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The Current Rewind

Nov. 2, 2004: The day the doors closed

The Current Rewind
The Current RewindKaitlyn Bryan | MPR
  Play Now [36:22]

by Cecilia Johnson

November 03, 2020

Description: When First Avenue entered bankruptcy on Election Day 2004, some saw it as the end of an era. But others – including devoted employees, local music fans, and a certain stage-diving ally in City Hall – would not rest until they'd saved the club.

This is the seventh episode of The Current Rewind's "10 Pivotal Days at First Avenue" season. Catch up below.

April 3, 1970 (The day it all began)
Nov. 28-29, 1979 (The days that told the future)
Sept. 27, 1982 (Bad Brains/Sweet Taste of Afrika/Hüsker Dü)
Aug. 3, 1983 (The birth of "Purple Rain")
Oct. 22, 1990 (Sonic Youth/Cows/Babes in Toyland)
March 4, 1991 (Ice Cube/WC and the MAAD Circle)
Nov. 2, 2004 (The day the doors closed)
Aug. 12, 2015 (The day the sky fell)
April 21, 2016 (The day the streets turned purple)

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The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Culture Heritage Fund.

Transcript of The Current Rewind season 2, episode 7: "Nov. 2, 2004"

Cecilia Johnson VO: Hey, it's Cecilia, host and producer of The Current Rewind. If you're listening to this the day it drops, it's Election Day in the U.S. You may be wondering what a First Ave podcast is doing in your feed, today of all days.

Well, first, we wanted to encourage you to vote, if you haven't already. On the flip side, if you're seeking a few moments of respite, we got you. Third, a while back, I noticed a really weird coincidence: This episode takes place on Election Day itself. In fact, some First Ave employees remember frantically working to save their club and having to take a break to vote. It's funny how history rhymes.

[🎵 A few stock music selections slide from song to song, separated by brief bursts of static. After several seconds, the music drops out, and we hear the following interview clips in quick succession 🎵]

Dan Corrigan: But we thought that it was not going to be open anymore. We thought it was done.

DJ Smitty: Nathan was like, "Yeah, I think this is it." And we're like, "Really?" Like, "Yeah."

[🎵 contemplative guitar fades up 🎵]

Randy Hawkins: It was heartbreaking.

Dan Corrigan: It was crazy, because when we closed the door for the – what we thought was the last time, all the lights in the whole place were off, but we turned on all the trouble lights.

[As Dan mentions the trouble lights, a "twinkly" sound effect fades up. Then, the guitar song resumes]

Cecilia Johnson VO: I'm Cecilia Johnson. This is The Current Rewind, the show putting music's unsung stories on the map. This season, we're looking back at 50 years of First Avenue, one of the Twin Cities' and the country's greatest live venues.

So far this season, we've welcomed a series of guest hosts, but this episode, I'll be your guide through the story of First Avenue's bankruptcy. In this episode, we'll visit First Ave on one of its darkest days, which some folks took to be the end. But others – including devoted employees, local music fans, and a certain stage-diving ally in City Hall – would not rest until they'd saved the club.

[guitar song fades out; rewind sound effect]

Cecilia Johnson VO: Although it shocked a lot of music fans, First Avenue's 2004 bankruptcy was a long time coming. If you've been following this season of our show, you've probably got a general understanding of First Avenue's finances, from its genesis as the Depot up until 2004.

Craig Finn: ...these carpetbaggers weren't bagging much cash.

Joe Shalita: But First Avenue is First Avenue. A dingy little place – at first, it was real dingy – you know –

Steve McClellan: We were, like, $60,000 in debt with no backup revenue source.

Cecilia Johnson VO: And the whole way through, Allan Fingerhut had owned or co-owned the business. We introduced him in the first episode of our season, but just for a little recap: Fingerhut had grown up in a suburb of Minneapolis, and his family ran a profitable mail-order company. He was one of the founding members of "The Committee," the small group who opened the Depot at First Avenue and Seventh Street in 1970. The Depot entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1971, and Cincinnati disco chain American Avents took over the club's operations in 1972, rebranding the Depot as Uncle Sam's. But the chain dissolved that partnership in about 1979. Soon afterward, Steve McClellan, the club's general manager, brought his old friend and roommate Jack Meyers aboard, to help manage money.

Steve McClellan: We were a very good, in my mind, a good yin and yang, that when the club was doing well, I was in charge, but when we weren't doing well, Jack was in charge.

Cecilia Johnson VO: And according to Jack Meyers, the fourth member of their quartet was Byron Frank.

Jack Meyers: Allan Fingerhut grew up with a buddy named Byron Frank. They were inseparable for years. And Byron is a real accountant CPA – a very good businessman. And he ran all of Allan's concerns, and so we had a meeting in 1979 – Byron, Allan, Steve and Jack – and put together our plans for First Avenue, shook hands, and off we went. Our main rule from Allan was "never ask me for money," which we never did, thankfully, otherwise we wouldn't have been there so long. At any rate, that was the big meeting, and those were the four of us, and we always reported to Byron, just like all of or most of Allan's concerns reported to Byron. So Byron was what we'd call "boss." Allan was what we'd call "owner." And this was even better, because the owner lived in California, so he kept most of his good ideas away.

Cecilia Johnson VO: Our producer Jesse Wiza spoke with Jack this summer.

Jesse Wiza: So when you were assistant manager, what did you do on a typical day?

Jack Meyers: Everything Steve didn't. It started out, Steve did the promotion and I did everything else, which means open the doors, hire and fire, run operations, and do the accounting when I had time, and count the money – you know. It was a real shoestring [operation], and I'm kinda proud of that.

Steve McClellan: I knew not to go to him to ask for any special requests if we just had a terrible week or month. But if I just had like three sellout shows and we had – oh, I don't know, I think 30 grand would've been a lot of money at the time in the bank account. I'd go, "Whoa, we can fix the floors, we can fix everything." And then Jack would remind me that the $8,000 insurance bill is due at the end of the month, and he would line up $20,000-30,000 of payments due just to stay open. You know, ridiculous things like insurance.

Jack Meyers: But Jack always made sure Allan got his check. Oh yeah, not only didn't he give us any money, but he got his check every month, which he was used to because Uncle Sam's sent him that check. So I sent him the same amount every month, and that was copacetic, and that's how it worked. That was, as we shall see, years later became very important.

Cecilia Johnson VO: Jack, Steve, and a few others ran the office upstairs at First Avenue.

Rob Milanov: But they were all day guys.

Cecilia Johnson VO: And Rob Milanov, who worked at First Avenue from 1999 until the 2004 bankruptcy, was a night staffer.

Rob Milanov: I started out as roaming security. You know, just the guy who wanders around the club trying to keep an eye on things. I eventually worked my way in barbacking and bartending and bussing and cashiering and – never worked stage but did a little bit of everything else.

Cecilia Johnson VO: Like Richard Luka from earlier this season, Rob got a job at First Avenue while attending a show.

Rob Milanov: We're standing in line, and they came down the line like, "We're short on people; anybody need a job?" [laughs]

Cecilia Johnson VO: And unlike many of the people who jumped at that opportunity, Rob ended up staying for years.

Rob Milanov: Everybody thought they wanted to work there, but once they started, the vast majority of people are gone within a couple days. Because, at the time, you didn't get paid anything, and you're risking your life, and it was a hassle.

Cecilia Johnson VO: Like lots of restaurant and entertainment jobs, First Avenue was a "sink or swim" kind of gig.

Rob Milanov: I mean, you'd be friendly with people right away, but to be honest, we were not the nicest to new employees. We threw you to the wolves and – and saw if you could survive, and – you'd get help in some ways, but at the same time, like I said – you had to prove yourself or you were just gonna be another person that lasted three days.

Cecilia Johnson VO: While interviewing former employees, I heard about a particularly hilarious tradition. Only at First Avenue does "throw you to the wolves" translate to "involuntary karaoke." But that was part of being a new person.

Rob Milanov: So if you're looking at the stage, there's that sitting rail along the left side of the room, and basically, at the employee meeting at the end of the night, you'd have to stand up on the sitting rail and sing a song. You didn't know this; occasionally, somebody would hear it through the grapevine, "This is what they did," or whatnot. But for the most part, most of us were completely surprised by this.

Cecilia Johnson VO: And what did Rob sing?

[🎵 "Are You Drinkin' With Me Jesus" by Mojo Nixon fades up 🎵]

Rob Milanov: [laughs] Well, I stood up, thought for a few seconds, and I started singing the chorus to "Are You Drinkin' With Me Jesus" by Mojo Nixon, which was a popular choice. By the end of the chorus, most of the staff were singing along.

[🎵 "Are You Drinkin' With Me Jesus" by Mojo Nixon plays for several seconds, fades down 🎵]

Cecilia Johnson VO: But Rob's First Avenue was pretty different from that of the higher-ups. He says most of the office workers would go home by the time the concerts actually started.

Rob Milanov: The night staff didn't really see the upper-upper management too much. The one we'd see the most was Steve, because he would at least stick around long enough to say hello to the bands as they were loading in. The office was kinda this foreign world. [laughs] We knew the office as far as like – getting change and them putting the money away at the end of the night. That's where you pick up your walkie-talkie and your keys and whatnot and drop them off at the end of the night. But other than that, you know...

Cecilia Johnson VO: Like almost any job, there was some tension between those who set the wages and those who earned them. In 1998, one employee filed a Department of Labor complaint that attested to a couple different types of wage theft at First Avenue. No one wanted to go on the record with me to talk about it, mostly out of love for the club, but every First Avenue veteran we interviewed agreed that it was not a place to get rich. Even Steve tried to steer potential employees away from seeing First Ave as a career.

Steve McClellan: One of my interview questions in those days was, "You really need work, don't you?" My suggestion, and I was serious when I told people this: "Go get that full-time job that's gonna pay your rent, then come back and talk to me about some supplementary income."

Cecilia Johnson VO: I asked Rob Milanov if he felt management had any way to pay people more.

Rob Milanov: I honestly don't know if there was, because – you look at the bartenders just piling money into their registers, and you think, "This place is making money hand over fist." But if you think of the logistics of it, like, on any given night, a lot of times, we have like 40 staff members on, and you got the expense of the bands and the DJs and – you know – the stage people – and I do think they probably paid us what they could.

Cecilia Johnson VO: Despite the low wages, many First Ave employees truly cared about their jobs and each other.

Rob Milanov: Sometimes, we were bonded by fire, literally. [laughs] Or putting our lives on the line for eight bucks an hour. That kinda makes you family.

Cecilia Johnson VO: And although it was a tough job, Rob remembers those days fondly.

Rob Milanov: Saw a lot of good shows for free, man. That's what it was about. That's why you literally risk your life for eight dollars an hour, is because you get to be a part of the music scene. I feel like I was part of the shows.

Cecilia Johnson VO: In 2003, tension was mounting amid the owner and manager quartet: Allan, Byron, Jack, and Steve. Jack remembers it like this.

Jack Meyers: Sometime in '03, Byron and Allan had a falling out over the stupidest reason I ever heard of. Allan claims he didn't sign something that Byron had, and there's no way Byron would've done that. So he up and fired Byron, after, what, 50 years of Byron running everything for him? So at any rate, remember the four people at the table: Allan, Byron, Steve and Jack. He fired Byron, our boss. And that's complicated, because in 2000 when we bought the building, Allan didn't wanna spend any money. Remember the rule? "Don't ask me for money."

Cecilia Johnson VO: The team behind First Avenue hadn't owned their building until 2000, when the building's then-owner presented an ultimatum: buy the real estate or face a huge rent hike.

Jack Meyers: And Allan got – we were able to get enough for 20% of the property, and then Allan's kids, through his brother who was trustee, each bought 10%, so that's 40%. So then Jack and Steve had to step up, and we each bought 10%. That was a lot of money to us. And then Byron filled in the other 40%. So now you have a situation where Byron's running the club as a manager who owns 40%, more than Allan. And Allan fires him. Well, obviously, there's gonna be disputes over the property. So of course, Allan doesn't have enough shares to, uh, replace Byron. He's a minority shareholder, so of course he calls Jack and Steve. This started the downturn for us. And he said, "Vote with me. We're gonna do something to Byron." He wanted to buy him out, force him out; I don't remember.

So at any rate, Joe Finley, our lawyer, said, "You don't wanna get in the middle of that. You don't vote in any of these things." Well, Allan knew that a "no" vote made him impotent, and he couldn't get rid of Byron, and so he got mad at Jack and Steve. So all we did was no vote, which, when you think about it, makes a heck of a lot of sense, because why in the world would we pick sides between Byron and Allan? Ok. So that's a big thing.

So then months later, we had to stop sending Allan his monthly check. Allan didn't like that; oh, I knew he wouldn't. And then – Joe said I had to do it. I had to send Allan a letter saying, things are bad, and we need money, or they're gonna get worse. I didn't wanna send it, because I knew where it was gonna go, but I did, because that's what managements do. We weren't the only club losing money in '04. It was just a bad year for bands. Who knows why? I used to call them "the bad band gods." There were good some years; they were bad other years, and that's the best I could ever figure.

Cecilia Johnson VO: Jack and Steve's back-up plan was to entice Jam Productions or another big company into buying First Avenue.

Jack Meyers: Well, Allan wasn't interested in selling. But we did – we tried to buy the club, knowing full well that Allan would take that letter he received saying, "Not only aren't I getting my check, but now you want money, and that's the one – first rule I told you, back in 1979. I got a better idea. You and Steve are fired." So now, of the four people at the meeting that put it all together in '79, three are fired. And this is important to us. Since we've been terminated, we no longer owe any loyalty to Allan.

Cecilia Johnson VO: The club limped along for five more months. But according to longtime First Avenue stage manager Randy Hawkins, its operations were not pretty.

Randy Hawkins: It was [sighs] heartbreaking. I think, without pointing any fingers, the place was not being run the best by the owners at the time. The money wasn't going back into the club. The money was going somewhere else. And they lost some good booking people. Steve and Jack were gone. It was being run by a team that – I don't know how to say it. They just weren't quite on top of it. They didn't have the luster that the people do now.

Cecilia Johnson VO: Bankruptcy rumors had been swirling around First Avenue for a long time, often enough that First Avenue DJ John Smith, aka DJ Smitty, had become desensitized.

DJ Smitty: Because it seems those murmurings happen like every five years.

Cecilia Johnson VO: Nate Kranz, who'd play a crucial role in First Avenue's reopening, was so used to the chaos that even he didn't expect the club to actually close.

Nate Kranz: It didn't seem like it was all hunky-dory, but it didn't seem odd. It just seemed like the normal environment with which First Avenue operated. You were always one foot on the banana peel, the other in the grave. Right? And that was just the whole attitude.

Cecilia Johnson VO: But near the end of 2004, it all came crashing to a halt.

DJ Smitty: Halloween of 2004.

Cecilia Johnson VO: Smitty was set to DJ that night.

DJ Smitty: I got to the club, and I saw Fingerhut, and this was the first time – let's see, 2004 – in 11 years of working at the club, that was the first time I saw Allan Fingerhut.

Cecilia Johnson VO: But he recognized Allan anyway.

DJ Smitty: It was like literally, the minute I looked at him, I was just like, "That's Allan Fingerhut," even though he was a disheveled man with a satchel. Who else could it be? [laughs] It was either the ghost of Christmas past or it was Allan Fingerhut.

Cecilia Johnson VO: And that didn't seem to bode well for the club.

DJ Smitty: I was like, ok, the odds of this talk have just gone up significantly, and whoever was in the office was like, "Eh, don't worry about it; nothing to see here." I was like, "Ok." I did my first couple of sets, no problem, and then during my last set I was closing, 1:30 a.m. to 2. Um, and I was in there with employee Nathan Anderson and now-general-manager Nate Kranz. We were in the booth, and he looked at me and Nathan and was like, "Yeah, I think this is it." And we're like, "Really?" Like, "Yeah." And we thought about the closing of First Avenue for a minute, and then we had to figure out what songs we were gonna play, so we pulled some Lifter Puller and some Mighty Mofos and closed out the night.

[🎵 "Lifter Puller Vs. The End Of The Evening" by Lifter Puller 🎵]

DJ Smitty: And the next day, I got a phone call at my day job, telling me to come grab my records, because the feds were coming to padlock the doors.

Rob Milanov: We got a call at like 9 a.m., like, "All your bikes, records, and everything you got stored at the club, go get it right now because the doors are locked at noon and it's done."

Cecilia Johnson VO: Rob Milanov could not believe it.

Rob Milanov: It was just such a spur of the moment thing, um, like the entire story was, we're working Halloween night, which is one of the busiest nights of the year, and Allan Fingerhut comes around and says, "Don't worry; you guys all have a job for as long as you want it – I love you guys, blah-blah-blah." He shook each of our hands throughout the night, and we got off work at 4 a.m.; five hours later, we get a call – come get your stuff out.

Cecilia Johnson VO: Dan Corrigan, First Avenue's longtime staff photographer, got to the club as fast as he could.

Dan Corrigan: There were people basically taking stuff and walking away with stuff. I went into the office and got hold of three binders of my photographs that I just didn't want to disappear into whatever happened. And I think we all walked down the street to a bar on Hennepin and started commiserating that it's done. You know, all my friends are in shock – literally in shock, like, what the hell.

Cecilia Johnson VO: But here's where the future of the club gets a little brighter. Nate Kranz and Sonia Grover, who are now First Avenue's general manager and booking manager, respectively, had both worked there since 1998. Research assistant Taylor Seaberg interviewed them together for Rewind last winter.

Sonia Grover: We met each other in '98 working at Cheapo. So we worked at a record store together, became friends, we'd hang out or work together, or go to see shows with each other, or run into each other at shows. And we lived just a few blocks apart, so I'd go over to his house for parties. And then he started at First Avenue in July of '98, and then I started in October. Sat right next to each other every day until 2009 or '10. When did you move offices?

Nate Kranz: 2009 or '10. [laughs]

Sonia Grover: 2009 or '10, and then a couple years ago, put me right back next to him [both laugh] with our poor assistant in between us. But I mean, I was his maid of honor when he got married. We are very tight, for sure.

Cecilia Johnson VO: And the minute they heard about the bankruptcy, they hurried down to First Avenue, grabbed their desk calendars, and started trying to rebook their shows at different venues. They couldn't control First Avenue's fate, but they could try to make sure that the bands who'd been scheduled there could still play shows somewhere.

Sonia Grover: There was no inactivity with me and Nate. That is for sure.

Taylor Seaberg: You were still going.

Sonia Grover: We were going nonstop every day, because Nate had internet, and I don't think I did at my house at the time. So we'd go over to Nate's house, and email, call, making sure we didn't cancel all the shows, but just try and keep track of the shows we had, shows that were coming up, letting the agents know what was going on, letting the local media know what was going on with shows. My phone bill was like $300 after that, because I made the mistake of not upping my plan. But yeah, we were working nonstop for those few weeks in between.

Nate Kranz: We were locked out of First Avenue. We started – the first day, we went to the Fine Line and worked. They were nice enough to let us use their offices. And then after that, like Sonia was saying, we worked out of my house. While my girlfriend was moving out. [laughs]

Cecilia Johnson VO: Sonia and Nate had to deal with the immediate questions – where could they send the bands who were supposed to play First Avenue? – and some bigger questions.

Nate Kranz: The first stage was moving the shows that were supposed to happen on those days, like the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. So we were moving shows into the Cedar or the Turf Club or the Fine Line or whatever – just trying to do whatever we could to find homes for the shows that we had booked that were displaced. Once we got through that period, which was obviously super hectic – and it was [only] us. And Steve was helping us, but it was, you know, nobody was getting paid. We didn't have jobs. We were just basically being like, ok, we have nothing else to do; let's save these shows, and then we'll figure out what's next. But we know saving the shows was what had to happen first.

Cecilia Johnson VO: Journalists from the Star Tribune, New York Times, City Pages, and beyond reported on First Avenue's closure. But Nate and Sonia were mostly getting calls from the agents of the bands whose gigs were in danger.

Nate Kranz: Had to do interviews, yeah, but get yelled at a lot. Like, I'd really emphasize that. We got to make a lot of phone calls on the day that we lost our job, to people that just yelled at us but ultimately came around. [laughs]

Sonia Grover: One of the agents threatened to call the police and get me put in jail. He's a friend now, and I bring it up every now and then.

Taylor Seaberg: Whoa. But I'm confused. Why?

Nate Kranz: Us too. We were low.

Sonia Grover: Yeah. You have contracts, you have bands booked, contracts signed, and –

Nate Kranz: They were fighting for their artist.

Sonia Grover: Yes.

Nate Kranz: But then, for 90% of those shows, things calmed down, and we were able to accommodate those bands. I mean, I think there was one or two bands that ended up actually canceling, and at least one of 'em, they weren't going to let the situation be fixed. They just weren't. We gave them plenty of options, and they turned every single one of them down.

Sonia Grover: The community was so amazing, still going to all these shows, and I think we probably sold tickets that we may not have otherwise sold, because people sort of wanted to show their support for First Avenue.

Taylor Seaberg: Like, in the era when it was closed?

Sonia Grover: Yup. And I don't think – Nate, I don't think you and I paid for our own drinks for like two or three weeks.

Nate Kranz: Most of the deals were able to stay intact, and reputations were saved. And after a couple weeks, we started looking toward the future again.

Cecilia Johnson VO: The future was a company called F-Troop. Whereas "The Committee, Inc." was Allan's business, F-Troop was led by Byron Frank.

Nate Kranz: We were in communication with Steve and Byron Frank, and so I knew the process that they were going through to try and expedite the bankruptcy. And so, because of that line of communication, we were trying to take care of business in the moment, but we also kind of knew that, all right, there is gonna be First Avenue. We don't know if we have jobs there. We don't know what that's gonna look like, how they're gonna wanna operate it. But we did know that it was coming back online, or very likely to come back online, after a short amount of time.

Cecilia Johnson VO: Writing for the New York Times, David Carr described the Nov. 12 Bankruptcy Court hearing in Minneapolis where the business changed hands: Quote, "In that courtroom high above the city on Friday, a simple agreement was reached: Mr. Frank, along with Mr. McClellan, Mr. Meyers and a trust made up of members of the Fingerhut family – but not Mr. Fingerhut – would be allowed to buy the First Avenue business, lock, stock and punk rock, for $100,220. Judge Robert J. Kressel was presiding, and he not only approved the offer, with a few minor tweaks, but waived the traditional stay of 10 days, because, as he noted, "I gather there is some urgency to the situation." Enquote. And the Honorable Judge Kressel wasn't the only official who helped usher First Avenue into its future.

Nate Kranz: I mean, shout out to R.T. Rybak, right?

Sonia Grover: Hell yeah, for sure. For sure.

Nate Kranz: He was the mayor at the time, and he went above and beyond to make sure that anything that he could do in his power as mayor, he was not gonna let First Avenue go away.

R.T. Rybak: Over the years, I've spent a lot of time at First Avenue. Right when I got out of college –

Cecilia Johnson VO: This is R.T. Rybak, who served as mayor of Minneapolis from 2002-2014.

R.T. Rybak: For the five years first out of college, I spent three, four, five nights a week at First Avenue: dancing, music, all that. So I got to see some pretty great shows.

Cecilia Johnson VO: Before becoming mayor, he was a journalist covering the local arts and culture scene.

R.T. Rybak: So First Avenue was a huge cultural icon to me, and way before the bankruptcy at First Avenue, I was having lunch with the late and wonderful Brian Coyle, who was a city council member in Minneapolis, and I was a reporter at the time, and we got in this weird conversation, like, Minneapolis has torn down too many of its great buildings. What building would we most stand in front of the bulldozer to prevent being bulldozed? And we almost at the same time blurted out, "First Avenue!" Ironically, Brian, who was at City Hall when we had that conversation, sadly died. But I was at City Hall when there was that moment when First Avenue could close, and I don't think I waited for their call. I called them and just said, "I wanna do whatever I can do to help."

Cecilia Johnson VO: Byron, Steve, and Jack needed First Ave's liquor license to be transferred to them before they could reopen.

Jack Meyers: And we were in R.T. Rybak's – the mayor at the time – his office when R.T. called the head of the liquor license, and he said, "Do you have that application for the First Avenue liquor license?" They go, "Well, as a matter of fact, I do." He said, "Do you see anything wrong with it?" No. He said, "Well, can they have it by Monday?" They go, "Oh yeah, no problem." You know, and you don't get that. Also, unbeknownst to us, bankruptcies, take years to go through the courts. What'd we take? A week? Somebody said, "I don't wanna get this tied up in court," and I can only guess it's good old R.T. Rybak again. He was a real sport. He really loved the club.

Cecilia Johnson VO: And so it was that on Nov. 19, 2004, First Avenue reopened with a show by costume metal legends GWAR. Steve and Jack returned to work, and Jack would stay on until 2010. But Steve was gone within months.

Steve McClellan: I think Byron just kept me on for as long as he needed to. Larry Johnson actually explained it best to me. He said, "Byron's playing a big Risk board, and he's gotta get rid of Allan and Allan's brother, Ronny Fingerhut," [who] were both on the license some way, or the business. He had to get rid of them before he'd come at me, but I remember Larry Johnson looking at me and saying, "Steve, you're gone the moment Allan and Ronny were gone." And of course within three months after, I could see the sights were on me, then. And I guess everybody warned me. I just didn't see it coming kinda thing. But it was already, you know, the damage had been done, in my mind. The club was becoming something I no longer had control [over]. And I am a control freak, just like everybody I couldn't get along with. When two control freaks meet, somewhere in the middle, it –

Cecilia Johnson VO: Byron wasn't able to speak with us for this show, so he can't weigh in on Steve's second departure. But Nate's description of Byron does seem to align with Steve's.

Nate Kranz: Yeah, when Byron bought it, all of a sudden, for the time in the history of the club, you had one person. You had a person in control of the real estate and the business. Anybody that's leasing a space will tell you, how much money do you wanna put into improving that building so that your landlord has a more valuable property to market or whatever? So if First Avenue the club ever made money, it went to Allan. And if it didn't make money, well, it just didn't make money, but it certainly never got reinvested into the actual physical space. And so, by the late '90s, when we got in there, it was pretty rough. And so, when Byron came in, he was like, how are we gonna do this business? And we met and kinda came up with a plan. And the plan was, all right, we're gonna try it this way, and if it works, then we got a business. If it doesn't, then I gotta find somebody else that's gonna make it work. And so as a team, us as bookers and the operations staff and everybody, we kinda came up with a plan, started booking shows, started putting in more – I'd say, kinda professional approaches to the behind-the-scenes. Not that it's not fun, but it's gotta be less chaotic. It's gotta be run a little bit more professionally.

Cecilia Johnson VO: First Avenue ended up hiring back about two-thirds of the approximately 120 staff who'd lost their jobs. But Rob Milanov said his loyalty to Steve and Allan kept him away.

Rob Milanov: I retired. And at the time, the Triple Rock [Social Club] was the First Avenue retirement home. That's what we called it. [laughs] Because the entire staff there had worked at First Avenue at one point or another, and they were moving on to quieter pastures, so to speak.

Cecilia Johnson VO: After the change of ownership, First Avenue upgraded the air conditioning and fire sprinklers, and even during the Great Recession, they had some profitable years. You know that enormous billboard on top of First Avenue's roof? That revenue source was installed shortly after Byron took over, with another assist from R.T. Rybak. In 2009, Byron had a health scare and considered selling First Avenue. But his daughter Dayna Frank, who'd grown up seeing shows at First Avenue, volunteered to learn the business and take care of the club. For almost a decade, she's been commuting from Los Angeles, where she lives with her wife, to First Avenue in Minneapolis. But Nate and Sonia say she's much more hands-on than Allan Fingerhut was.

Nate Kranz: He was completely off, like he did not come to the venue, he did not have meetings, he did not have anything to do with the day-to-day operations. Steve and Jack managed it, and they had a contract to manage it. Literally, their relationship was, Allan's not gonna manage it. He's gonna hire this other company. That was Steve and Jack's company, and that was what was managing the business from my perspective.

Sonia Grover: Then whereas for Dayna, it's super rare to go a few days without seeing her at First Ave, and I talk to her, email her several times a week. I know Nate's in contact with her way more.

Nate Kranz: Every day.

Sonia Grover: But she is an "every day, every hour" presence at First Ave.

Cecilia Johnson VO: Allan Fingerhut didn't respond to our interview requests last winter, and sadly, he passed on Oct. 12, 2020. But he did give a final word on First Avenue to David Carr in the New York Times in 2004. Quote, "I got beat out of my bar fair and square, but I don't want to be attacked anymore. How can I be the bad guy in all of this? I lost $800,000 and half my hearing keeping this place going as long as I did."

After Byron Frank took over, First Avenue instituted health and retirement plans for its employees. But even now, it's hard to make a living wage at a rock club. Of course, the pandemic has brought new focus to the overall sustainability of the entertainment industries. But even before the pandemic, the live music industry as a whole was facing huge challenges, even if First Avenue is a much healthier business now than it was in 2004.

[🎵 "Hive Sound" by Icetep 🎵]

This episode of The Current Rewind was hosted by me, Cecilia Johnson. I produced this episode with the help of Jesse Wiza, and Taylor Seaberg contributed research and consulting. Marisa Morseth is our research assistant, and Jay Gabler is our editor. Our theme music is the song "Hive Sound" by Icetep. This episode was mixed by Johnny Vince Evans. And I want to say "thank you" to Jeanne Andersen, Rick Carlson, David Safar, and Shelby Sachs for additional support.

If you're enjoying this podcast, the number-one thing you can do to support us is to tell a fellow music fan that it's out there. To find a transcript of this episode (or any other one), go to

The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. It is a production of Minnesota Public Radio's The Current.

[🎵 "Hive Sound" by Icetep fades out 🎵]

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