First Avenue's Black Tuesday
First Avenue offices photographed Tuesday by Daniel Corrigan
PART ONE: "WE WERE TOLD TO RUN TO THE BANK."
Seven people dressed up as "First Avenue" at Sunday night's Halloween party at First Avenue--and didn't win the costume contest. "That was a bad omen," says Ian Rans, who hosted as Max Headroom on what turned out to be the nightclub's final evening. The winners were a human Connect Four game, Jesus and the devil, and in third place... well, this requires more explanation: "Ever seen the graphic, 'Every time you masturbate, God kills a kitten?' And there are these two brown things chasing after a kitten? One of those brown things."
Granted, "First Avenue" were flipping everybody off that night, pushing other costumes around. "They weren't trying to be a crowd favorite," says Rans. But the paint job on the costumes was lovingly verisimilar, with each band name inside each little silver star corresponding to the same ones painted on the real walls outside.
Two nights later, the local gypsy punk band the Knottwells were performing in front of the stars outside First Avenue, on the sidewalk with a crowd of about 20 crusty punks. Their gig at the 7th St. Entry had been canceled earlier in the day, when it was announced that the club would be closed indefinitely starting at 1:30 p.m.
It was at that time that owner Allan Fingerhut, who founded the club 35 years ago, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The day before, he told employees to cash their paychecks rather than deposit them.
"We were told to run to the bank," said marketing assistant Mean Larry on Tuesday, when he called to tell me the news. "There are some paychecks here for people that aren't going to be paid. We didn't get paid for Halloween. Isn't that funny. One of the three longest days of the year for all of our staff, and the only payment they got was a couple cases of Bud at the end of the night."
"First Avenue" at First Avenue on Halloween, photographed by Lisa Venticinque
Employees weren't told to get everything of theirs out of the club until around noon on Tuesday. When I arrived at about 1:00 p.m., longtime sound engineer Randy Hawkins was hastily loading sound equipment, all of it leased by the club from Downtown Sound, into a U-Haul truck outside. He looked stricken.
The door to the Mainroom was open, and inside, employees were gathering their personal stuff, or just hanging out on the balcony near the office, saying goodbye to the room. Nathan Kranz and Sonia Grover, who booked the club, discussed where some of this week's shows might be relocated.
"Kerry better get elected or this is gonna be a really shitty day," said Kranz.
Rumors that the club would expire along with its liquor license on November 1 had been flying for days. On Friday, news came that Fingerhut would be evicted within a week, and former managers Steve McClellan and Jack Meyers would take over. Along with Byron Frank, Fingerhut's longtime business partner and childhood friend, McClellan and Meyers had become Fingerhut's landlords--but this was no secret.
"To tell you the truth, I kind of feel like we're in the middle of a divorce," said stage manager Conrad Sverkerson. "And it's like, 'Okay, do you want to stay with your mom or with your dad?' Those of us who've worked here a long time just want to kind of keep the family together. I think they're putting their interests above the interests of the people who work here and the community."
Back in 2000, Byron Frank had helped First Avenue buy its own building from Ted Mann's Hollywood Theatre Co., which had owned the property with an option to demolish it since Fingerhut converted the club from an old Greyhound Bus Station in 1969. The investment group Frank formed with Fingerhut, F-Troop, also included then-managers McClellan and Meyers. In exchange for putting up more money than the others, Frank got a share of the profits. How big a share became the focus of a contract dispute in 2003, when Fingerhut sued Frank in Hennepin County District Court.
The settlement seemed to settle things: Frank gave up his share of the Committee, Inc. (the business), and Fingerhut gave up his share of F-Troop (the building). Now Frank owns 60 percent of the property, while McClellan and Meyers each own ten percent. A trust set up by Fingerhut for members of his family owns the remaining 20 percent.
But in June of this year, Fingerhut suspended McClellan and Meyers, who had been running the business together since 1979. Fingerhut, had long since withdrawn to the art gallery business, and gave the hands-on position of operations manager to longtime employee Chris Olson.
"Kerry better get elected or this is gonna be a really shitty day."
My first question for Olson on Tuesday was: "Are you on good terms with Steve McClellan?"
"Yes," he said. "We want to continue having a music venue at this location. Ideally, we'll all get our jobs back. But when Steve and Jack left, we were all on good terms with them, everybody in the office, pretty much. So when they decide what they're going to do, hopefully they're going to let us know. They also might just put a big 'help wanted' sign outside and start from scratch."
As TV crews started showing up, and a crowd gathered, talk among the mourners grew looser. "It comes down to two rich guys who don't get along," said Louis Dunlap, a longtime employee who is the son of former First Avenue employees Slim Dunlap and Chrissie Dunlap.
Minutes later, Dunlap was doing wheelies on the club's wheel chair downstairs. "Who's going to take the wheelchair?" someone yelled.
"I'm taking it," Dunlap said.
Dunlap was pessimistic about the landlords' plans to revive the club under a new name. "Rumor is it's going to be a House of Blues," he said. "But Byron Frank's going to fucking sell the place to the city or whatever. That's such a right-wing press coup: They put it in the paper, 'Yeah, Steve and Jack, we're going to put it back to its rightful owners, and we're going to open up this dynamite new club, and it's going to be prettier and better, and it's going to be filled with fucking people.'
"Do you really fucking think so? We haven't turned a profit in four years. No nightclub in the nation has. There either has to be some outside money coming in or it's a scam. Byron's using Steve and Jack's good name to evict when it's hot so he can eventually fuck them over."
The issue was a personal one for Dunlap. "I spent almost every day of my life down here since I was three, four years old. What the hell am I supposed to do?"
He had been a young witness to First Avenue's storied '80s, when his mom was a manager and his dad was a janitor. "I remember meeting Prince right there when I was ten years old, and being taller than him," he said. "I remember seeing Prince wipe out on his motorcycle when they were filming Purple Rain right there. I played pinball here most of my childhood, and watched my dad buff this floor here.
"Byron's using Steve and Jack's good name to evict when it's hot so he can eventually fuck them over."
Like most fans of the club, he considered it a concession worth tolerating if the building remains a music venue of any kind, but becomes less cool. "Three months ago we were worried that Byron was going to sell the place and turn it into a fucking parking lot," he said. "The city should be ashamed of itself. Minneapolis doesn't realize what they have here. There's only a few cool independent rock clubs left in the entire nation. It's the sight lines."
He pointed up to the balcony.
Within a few minutes, Olson announced that everyone had to get out. We all walked out into the sunlight, with Ian Rans videotaping the proceedings on his digital camera. I grabbed my own souvenirs: some posters off the wall for shows that will never happen at the club--Jonathan Richman and Robyn Hitchcock relocated to the Cedar tonight; Jon Spencer's Blues Explosion moved to the 400 Bar on Thursday, Matthew Sweet moved to the Cabooze on Friday, before the 'Venus of Mars' afterparty, Le Tigre moved to the Quest's Ascot Room on Saturday.
Outside, several of those present had begun tearing up. Olson, the last one out, locked the door behind him, and employee Carolyn Hansen said, "I think a round of applause is, uh..." And there was some clapping. But mostly it was a quiet end.
"Hey, lets everybody back up," said Ian Rans. "Once more with more feeling"
As Hansen and Olson hugged, they cried a little. Others embraced, or shouted goodbyes to friends passing in cars. If this was a temporary closing, it sure didn't feel like it.
"Let's all go to the Quest and have a beer," Nate Kranz said. There was some laughter. The Quest, with its booking by Clear Channel Entertainment, had provided First Avenue its fiercest competition. With the bar across the street not open yet, the group went to Eli's, then ended up at the Triple Rock. Later that night, I got a flavor for what the conversations must have been like (see below).
from the Minnesota Historical Society
PART TWO: "IT'S KILLING ME. IT'S BREAKING MY HEART."
(Q&A with Allan Fingerhut Tuesday afternoon)
How are you?
Well, we had to file today at 1:30 for bankruptcy, so it's over. They wouldn't accept our proposal [Jack, Byron, and Steve] to continue, so it's pretty much over.
No matter what they say, they were tripling the rent. The eviction came from the non-paid real estate taxes owed from the year 2002, according to the lease contract only. In other words, it didn't come from Hollywood Theaters. It didn't come from the county or the city. It only came from the lease between the Committee, Inc. and F Troop.
F-Troop has a CD [contract for deed] with Hollywood Theaters, and they're paying off on the building right now. They're paying off on the building until they own it. So they're considered the owners of the building, but Hollywood Theaters is holding the contract for deed. I don't understand that part of it. Maybe somebody else does. So Hollywood Theaters, who owns the contract for deed, wasn't complaining. Nor was the county or the city complaining. It was only in the lease that the eviction was coming from, between F Troop and the Committee, Inc. So that was in the lease that they can do that, but those are the only people who are causing the eviction.
At the same time, there are four lawsuits amounting to nearly $1,000,000, which would cost us, the Committee, Inc., about $200,000 to defend. These are fairly new lawsuits. I don't want to say to much about it. They're on the record. These are four lawsuits that have been brought to us that have just ground me down. Right now, no matter what they say as far as numbers are concerned, right now we're paying about $7, 200 a month in rent. And their offer is, the bottom line is $20,000 a month, even though we lost $360,000 in the first seven months of 2004, prior to my taking over again. Now since I took it over, I turned it around into profitability. But since this eviction and lawsuits came, I don't have enough time now to pay off old debts that have accrued, and fight the lawsuits. So I have been forced to file for bankruptcy.
"Right now we're paying about $7, 200 a month in rent. And their offer is, the bottom line is $20,000 a month."
Why did you fire Jack Meyers and Steve McClellan? What happened there, exactly?
I never fired them. I don't want to get into that. I just don't want to get into that. I never fired them, to answer your question.
Well you can see how this is confusing to people on the outside.
Well that's because of politics. The only thing I can talk about right now is that at 1:30 today I had to file for bankruptcy, and those were the causes.
I was just down at First Avenue today, and there's a lot of people there who are upset that their paycheck is frozen...
Their paycheck was not frozen. They were told pick up and cash their pay check yesterday. And if they didn't follow through, there was absolutely nothing I could do about that. Who told you that? It is not frozen. It was made clear to management and to everybody else. They were told to pick up their checks and go to the bank and cash it. I don't want to discuss that in this article because of the bankruptcy. It was part of the ongoing negotiations... I can't say anything because they'll turn around and sue me. At the last minute we were forced to file for bankruptcy.
One thing that confused me about this is that I thought this all started with you suing Byron Frank.
That's old news, and we don't want to go through that.
But that was settled, I thought, successfully.
It was settled.
But all the suits right now are against the Committee, Inc.?
That's correct. And one against me personally.
And you don't want to discuss any of those?
I really can't. All I know is, like I said, we were ground down. We were put in a position financially where we couldn't afford to fight those lawsuits.
Can you speculate, without commenting on the specifics, on the general motive behind the suits?
I think people should connect the dots.
Do you think that the place will be an independently owned club in a few months?
It's now in the hands of Byron Frank.
Are you in contact with him directly at all? When was the last time you talked to him?
I can't remember. I think at the time we were settling on the building, when I lost my 20 percent, when I lost my ownership in 2003.
First Avenue bookers Nathan Kranz and Sonia Grover (as JLo) on Halloween, the club's last night, photographed by Lisa Venticinque
Have you communicated with Steve and Jack directly at all?
So you've been communicating through lawyers?
Just between the lawyers, yeah.
It seemed as recently as today that people were holding out for some kind of solution. What was that about? Were you negotiating with the lawyers? Were there different proposals that you guys were looking at?
Well, one proposal was that I just walk away. That's their proposal. F Troop will dismiss its claims, I have it here, "Number one: F Troop will dismiss its claims against TCI and Allan in exchange for TCI's assets on hand at the close of business on October 31, 2004. If any assets have been removed..." Well, that's not necessary. So in other words, they will drop their law suits against the Committee, Inc., which owns First Avenue, and Allan will walk away.
"Number two: 2M," which is Steve and Jack, "will dismiss its claim against the Committee, Inc., in exchange for all rights to the name First Avenue. Number three: TCI," the Committee, Inc., "will execute assignment of the sublease over to F Troop," then, "2M," which is Steve and Jack, "will manage TCI under TCI's liquor license until January 1," in other words I would turn over the liquor license to them and they'll drop their lawsuit against me. And they take over all of the concerts that I've already booked, which is about 50 concerts.
And in effect, with the lawsuits that they have brought to me, Byron Frank has vetoed management [and sided with] Steve and Jack. They will drop these lawsuits if I just turn over First Avenue, its name, its liquor license, to them. If I turn over everything to them, they'll drop their lawsuits. Then they won't have to evict me. So you connect the dots.
My counteroffer was that I am now paying interest on the taxes, which is okay with the city, and that I would have a lease that is equal to what I have been paying on my ten-year lease--that I would continue to pay $7,200 a month rather than $20,000 a month.
"If I turn over everything to them, they'll drop their lawsuits. Then they won't have to evict me. So you connect the dots."
It's over. It doesn't make any difference. It's only in the lease, that they are terminating the lease. In other words, it's only in the lease that they're evicting us. The city had no cause to, nor did Hollywood Theaters have cause to.
Just so I'm clear, once you declare bankruptcy, who owns the business now?
The bankruptcy court. I no longer own my club after 35 years.
What does that feel like?
It's killing me. It's breaking my heart. And it's killing me as far as my employees are concerned, too.
When they were asked to leave and grab all their personal stuff that doesn't belong to the business, was that so the bank could assess how much the business was worth?
I don't understand it, myself. I don't own my club anymore. Everybody's a loser.
Is the bank also the owner of the First Avenue name?
It's not the bank, it's the bankruptcy court. Again, it's very complicated. It's a situation I've never been in before in my life. This is the toughest thing I've ever gone through, obviously besides the loss of my father. And I don't understand it. The only thing I understand is my employees lost jobs, and I lost my club. The rest of it is all legal.
Is there any chance that you could buy the club back?
I don't want to be in that space with those landlords, with that landlord. I don't think I'd want to be treated the way I was treated by that landlord again.
Byron Frank is a childhood friend of yours. Have you ever tried to reach out personally to him?
I don't know whether he ever was a friend of mine. And I don't want to discuss him.
Well, thank you for talking to me. Maybe we can talk again when it's not so fresh.
I don't think I ever want to discuss it again. I don't want to discuss Byron Frank. My heart goes out to my employees. That's the only way I want to end this whole conversation. That's why I got very angry when you heard that someone said something wrong. I did everything I could to protect my employees.
Are you going to stay in town for a little while?
For a couple more days.
Well, hey, thank you.
(Q&A with LeeAnn Weimar, spokesperson for F-Troop, Tuesday afternoon)
We'll release a press release this afternoon. In fact, I'm working on it right now as we speak. I will email it out on my computer. So I'm the spokesperson for the club. I'm also waiting for a call from the attorney, he's in a deposition right now.
I can tell you what Allan did. We offered him several options. He was in serious default of the lease, and he lost his court case last Thursday, so he would have been scheduled to vacate the premises this Thursday.
However, we wanted that not to happen because there's shows on the books. So we wanted to work with him in order to do that, and offered to come in and run the club, or work with him in any way that we possibly could. He declined all of those things. He handed out paychecks to the staff through 10/30, which was the end of the pay period, so they didn't even get paid for the last day or so that they worked, and cleaned out the safe, filed bankruptcy, and is flying back to his mansion in Tiburon, California this afternoon.
"He cleaned out the safe and is flying back to his mansion in Tiburon."
Well he's actually here for a couple days still, he says.
Well, I understood that he was leaving today. But I don't talk to Allan. I don't know what's going on down there at First Avenue. I know I have been getting calls from club employees. And they're upset, of course, and they really didn't anticipate this. And frankly, I'm a little surprised, Peter. In June, Allan said he'd have to drop dead before he allowed the club to close. He kind of instigated the whole situation himself.
Here's what he told me, and I'll run it by you: He said that the only option he was allowed was to leave. That he'd have to give up the name of the club, give up ownership of the business, and sign everything over, and that was the option he was left.
Well frankly, I don't agree with that. I'm not involved in the court case. I worked for First Avenue off and on for 18 and a half years, and I've been associated for Steve and Jack for many years. I know that the parties on this side of the fence have offered him many options legally that I felt were good, secure, reasonable options, and he didn't choose any of them. So that's all I can really say.
Steve is under a gag order, he can't talk to people, because there's other lawsuits that are pending. And honestly, Peter, I've got no reason to bullshit you, I have no idea what those other lawsuits involve. It's all sorts of different stuff that frankly I'm not involved in because I don't care. I just want to see that venue remain a venue, you know? I mean, it's had name changes before: It was the Depot, it was Uncle Sam's, it was Sam's, then it became First Avenue. But it's always been the best venue in town as far as I'm concerned to see a show on that level.
Who owns the club, exactly, now?
The building is owned by Byron Frank, one of the main owners. Steve owns a percentage, Jack owns a percentage, and there's a board of trustees that own a percentage. And on that board of trustees, by the way, is Ron Fingerhut, Allan's brother, who [DELETED PENDING FACT CHECK]. So several people own the building. Allan owns the trademark name, he actually owns the business and holds the liquor license.
When he declared bankruptcy today, where did the liquor license go?
Legally, I don't know. You'd probably have to talk to an attorney to figure that out. [According to the Star Tribune, the club has been placed in the hands of a bankruptcy trust, and the lawyer in charge of it, John Stroebner, is meeting with representatives of McClellan and Meyers Friday. See bottom of this post for link updates.]
Are you guys going to try to hire back the 130-plus employees that are out of work now?
It's not just completely up to me, but I believe there's a lot of good people that were working for First Avenue, and I believe that they will have jobs to come.
And any forecast on when the place might open again?
I believe that will be by the end of the year. All of that has been up in the air, though, honey.
Any idea on what the club might be called?
No. I can tell you this: It won't be called The Club Formerly Known as First Avenue.
Is there any chance that it will be called First Avenue?
I think anything's possible.
classic 1991 flyer of show where Coolio beat up the sound guy
PART FOUR: PRESS RELEASE FROM LEEANN WEIMAR ON TUESDAY:
First Avenue Nightclub Files Bankruptcy
Minneapolis - Allan Fingerhut the owner of the business known as First Avenue, as recently as June changed general management stating, "I�d have to drop dead before I�d ever allow this club to close," is doing just that [sic]. After several months of mass confusion, Fingerhut has thrown in the proverbial bar towel and called it quits, leaving 120+ employees wondering what happened.
After agreeing to an order of eviction and conceding that First Avenue had no right to continue to possess the property due to the many serious uncured defaults under the lease, Fingerhut flew into town over the Halloween week-end handed out paychecks, filed Chapter 7 and walked away.
Owners of the building at 701 1st Avenue North had tried to reach a global settlement with Fingerhut making an easy transition for all parties concerned to no avail. Fingerhut turned down all reasonable offers and chose to close, leaving employees and customers without deserved answers and booked touring bands without a place to play.
Steve McClellan and Jack Meyers, who Fingerhut replaced in June, are going ahead with plans to open a concert venue at the 701 location in the near future, hoping to be able to re-hire a lot of good employees who unfortunately lost their jobs this week.
PART FIVE: OPEN EMAIL FROM TRACY [AN EMPLOYEE] AT 4:36 A.M. TUESDAY NIGHT
Hi everyone, I just have to share with everyone my thoughts. It's been a rough couple of days. I would consider it the 3rd worst day of my life. Except for family situations, the 1st would be 9/11, the 2nd would be the day Paul Wellstone died, and today -- 1st ave is done and, excuse me, but ASSHOLE is winning the election.
I have many precious memories from just stopping by the club today. Racing to the bank to get our payroll checks cashed before 1:30 and having 8-10 people in line at the bank, the teller saying, "going out of business today?" "Yep." I must have looked emotional, the teller only charged me $10 instead of $30 to cash those checks. Seeing my now former co-worker Carolyn, who started less than a month before me back in the early summer of 1994, and looking at each other, and knowing exactly how each other felt. Conrad, losing his job and just giving me the hugest smile that everything works out eventually. There was also the chaos of people who owned equipment that was used there and making sure they could get it back, and the sense of urgency there was to get one's own computers, records, and sound equipment. This guy, Lee, owned much of the sound equipment used in the Mainroom, and he was late getting there with a truck and a security company was coming in to change all of the locks. He managed to get it all from what I understand. Me, I was just trying to steal a bottle of liquor -- I couldn't do it. It wouldn't fit between the bars of the liquor cabinet.
"I was just trying to steal a bottle of liquor -- I couldn't do it. It wouldn't fit between the bars of the liquor cabinet."
On another note -- more positive -- some of my favorite state legislators were re-elected (I LOVE watching the legislature on ch. 17 in the spring!!!). So, a few bits of joy for Tommy Rukavina, Ron Abrams (the only Republican I would ever think about voting for) and Linda (?) Slawik of Maplewood. I may not remember her 1st name but she really made an impression on me debating for gay marriage and gun control, especially living in a suburban area. She stuck up for it and admitted that she might not be re-elected for it. Anyway, it's bedtime, and it's hard to type when one has had some drinks. I don't plan on making this late night email a habit, but these are extraordinary times, and I don't think I should keep my feelings repressed (I yelled alot at the Triple Rock tonight ;) ). I hope you are entertained to some degree. Okay, bedtime...love, Tracy
Steve McClellan photographed by Daniel Corrigan
How it came to this: First Avenue ownership drama, 1997-2004:
The club scene splinters, leaving First Avenue the poorer (August 20, 1997)
Is First Avenue being pushed to second? (June 10, 1998)
The "cool job syndrome" at First Avenue (July 1, 1998)
First Avenue's rash of firings gets a soundtrack (July 7, 1999)
Longtime club finally safe at home (September 22, 2000)
Former First Ave booker moves to Clear Channel (April 17, 2002)
First Avenue's day in court (August 27, 2003)
First Avenue settles principals' lawsuit out of court (scroll down) (November 23, 2003)
First Ave to McClellan: May we cut in? (June 23, 2004)
McClellan out at First Avenue (June 23, 2004)
First Avenue owner: Club will stay open (June 27, 2004)
The First Avenue massacre (June 30, 2004)
First Avenue dances to a new tune (July 2, 2004)
First Avenue being evicted, McClellan returning? (October 7, 2004)
Discussion of the news at TC Punk (October 8, 2004)
First Avenue partners seek to oust club's frontman (October 8, 2004)
First Ave battle (October 15, 2004)
Ex-manager may be returning to First Avenue (October 29, 2004)
Minneapolis club factions strike a deal (November 1, 2004)
More reactions at TC Punk (November 1, 2004)
First Avenue closes its doors (November 2, 2004)
First Avenue closes indefinitely (November 3, 2004)
Lights go out at legendary rock club (November 3, 2004)
First Avenue outlook bright, blurry (November 4, 2004)
Email list and message board on First Avenue, with photos (November 4, 2004)
First Avenue employees put on Robyn Hitchcock show (November 4, 2004)
What's ahead for First Ave? (November 4, 2004)
Where are First Avenue's shows moving? (November 5, 2004)
First Avenue moments (November 5, 2004)
Show updates at Twin Cities Alternative Shows List (November 5, 2004)
Sadly, El Vez is not booking an alternate Minneapolis show. (November 5, 2004)
Three-Chord Dirge (November 5, 2004)
Photos of the day after First Avenue closed (November 5, 2004)
David de Young's running commentary on First Avenue and show updates (November 8, 2004)
Why touring acts love First Avenue (November 8, 2004)
Discussion of First Avenue employees at MNVibe (November 10, 2004)
First Avenue's Black Tuesday, print version of this article (November 10, 2004)
Just for fun: Tony Nelson First Avenue employee portraits (November 11, 2004)
Firstavenueminneapolis.blogspot.com (November 12, 2004)
First Avenue to reopen (November 12, 2004)
First Avenue plans to reopen Friday (November 12, 2004)
Judge approves handover of landmark club First Avenue (November 13, 2004)
First Avenue ready to rock again (November 13, 2004)
First Avenue Poised to Reopen (November 13, 2004)
Blame for closure disputed (November 13, 2004)
New York Times article on First Avenue closing (November 15, 2004)
Account of GWAR show by David de Young (November 18, 2004)
R.T. on First Avenue (November 20, 2004)
First Avenue's Dance Night Schedule - UPDATE (December 2, 2004)
(watch this space for new links as they come)
[Note: I tweaked this entry on 1/11/09 to take out Tracy's last name]