Thanks, Uptown Bar, we had a blast

Musicians, employees and patrons share their favorite memories of the first (and last?) bar to rock Uptown.

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Redevelopment is squeezing the Uptown Bar (center), with a new building rising next door. The bar will be razed to make way for another two-story retail space.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune, Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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As she juggled triple duties, slicing lemons, pulling beer tap handles and dealing with dysfunctional computers, Anita Stinson-Kurth could have been forgiven if she claimed she won't miss the Uptown Bar & Cafe. But there really wasn't any chance of her saying that.

"It's been quite a social life: spending every day talking to the old regulars and the kids," said Stinson-Kurth, who has tended bar at the Uptown, one of Minneapolis' cornerstone rock clubs, since 1974 -- long enough to see her sons Bob and Tommy perform there in the Replacements.

The multigenerational mix of customers also stands out for Victoria Norvell, the ex-waitress who served Nirvana pancakes the first time the band played the Uptown, and went on to inspire Golden Smog's song "V."

"That historical hole-in-the-wall vibe [appealed to] a diverse cross-section of old-timers and young grunge scenesters," said Norvell. "As the music scene developed, the scene at the bar got funkier and younger, but those die-hard regulars stuck it out."

Alas, the Uptown itself couldn't stick it out, not under the growing whir of commercial development in its namesake neighborhood.

The bar will close Sunday after 80-plus years as a watering hole. It's being leveled for a two-story retail development that will include a Columbia clothing outlet similar to the North Face shop that recently went up just two doors down. Construction could begin next week.

The redevelopment is a financial boon for the estate of Frank Toonen, 88, who has owned the bar going back to the 1950s. Toonen isn't the guy who made it into a rock venue, though. He sold the place in 1984 to famed concert promoter Ray Colihan, aka Big Reggie, who helped turn it into a bustling music venue before he died in 1986. Frank's son, Kenny Toonen, took it over in the mid-'90s and killed live music there for several years. Business slumped, though, and bands were invited back. By all accounts, the bar has done well since then. But then Kenny died last year.

The Uptown still could find a second life. Dennis Willey, general manager for the past 15 years, has led efforts to reopen nearby. If you attend one of the final shows this weekend, you probably will be asked to sign a petition urging the city to transfer the current liquor license to a new home.

If the relocation does happen, though -- and everyone involved hopes it does -- don't look for the Uptown's longest-serving employee and unofficial den mother to return.

"It's not going to be the same place," said Stinson-Kurth. "It might be better. But it won't be the same."

Uptown Bar memories

Here are favorite memories, war stories and perhaps a tall tale or two in rough chronological order from the Uptown Bar's 25-year tenure as a local rock haven. Thanks to all the participants for sharing -- and to those who tried but couldn't remember.

 

My fondest memories are from when Big Reggie owned it. Reggie was one of the first rock 'n' roll entrepreneurs in the region. He rightfully boasted he was the only one in the world to lose money on the Beatles and the Stones: The former he booked into Met Stadium; the latter he featured at Big Reggie's Danceland in Excelsior on their first U.S. tour.

He was friendly any night you saw him at the bar -- good, bad or great band onstage. He constantly squirted breath spray, but you would have loved the guy even if he had smelled like the bar at the end of the night.

-- Marty Keller, music writer/publicist

 

Mike O'Neill was hired to book music back in '84. They had strictly been a blues bar until that point. The transition was far from smooth. Reggie would stand in front with a decibel reader and kick bands off the stage if they were too loud. It got pretty ugly at times. I remember Laughing Stock being ripped off the stage.

I remember a Christmas show with the Urban Guerrillas that Angie Dickinson came to. She was in black leather pants and got down on her back during a song where they requested the audience to lay on the floor.

There are so many outrageous Curtiss A stories, I could write a book just on those alone. His Wednesday Ladies Nights were notorious.

-- Victoria Norvell, former waitress

 

I loved Reggie and his yellow Cadillac, so I opened the place up when he took over and they changed the stage around. I remember one time before that watching Doug Maynard, and then afterward going out back with Doug and Hulk Hogan and smoking a joint. Mike O'Neill and Reggie hired me for their first show there, which was backing up Buddy Knox, who was the mentor to Buddy Holly. So thank Mike and Big Reggie for those kind of memories, and all the staff. About the only waitress I didn't have sex with there was Courtney Love.

We would play the whole night, usually on Ladies Night. I did have a regular band back then, but sometimes the guys would have to do other things, so it became really fun because in one night you might several permutations of the band and the music.

-- Curtiss A

 

Tommy Stinson came in to get lawn mower from his mom, who was bartending. Steve McClellan at First Ave, who's now a good friend of mine, had a lock on all the bands in the neighborhood. So I just asked Tommy myself, "Can you guys play this place?" He said, "OK, we'll do it for two cases of beer against the door." We had a line all the way up Hennepin Avenue. My son Bryce told me if you can get the Replacements to play, all the other bands will line up.' And they did.

-- Mike O'Neill, ex-manager

 

There were so many people here the night the boys played, they had to bring me in through the stage door. I sat on the steps [to the stage] the whole time and couldn't move.

-- Anita Stinson-Kurth

 

Mark Olson and I had been circling each other playing in other bands. I ran into him at the Embers on Hennepin, and he told me to come down and see his new band play at the Uptown, a band called the Jayhawks. Their guitar player was moving to Texas. I went to see them but got there too late to hear them. But I really liked the way they got off stage and broke everything down. It was very quick and efficient. So I said, "I'm in."

-- Gary Louris, Jayhawks singer/guitarist

 

I had been at First Avenue for five years but decided I wanted to move to New York. That's when Reggie approached me and asked if I wanted to book the Uptown. They said I could pretty much do what I wanted for six months, and after that we'd see how it's going. And I lasted 11 years.

There were a whole lot of punk/alternative kinds of local bands that wanted more gigs. Once I started booking, we became a place to see everyone from the Jayhawks and Martin Zellar to Zuzu's Petals and Babes in Toyland to the Cows and Run Westy Run.

-- Maggie Macpherson, talent booker 1985-1996

 

My father, Jim Loosen, was Reggie's partner when they bought the bar from the Toonens in the early '80s. My dad was the behind-the-scenes guy who rebuilt and repositioned the stage, got the Keys family involved in the kitchen and worked with the neighborhood association to keep the troublemakers away.

When Reggie died unexpectedly a couple years later, my dad was forced to become the main guy and took the bar through its best years of music and food and sold it back to the Tonnens in 1992. He worked with Maggie and the Keys girls to get the bar "hoppin'," as my Mom would have said it, eventually finding a great guy named Louie to run the kitchen. My mother Arlene and sister Janet (Mimi) did the books for years in a small office next to Maggie, and my father was a faithful owner who I believe loved the employees and loved going in and working at making it the hot spot of the '80s.

My father passed away in July of '08, and my mother in January of '04.

-- Art Loosen

 

I was a regular when the Wallets use to pack the place, and when the spillover from the Longhorn went to the Uptown. I never booked anything there, but as a patron I remember it was known as a good place to break up with boyfriends because the music was loud. So when you said, "I'll be right back," they didn't really know what you said.

-- Sue McLean, concert promoter

 

I had a gig at the Uptown the night that the Replacements were on "Saturday Night Live." We put a TV set on stage with a microphone in front of the little TV speaker. When the 'Mats went on we stopped our song and everyone watched and listened to the TV sound coming through the PA, you could have heard a pin drop. For the second song, we all laughed because Paulie and Bob had traded clothes in between.

-- Kevin Bowe, bandleader/producer

 

My fondest memories came from the mid-'80s "Pickin' and Grinnin' Night," held on Sundays. Maggie would get a wide array of local heroes -- like Martin Zellar, the Jayhawks and Soul Asylum guys -- to play acoustic songs for 15-20 minutes. I remember Martin playing his song "Zamboni" and imagining he'd written it while he was downstairs waiting to go on.

-- Terry Walsh, Belfast Cowboys/St. Dominic's Trio

 

My very first Mighty Mofos show was at the Uptown Bar in 1987. They were introduced by a drunk buddy as "your world champions." At that moment, the ever-stoic bassist Randy Weiss lit off an entire pack of firecrackers and threw them up in the air. The band did nothing short of tear my head off.

-- Al Wires, Faux Jean guitarist

 

There was always the issue of the noisy bar patrons talking over the quieter music. When Vic Chesnutt was booked that was a big concern. So to try to nip the potential problem in the bud, [Soul Asylum's] Danny Murphy was asked to introduce. So, we got Vic onstage, and Danny walked up to the mic and said something like, "This is the room for listening. That room over there is the room for talking. Now, would you please welcome, from Pike County, Georgia -- Mr. Vic Chesnutt!" And, damn, people took it to heart and were quiet and attentive.

-- Peter Jesperson, Twin/Tone Records co-founder

 

Some of the local bands -- like the Jayhawks especially -- quickly became too big for the place and were playing First Ave instead, but they would still come around for things like the "Circle the Drain" [hootenanny-style] nights. In fact, I ran into [Wilco manager] Tony Margherita at their show a few weeks ago, and he reminded me that Uncle Tupelo played there in 1989, and then Jeff Tweedy came to a "Circle the Drain" show, which is where Jeff Tweedy played his first show with Golden Smog.

-- Maggie Macpherson

 

The first time Nirvana came through, they arrived around dinner time, totally scruffy, in plaid shirts. I fed them all a huge pancake breakfast.

-- Victoria Norvell

 

Nirvana's set ended and they were attempting to get off stage. I had a group of us lock elbows and form a human blockade, demanding more. It worked. They stayed at my house that evening on 19th and Colfax. Chad (the original drummer) had no luggage because he had forgotten it in Iowa the night before. I knew who they stayed with, so I called him and asked about it. He said, "[Crap], when I saw it was left behind, my friends went at it. It's gone!"

-- Lori Barbero, Babes in Toyland

 

Nirvana played there three times, I think. We got all these bands on their way up because most of the time the shows were free [no cover charge] -- which was very punk-rock -- but we also still paid them well.

One of the few times I talked Reggie into doing pre-sale tickets was a show with the Jesus Lizard, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Arcwelder in 1992, when all three bands were packing clubs on their own. The day of the show, there was this incredible blizzard that dropped like 11 feet of snow. Fortunately, the bands had gotten into town the night before from Chicago, but it wound up there were only like 30 people at the show. One of the Arcwelder guys had a big truck and was driving around picking people up.

-- Maggie Macpherson

 

Lifter Puller played our first show there and I saw Pavement and Guided by Voices for the first time at the Uptown. I think what I really remember about it is how often there was no cover to see great local and national bands. It really can't be overstated how much that helped the Minneapolis music scene for so many years. It was easy to take a chance on going to see a band you hadn't heard of before.

-- Craig Finn, Lifter Puller/The Hold Steady

 

Seeing Guided by Voices on the "Bee Thousand" tour, with Bedhead opening, was probably the second best show I've ever seen. Oasis played there on their first U.S. tour. My friends were worried it would sell out, so we got there at like 3:30 in the afternoon. We were all completely trashed by the time the band came out, but they totally seemed to be vibing on playing such a small venue when there was so much hype about them. My friend Jackie even snuck on to their tour bus after the show, but much to her chagrin they promptly made her leave.

-- DJ Christian Fritz, Mpls. Ltd.

 

I also remember the Smashing Pumpkins opening for Run Westy Run. I don't even think there was a cover charge. Elvis Costello showed up with a small entourage of folks. He looked like royalty in a black brocade suit. He was dating Leslie Ball at the time and came to see her band, Rue Nouveau.

-- Victoria Norvell

 

It was like a rock 'n' roll Cheers! I remember legendary shows by Run Westy Run, Dinosaur (Jr.) and Wednesday nights with Curtiss A, later the X-Boys. I also remember a much younger Flaming Lips nearly blowing the roof off the place. They brought smoke machines and a disco ball!

-- Bill DeVille, Current/89.3 FM jockey

 

The Flaming Lips in the late '80s was one of the loudest shows I've ever heard. I ended up standing on the sidewalk outside watching through the glass (as the windows literally shook) and was still able to hear just fine.

-- David de Young, HowWastheShow.com

 

When Jeff Buckley played here, the place was overcrowded by the time I got there, so I wound up watching through the window. One of the best shows I remember was Pavement when "Slanted & Enchanted" came out. Their original drummer [Gary Young] was goofing off trying to entertain the crowd between bands, doing handstands down by the stage and crazy stuff like that. They got a new drummer by the next time they came through.

In the late '80s and early '90s, local bands would usually do an Uptown gig one month and an Entry gig the next. There really weren't many other venues to play at that point. And anytime somebody played the Uptown, when bars closed at 1 a.m., there would usually be some kind of house party after the show because it was all bands or MCAD [Minneapolis College of Art & Design] students living together in one big house back then. Not like it is now.

-- Peter Anderson, Polara/Honeydogs drummer

 

I would ride my bike there [at age 15, too young to get in], and if there was space I would drag a trash can and sit on it. It was usually a precarious balance. The window was kind of a godsend. I saw a lot of my favorite bands at the time: Afghan Whigs, 7 Year Bitch, Babes, Brian Jonestown,Pavement (first tour!), Dogfaced Hermans, Arcwelder, Blues Explosion.

The first time I ever played the Uptown I was between 10th-11th grade, playing bass in the Andromeda Strain. A woman threw a bottle at my head, and fortunately it missed me. Apparently she thought it was bad for young girls to be on the scene, that I was going to go after people's boyfriends. I was a mean and awkward virgin with braces, playing bass poorly in a clunky new wave party band. You'd have to be really wasted to think I was a threat to anyone.

The only time I have ever been to see a band as an adult there was Grizzly Bear in the fall of 2004, and I was one of four people there.

-- Jessica Hopper, author "Girls' Guide to Rocking"

 

I wore a tight pink dress to a Spectors show there during Pride '93. That was Uptown to me in the early '90s: freedom.

-- Peter Scholtes, music writer

 

I saw a Cows show there Oct. 31, 1993. The band had brought pumpkins in for Halloween. Members from Run Westy Run came to the show and started throwing them at the band. Everything got broken. They dumped beers on the crowd. The show ended early. Super fun to watch.

-- Darin Back, photographer

 

New Bomb Turks were playing at the Uptown. Avail was at The Whole. The DIY punk types thought it was pretty lame that the Turks were playing a 21-plus bar show.

Local punk band Dirt Poor, who were very popular at the time, decided to stage an event outside the Turks show. The idea was that when Avail was done, everyone would head over and hang outside the Uptown. Then Dirt Poor would pull up out front, hidden in the back of a rented truck. They would pop the truck open, crank up a generator, and rock the kids out front. They did, but the fumes from the generator basically smoked them out. I think they only managed a few songs. It was a perfect disaster, and a total success in a way.

-- Erik Funk, Dillinger Four (and Triple Rock owner)

 

Back in 1994 when REV-105 was the arbiter of musical hipness in the Twin Cities, Mary Lucia and the crew whipped up so much enthusiasm for G. Love and Special Sauce that the overflow line to get into the Uptown stretched past Magers & Quinn (which was just about to open). I was so blown away by the 21-year-old's commanding hipster personality, I declared, "Come year's end, G. Love and Special Sauce will battle Beck for pop rookie of the year." My prediction may have been wrong, but G. Love has never forgotten that incredible night either -- he mentions it almost every time he plays in the Twin Cities, including in August at the X opening for Jason Mraz.

-- Jon Bream, Star Tribune

 

The Uptown Bar really seemed to hit its stride in that mid- to late-'90s. For a good deal of that time there were really only two "credible" bars to do alternative shows, there and the 7th Street Entry. I think it's important to keep in perspective the whole idea of "alternative." At the time it was big culturewise, but not like it is now; a time before your mom listened to Nine Inch Nails. That era helped to make the Uptown an important clubhouse in the fraternal order of hipsterdom.

My favorite stories of that place are just great slivers of memory: The plethora of Funseekers shows, at almost all of which Keith Patterson -- one of the greatest frontmen the Twin Towns have ever produced -- would at some point drop his pants, and it sort of made sense. The same action now would probably find him sued. The freighting and mildly dangerous backstage area. The ripped booths and cantankerous bartenders and sound system that was always les then ideal. It was if all the negatives added to a plus: a Minneapolis CBGB's, but cleaner and with French fries.

-- Chris Strouth, ex-Twin/Tone and Ultra Modern Records

 

I spent several nights a week at the club. I think the last really cool show I saw was the Dandy Warhols with Willie Wisely opening. And then they pulled the plug on the music [in 1996], which blew everyone's already addled minds. I was working a job in St. Louis Park. In one day walks Kenny Toonen. I said, "Why did you stop having music at the Uptown?" He said, "All these alternative bands are getting too big for their britches, asking outlandish guarantees. I lost $15,000 one month and said screw it."

Nobody had a reason to go to the Uptown Bar for years, and the Uptown began to feel the pain. So they brought music back, minus Maggie and minus outlandish guarantees. It should be noted that Maggie let a really crappy band play at the club, and this was not true for the reincarnation. But by then there were more venues to compete with.

-- Matty Schindler, Faux Jean frontman

 

It took a long time for the place to bounce back. Bands like Likehell and Dumpster Juice helped keep it alive at first, but it really wasn't until a couple years ago when Brian McDonough took over the booking that things really got going again. Brian really recaptured the spirit of the place. Which makes this closing extra painful, because it's like the place was finally rolling again.

-- James Buckley, Mystery Palace and Pines bassist

 

Whatever happens, I think there always needs to be a place like this in Uptown that's more the minor-league of music venues. We have the right mix of bands, customers and employees around here that makes it a great incubator for live music. Remember: It wasn't six months between when Tapes 'N Tapes played here on a Wednesday night and when they were selling out two nights in New York.

-- Jason Haire, bartender

 

There was a really, really great Dwarves gig where they threw chairs, monitors, etc., at the crowd -- and then, from stage, they asked if anyone would put them up for the night. There was a Palace Brothers/Evan Dando gig where Evan refused to sing into the mic, and instead did a completely acoustic set (and was really amazing).

I met my kid's mother there at a Boss Hog gig. We "met" during a cover of Wire's "12XU."

-- Clint Simonson, De Stijl Records

 

The day was Tuesday, February 6, 1996. I decided to call the Uptown and see if they had anything available in the coming months. I got Maggie's assistant: "We just had a cancellation. We need somebody to open for the Carpetbaggers tonight."

I played the show, and the place was pretty well packed. After my set, a lovely young lady named Lisa came up and asked if she could give me a kiss. Despite me being somewhat inebriated -- she later told me she was quite inebriated (which explains a lot) -- I was thinking ahead enough to ask her to "get on my mailing list." I called her the next day. We had our first date a couple days later. A little over two years later, we got married. Thirteen years later, we're still married, with two beautiful kids. A simple twist of fate.

-- Dan Israel

 

These past few weeks, I've had so many people tell me they met their wives or husbands here. That might be the best legacy of the place: Kids who met here and now have kids of their own.

-- Dennis Willey, the bar's general manager since 1995

 

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658

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  • Maggie McPherson in her office at the Uptown.

  • Curtiss A (right), the first rock act to play the bar, with bandmate Steve Brantseg.

  • Paul Westerberg in 1985 at the Replacements show that helped put the Uptown on the map.

  • Tommy Stinson — whose mom, Anita, has worked at the Uptown for 35 years — played there in 2005.

  • The Cows were one of the wildest acts to take the Uptown stage.

  • Longtime Uptown waitress Victoria Norvell (left) with Heather Keena.

  • The Uptown’s manager, Dennis Willey

  • Jay Perlman worked the soundboard at a recent Uptown gig.

  • UPTOWN BAR FINAL WEEKEND

    Thursday: Faux Jean (original lineup), John Swardson and Get Gone, Luke's Angels. $8.

    Friday: Janis Figure, Rockford Mules. $10-$12.

    Saturday: Zebulon Pike, Lusurfer. $6.66.

    Sunday: The Hawaii Show "and friends." $12.

    Info: 3018 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls. 612-823-4719.

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