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Making moonshine and dancing to Dixieland: A tour through Minnesota’s Prohibition-era music venues

Victoria Café founder and comedian Moe Thompson with his wife and business partner Audre (left) and performers either at the Victoria or a similar venue. (Photo courtesy of Audrey Thompson and Kurt Gegenhuber)
Victoria Café founder and comedian Moe Thompson with his wife and business partner Audre (left) and performers either at the Victoria or a similar venue. (Photo courtesy of Audrey Thompson and Kurt Gegenhuber)

by Colleen Cowie

November 04, 2019

From 1920 to 1933, Prohibition outlawed the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol — but Minnesotans found other ways to enjoy their spirits. St. Paul’s bootlegging business was booming and the city’s bands provided the soundtrack.

When the Volstead Act went into effect in 1919, saloons and beer parlors closed up shop and new establishments began to take shape. Soda shops flourished, ballrooms were built, and speakeasies nestled in mushroom caves. As Minnesota’s drinking culture moved underground, so did its music scene. Jazz musicians mingled with gangsters, dancers trotted to Dixieland, and new songs boasted about St. Paul’s freewheeling, moonshining underbelly. 

These are just a few of the Twin Cities’ music venues that entertained audiences during Prohibition, and kept the music flowing in a dry state.

The Victoria Café: Mixing music and moonshine

Frank E. Cloutier and his Coliseum Orchestra
Frank E. Cloutier (front, center) with his Coliseum Orchestra in yachtsmen uniforms in 1929 (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society).

A rare 1927 recording from the Victoria Café preserves the sounds of St. Paul’s moonshining days. Located in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood, the Victoria Café was a theme restaurant — like New York’s Copacabana, except instead of transporting its visitors to Brazil, it satirized the stuffy and outdated Victorian culture.

The Victoria Café was known for its onstage revue: a genre popular in the early 20th century consisting of a succession of song-and-dance numbers based on a loose theme. The venue’s performances strung together recognizable Victorian songs like Irving Berlin’s “The Near Future (How Dry I Am),” that writer Kurt Gegenhuber described would sound “corny” to young audiences. “Everybody at the time would have recognized them as their parents’ or their grandparents’ music,” he said. “To hear it twisted and turned into a joke and pepped up would have been hilarious.”

Gegenhuber has spent the past 15 years researching “Moonshiner’s Dance—Part I,” which the Victoria Café Orchestra recorded in 1927. The song is a snapshot of the café’s raucous shows that featured a band led by Frank Cloutier of around eight musicians wearing “yachtsman-style” costumes accompanying a scantily-clad group of women performers.

As Gegenhuber explains, “Moonshiner’s Dance” served as a souvenir of a bootlegging and gangster-run city for locals and tourists alike. “‘Moonshiner’s Dance—Part I’ was a stage show made by St. Paulites — that is to say people living in a very wet, drunk, freewheeling, lawless city during Prohibition, and a tourist town,” said Gegenhuber. “They were singing partly to the regulars, and partly to the people coming in from the provinces who were coming there to see real-life dancing girls and real-life gangsters at the next table.”

Than’s: Playing a baby grand for Baby Face Nelson

In Twin Cities speakeasies, jazz musicians played for some of the Midwest’s most notorious gangsters. Singer and pianist Nettie Hayes Sherman sat on the floor at the St. Paul speakeasy Than’s in front of a baby grand piano playing a blend of ragtime, Dixieland jazz, and popular tunes. Than’s regulars included Midwest mobsters Tommy O’Connell, John Dillinger, and Baby Face Nelson, as well as railroad pioneer James J. Hill.

The Green Lantern: Danny Hogan’s hideaway

Green Lantern Saloon
The interior of the Green Lantern saloon (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society).

The Green Lantern saloon is one of the most infamous Prohibition-era hangouts. Pianist Red Dougherty, drummer/vibraphonist Eddie Tolck, and drummer Chief McElroy played at St. Paul’s Green Lantern, where they would see famous criminals like the saloon’s owner, Daniel “Dapper Dan” Hogan, and on occasion, Al Capone. “They’d sit in a booth and divvy up money and sometimes deal with the St. Paul police,” Tolck describes in the Jay Goetting book Joined at the Hip: A History of Jazz in the Twin Cities. “Gangsters didn’t bother the general populence. All the violence was within themselves.”

Hollyhocks Club: Glamour and gambling

Not everyone had to sneak into speakeasies to enjoy alcohol during Prohibition. “If you were in a certain station in society, you didn’t need to bother with speakeasies or homemade bathtub gin,” wrote Andy Sturdevant and Bill Lindeke in their new book, Closing Time, which looks at the history of Minnesota’s drinking establishments. “If you were a reasonably well-off couple who owned some formalwear and were looking for some drinks and maybe the thrill of fraternizing with gangsters, you could find your way into Hollyhocks.”

St. Paul’s Hollyhocks Club is just one example of the private clubs that allowed well-off Minnesotans to carry on with their glamorous drinking habits during Prohibition. The club’s owner, John Peifer would visit City Hall each week with an envelope of cash containing 20 percent of the Hollyhocks’ earnings. With this bribe, the police allowed him to run his business, which included selling alcohol to high-paying clients.

Guests wore tuxedos and evening dresses, and Sturdevant says this glamour provided a stark contrast to the scruffy speakeasies. One of the things that created this elevated atmosphere was live music, supplied by big bands.

“Live music was a huge part of the environment,” said Sturdevant. “It was fashionable to have dinner and then dance and have live music. You would go to these places and not only would there be booze, not only would there be other people in your social network, not only would there be gambling, but there would also be music and dancing.”

The Coliseum: Roller skating with the jazz greats

Wally Erickson's Coliseum Orchestra
Wally Erickson’s Coliseum Orchestra, circa 1925 (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society).

The Coliseum was built in 1918 as an ice rink, which was later covered to become a vast 100 by 250 feet ballroom — at the time it was the world’s largest. The Coliseum hosted regular dance nights with music from a variety of bands, usually large orchestras like Wally Erickson and his Coliseum Orchestra. When it wasn’t dance night, Coliseum also doubled as a roller skating rink.

With alcohol outlawed, ballrooms became the new centers of urban nightlife, as the focus shifted from drinking to dancing. Even though the venue couldn’t serve alcohol, patrons would sneak in bootleg whiskey to spike their soft drinks. The Coliseum attracted a number of legendary jazz performers, like pianist Fats Waller and drummer Ben Pollack, a.k.a. the “Father of Swing.” The Coliseum was owned by John Lane, who also owned another prominent Twin Cities club, the Boulevards of Paris.

Boulevards of Paris: Bringing the legends to Minnesota

The Boulevards of Paris sat next to the Coliseum, on the corner of Lexington Parkway and University Avenue. The club had a more sophisticated air than the hot dog-serving Coliseum. Like the Hollyhocks, tuxedos and evening gowns were standard fare.

Many of jazz’s biggest stars, including Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong, played at the Boulevards of Paris, and their performances would have a lasting impact on Minnesota’s jazz scene. Margeurite Junterman, daughter of owner John Lane, would also sneak backstage at the Orpheum Theatre and bring the night’s singers, actors, and comics to the Bouevards for surprise shows.  

Big clubs like the Boulevards were rarely racially integrated, meaning that bands performed almost exclusively for white audiences. “Much of Minnesota’s early jazz was played by white musicians imitating the sounds of famous artists who toured the state,” Jay Goetting notes in Joined at the Hip. Young musicians in like cornetist Paul “Doc” Evans and bandleader Paul Wilke were inspired by the jazz greats, and would imitate their styles in their music.

The St. Paul Hotel: bootlegging headquarters and bustling ballroom

St. Paul Hotel
The St. Paul Hotel circa 1911 (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society).

The St. Paul Hotel opened in 1910 on Rice Park. The hotel became one of the city’s most popular venues, as well as a major bootlegging headquarters. Leon Gleckman was known as the “beer baron,” or the “Al Capone” of St. Paul for his highly successful bootlegging business. In 1930, Gleckman set up offices on the third floor of the St. Paul Hotel, and used the space to send bribes to the police, and other city officials.

Just a few floors below was the hotel’s ballroom, where you could see performances from legendary musicians like tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Lester Young. Young was born in Mississippi, but his family moved to Minneapolis around 1920. His father, Willis Handy Young, led the Young Family band, which is where Young cut his teeth as a soloist. 

The Young Family Band later became the eleven-ppiece New Orleans Strutters. The Strutters toured the Midwest in the early twenties, and frequently performed at the St. Paul Hotel, as well as other Twin Cities venues like the Radisson Hotel and the South Side Ballroom. According to writer Jay Goetting, the New Orleans Strutters “became one of the most in demand in the Twin Cities and virtually the only one of that size.”

The Marigold: Dancing to Dixieland

Marigold Ballroom
Marquee of the Marigold Ballroom circa 1930 (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society).

The Marigold Gardens (later renamed the Marigold Ballroom) opened in 1919 on Nicollet Avenue. The ballroom was such a popular spot for dancing that Nicollet streetcars stopped in the middle of the block to let off patrons right in front. 

The Marigold played a pivotal role in the rise of Dixieland in the Twin Cities, when the New Orleans Rhythm Kings performed at the ballroom in 1925. The band’s musicians hailed from Chicago and New Orleans, the incubators of a rising new style of jazz called Dixieland.

The key components of Dixieland were improvisation, syncopation, and contrapuntal ensemble playing (meaning that different members of a band would play contrasting melodies). Dixieland, also referred to as “traditional jazz,” predated the lightning-fast melodies and jarring key modulations of bebop. After the New Orleans Rhythm Kings’ 1925 Minneapolis performance, Dixieland spiked in popularity locally, and its improvised solos and dance-inducing beat became the defacto sound for ballrooms, hotels, and country clubs across the Twin Cities.

This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Current and The Growler, a monthly craft beer lifestyle magazine covering the best stories in beer, food, and culture. Find this article online and in print in the November edition of The Growler.

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