It didn’t matter who you were when you walked into Arnellia’s, the St. Paul bar and restaurant that hosted countless musicians over its 25-year run. Whether you were Prince, Mayor-elect Melvin Carter or a regular, Arnellia Allen, its namesake owner, made sure you were treated just right.
Allen, a fixture of the live music scene in the Twin Cities, died Thursday from ovarian cancer. She was 79.
“Throughout the years, she’s been a pillar of the community,” said her son Jerry Allen, who worked at Arnellia’s. “She loved what she did.”
Though Arnellia’s opened in 1992, Allen’s rise to what is believed to be the first black female nightclub owner in the state stretches far beyond that.
Allen was born in Forest, Miss., to a family of farmhands. At an early age, she began churning butter and helping with the cows and chickens. When she reached her early 20s, she followed her older sister to Minnesota, raising her two sons in Maplewood.
Jerry Allen remembered his mother having a strict, nonstop work routine. She would work swing shifts at the Waldorf Corp. paper factory, later known as RockTenn Co., and sleep for a few hours before heading to her jobs at local bars, including the Nacirema Club in Minneapolis and the St. Paul VFW.
It was there she learned the ins and outs of the nightclub and entertainment industries, doing everything from booking acts to hiring bartenders.
“Well, I’m doing everything anyway, I might as well own the place!” Jerry Allen remembers his mother saying.
In 1988, she opened her first bar, the Metro Bar & Grill, in downtown St. Paul. A few years later, she opened Arnellia’s, a small nightclub on University Avenue.
Arnellia Allen first booked acts for the weekend but soon expanded to a variety of live entertainment throughout the week. She hosted acts ranging from jazz bands to spoken-word artists to blues musicians.
“She would give anyone a try,” Jerry Allen said.
Arnellia’s became a beloved institution. Some dubbed the club the “legendary Apollo of the Twin Cities,” after the famous theater in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood.
To her patrons, she was known as “Momma” or “Auntie,” said vocalist DeAnn Mottley, who performed at Arnellia’s as DeMonica Flye. Her clientele came to hear music, play spades, and eat catfish and chicken wings.
“She made you have a Southern flair in a Northern atmosphere,” Mottley said. “You just felt like home when you went to her club.”
Incoming mayor Carter would even bring his family to sing karaoke.
Arnellia Allen, Mottley said, was never star-struck. She hosted popular acts on occasion like Alexander O’Neal, Zapp and Prince.
Her bar was tainted by some violent incidents through the years, including a fatal shooting inside in 2004.
“I know she was hurt by it,” her son Jerry Allen said. “Everything that she wanted to do was have a place where people could have a good time.”
Arnellia’s closed in April, in part because of her cancer diagnosis and some operational violations. Until her last days, she sat on her usual bar stool, the second one from the left, near the cash register and television where she would watch soap operas.
Allen is survived by her sons Jerry and Larry Allen of Woodbury; seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren; sisters Mary Alice Kirk of Minnesota, Janie Ruth Hughes of Mississippi, Bonnie Lee Wright of Georgia and Bettie Lee Gladney of New Jersey; and brothers Louis Lee of Minnesota, Arthur Lee of Wisconsin, R C Lee and Bennie James Lee of Mississippi.