it, because this is how it's going to be."
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