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The future of First Avenue
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First Avenue, Minnesota's most celebrated nightclub. First Ave. is struggling financially, prompting owner Allan Fingerhut to fire long time manager Steve McClellan and develop a strategy to keep it afloat. (MPR photo/Chris Roberts)
Minnesota's most revered nightclub, First Avenue in Minneapolis, is at a crossroads. Last week, owner Allan Fingerhut fired General Manager Steve McClellan. McClellan guided the club for more than 30-years. Many say his adventurous tastes and fiercely independent streak are what made First Avenue into a launchpad for regional artists and a nationally known music venue. McClellan's dismissal left many wondering whether the struggling club would close or be sold. Fingerhut is vowing to take aggressive steps to keep First Avenue open and independent.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Last week, the news of Steve McClellan's departure ripped through the Twin Cities music scene. This week, the tremors are still being felt. Chris Osgood is a former guitarist with the legendary Minneapolis punk band, the Suicide Commandos. He's a close friend of McClellan. For those who never made First Avenue a habitual haunt, Osgood describes the impact in these terms.

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Image Chris Osgood

"Steve leaving First Avenue is really no worse than if the Art Institute burned down, or if the Walker blew up," he says.

Because of McClellan's reputation and the relationships he built, artists of import regularly chose First Avenue over other venues where they could have made more money.

Chris Osgood says McClellan took a non-profit approach in an intensely for-profit cutthroat world. As a result, he introduced audiences to music and bands they might not normally come across. He says McClellan also gave artists in our own backyard, people such as Prince, the Replacements and Husker Du, The Jayhawks and the Rhyme Sayers hip hop group, a chance to blossom.

"He was able to recognize and nurture talent early on, and give it a garden to grow in," Osgood says.

For years it seems, local music enthusiasts have agonized over the future of First Avenue. Would it be torn down? Would it close? Would it be overtaken by the new Hard Rock Café across the street, or done in by the broadcast and booking monopolies of the corporate behemoth, Clear Channel?

For City Pages columnist Jim Walsh, McClellan's presence at First Avenue calmed his fears.

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Image Jim Walsh

"Steve was such an aggressive protector of the club, that it just felt good that it was still in his hands," he says. "So if I have concerns, it would be that that legacy is maintained, that legacy of musical diversity and open mindedness and just the best atmosphere to see shows in town."

Both Walsh and Osgood report that McClellan, who has declined public comment, is somewhat relieved to be leaving the club and excited to move in a new direction. Allan Fingerhut, son of the founder of the Fingerhut catalog company, has owned First Avenue since it opened in 1970. Fingerhut has also refrained from discussing the details of McClellan's dismissal.

"There is no animosity between us," he says. "It's just philosophical differences. He feels one way, I feel another way, and I guess it has to go to the top as to which direction we're going to go."

Most every night at First Avenue, a customer shift change occurs at around 9:30 or ten oclock. That's when the rock, world music or hip hop concert ends and the club becomes a cavernous, dingy discotheque.

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Image Chris Olson.

Tonight, as danceable rock music booms out through the speakers, the dance floor is pretty much empty.

It'll be Chris Olson's job to fill it regularly.

Olson, former Director of Operations for the club, is now the new General Manager. Olson says it's amazing how much more competitive the Minneapolis entertainment market has become in the last few years, even in a lackluster economy.

"We still try to be on the cutting edge and try to provide entertainment for people that they can't get elsewhere, and lately they can find that entertainment elsewhere," he says. "There's other clubs doing bands. There's other clubs and hotels and coffeeshops now doing DJs' and so it's kind of hard. We try and stay a step ahead of everybody. But as soon as we get something that's kind of successful, you know you see the trend. They kind of move on from club to club and it kind of over-saturates our market."

In addition, music at First Avenue's two downtown competitors, the Quest and The Fine Line Music Cafe, is now booked by Clear Channel.

Steve leaving First Avenue is really no worse than if the Art Institute burned down, or if the Walker blew up
- Chris Osgood, musician and arts promoter

First Avenue owner Allan Fingerhut says the club has to broaden its audience. There's talk of establishing air guitar, lip synch and Karaoke style competitions, as well as playing much more danceable recorded music. Fingerhut says concerts don't make money for First Avenue, it's the post concert dance nights on Friday and Saturday nights that generate revenues because they're cheaper to produce. He says on average, dance night attendance is down from a peak of two thousand to 400, which means the club has some work to do.

"We want people to know that after 9:30, after 10:00, it's dance night," he says. "And guess what? They can come in, and they can listen to the best music, they can dance on the largest dance floor, and meet the largest number of people at First Avenue, and that's been a well kept secret."

Many speculated McClellan's firing was a precursor of a sale to Clear Channel. Fingerhut scoffs at the idea.

"It's like selling my, well, it's my second born baby," he says. "My first born is Shauna. She's 37-years old. My second born is First Avenue and that's almost 35 years old. What am I going to do? If I can't be creative with First Avenue I'm going to die."

Fingerhut has full faith that his staff can bring First Avenue back from the precipice. He says he has great respect for the staff, because it was assembled over the years by Steve McClellan.

"Steve has done a great job," he says. "I have absolutely nothing to complain about with Steve. It's a non-profit business, First Avenue. But it has to be self-reliant for another 35 years, to last. I don't care if I make money or not. I just want it to continue."

Fingerhut freely admits his position on First Avenue's future may be wrong. He says he would have preferred to stay behind the scenes, but the fact the club was sinking, forced him to come out of the shadows and make a decision.

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