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15 things you might not know about First Avenue

by Andrea Swensson

July 24, 2013

Whether you attend shows all the time or only make it out every now and again, chances are you've noticed some changes going down at First Avenue. The big star repainting that happened in 2010 caught a lot of people's attention (and led to some outcry, as fans questioned which artists would remain and which ones would get the boot), as did the addition of the Ave's new restaurant, the Depot Tavern, which opened later that same year.

But what people may not realize is that the person behind all of these changes is relatively new—and she never imagined that she'd be in charge of such a landmark venue like First Avenue. Dayna Frank, the club's Executive Vice President, stepped in to help run the club when her father, Byron Frank, suffered a stroke in 2009. Byron's fine now, but Dayna enjoyed the work so much that she ended up staying put—and now, everything from the new restaurant to the shiny new women's bathroom in the Entry to the forthcoming First Avenue Festival can be traced back to her influence on the club and her vision for a more forward-thinking and open gathering place for music fans.

I had a chance to sit with Dayna recently for a rare interview, and much of our conversation is documented in a feature-length profile that I wrote for this month's issue of Minnesota Monthly. Dayna, general manager Nate Kranz, and talent buyer Sonia Grover are part of a new chapter in First Avenue's legacy, and it was energizing to learn more about their plans for the future. While researching the magazine piece, I also asked Dayna and her staff to share some little-known facts about the club, and they came up with quite a few.

Behold, 15 things you might not know about First Avenue:

500,000 people visit First Ave. each year.

You get in free on your birthday, regardless of whether the show is sold out. Plus, they even toss in a drink coupon good for a free bottle of champagne.

First Ave.’s beloved stage manager, Conrad Sverkerson, is celebrating his 25th anniversary with the club this month. “The first show I did was for Soul Asylum," he told me last year. "I didn’t know what I was doing, and just kind of got thrown right into the fire.”

★ After helping the club rush through the liquor license re-application process, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak did a stage dive when First Ave. reopened in 2004 (during a Gwar show, to boot). It's something he still repeats from time to time, including when he proclaimed it "Trampled by Turtles Day" at the Duluth band's show at First Avenue in 2012.

The Record Room (formerly the VIP Room) was remodeled in 2010. It got its new name from the club’s actual record room—a closet that was used to store the deejay’s vinyl records and turntables back before everyone had laptops.

Roughly 10 percent of the stars on the outside wall are left blank, for the staff to add to as they see fit. The newest addition was Macklemore.

★ Speaking of the stars, they are repainted every 10 years, most recently in 2010. "Don’t be scared in 2020. It’ll be ok," joked Dayna Frank.

The stars were painted as a way for the club to market itself to a larger audience. First Avenue's former general manager Jack Meyers recalls the decision vividly: "Bands in clubs were new in the '80s. But we fell into the national network, where these bands were trying to get on the radio. And come on, new wave was big, we were new wave, but nobody was gonna play your record in the market. So you played First Avenue. They would play here, and then after a few years some of them were playing over there [points to Target Center], like U2. And they go, 'Oh U2, they were so good!' And I’d go, 'They played First Avenue four times.' That’s our business. No, you’ve never heard of them tonight, but you WILL! So we started putting the stars on the wall, and then they would walk by and go, 'Wow, U2!' I thought that was a good idea, to teach our audience. So that’s why we have the stars. It really did catch on. And then the bands would get mad if they didn’t get up there. It was just a marketing effort, obviously. A sensible marketing effort."

The stars weren’t on the building when Purple Rain was filmed, nor were they there between 1997 and 2000, when the owner didn’t have the cash to cover the paint job.

★ The club’s staff designed its own system of “trouble lights” to alert security about problems in the crowd. When a particular light on the ceiling flashes, staff know to run to the corresponding space to address the emergency. Purple means something's up in the Record Room, white is the front door, green is the merch area, blue is the Entry, red is upstairs, and amber is the main floor downstairs.

200 employees are on the payroll at First Ave., and at least 50 are working at any given show.

Almost every dollar goes right back into improvements in the club. "We don’t really take anything out," Frank says. She estimates over $3 million has been funneled back into the business since the club was taken into bankruptcy in 2004.

The club tweets out set times to every single show. "And we tweet them the minute we get them," notes marketing director Machen Davis.

The "First Avenue Ghost" was once enclosed in a creepy, tiny room that the club accidentally knocked open. Former general manager Jack Meyers (who ran the club from the 1980 all the way up until the current manager Nate Kranz took over in 2010) says he noticed something unusual about an area in the Record Room and decided to open up the wall, only to find 12 square feet of empty space inside. "And there was only one thing in there: a big booth, like a pew. The rumor is, that’s where the woman died. They walled it in! Why did they wall it in? I was there when they knocked down that wall, because we were all going, what is in there?"

Despite getting canceled this year, the First Avenue Festival will happen. Frank says they are already working on securing acts for next year's event, which will take place at Parade Park, near the Sculpture Garden. "We’re really looking at this for the long haul, and we’re thinking, ok, we want to be doing this festival in 30 years," she says. "Is it going to matter if we start in 2013 or 2014? Probably not. What’s most important is we do it right."




Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.