Editor’s note: Because of incorrect information provided by the author to the Star Tribune, this commentary was originally published under a pseudonym. It is the policy of the opinion pages to attribute commentaries and letters to the editor to authors’ real names, with exceptions possible in rare cases — when preapproved by editors — to provide anonymity in extremely sensitive situations. The article has been amended with the author’s correct identity.
The Loring Pasta Bar and Varsity Theater — just like the old Loring Bar and Cafe and Kitty Cat Klub — are bigger than Jason McLean. Whatever you may think of the man (who, let’s not forget, is still only accused in lawsuits stemming from the Children’s Theatre Company sex abuse scandal of the 1980s), let’s not undervalue the profound impact he’s had on Minneapolis art and design culture and “throw the baby out with the bath water” by boycotting his venues.
McLean, through his artistic vision, has provided a home for artists, seekers and romantics for nearly three decades. Without his vision, the Loring Park and Dinkytown neighborhoods would look and feel much different than they do today. And we, the good people of Minneapolis, would be poorer for it.
Where others saw a dark, perilous park abutting an underused row of rundown, turn-of-the-20th-century buildings, McLean saw an artist’s work space. With the creation of the Loring Bar, a Minneapolis art movement grew — organically, enthusiastically, brilliantly. This was no theme bar; it was a bona fide scene, populated by painters, writers, musicians, masons, actors, thinkers, tramps and misanthropes. It was an idea and a neighborhood, our very own little SoHo or North Beach that, ultimately, jump-started the Loring Park renaissance.
It was the Loring, collaborating with next-door neighbor Four Seasons Dance Studio, that spawned a vibrant Minneapolis tango scene. Students could cross the alley after class and tango the night away to the exotic milonga rhythms of Mandrágora Tango Orchestra. It was first-person theater, full of big, colorful attitude.
Cafe and Bar Lurcat (the D’Amico restaurant that now occupies the Loring space) is a lovely and successful restaurant, but it sits alone, at the end of the block, aloof and mostly divorced from the goings-ons of the neighborhood. One of its first orders of business when it moved in was to tell the Four Seasons folks to take down the dance-studio sign that had, for years, hung on the alley side of their building, pointing the way to the student dance floor.
It is often the case: Artists come in and dust off a raw space; then, deep-pocketed entrepreneurs say, ‘Hey, I like what you’ve done with the place,’ and the gentrification begins. As a 25-year-plus Loring neighborhood denizen, I can tell you that the Loring artists and bohemians have been almost completely replaced by the suburban day-trippers and condo dwellers.
I remember going to Dinkytown in the 1960s with my dad — a University of Minnesota journalism school alum. We had a Sunday routine that consisted of three stops: Crane’s Office Supply store, where Dad stocked up on typing paper, pens and other writerly supplies; Gray’s Drugs, where we’d belly up to the counter for a hamburger and a malt, and Perine’s Bookstore, where Dad would browse the floor-to-ceiling stacks for reference books.
When McLean acquired the old Gray’s building, he didn’t, it seems, just see a blank canvas on which to apply his unique style and narrative, but a canvas already layered with stories. He wisely chose to marry the past with the future, preserving and improving upon the bones while paying homage to its university-drugstore past.
Perine’s became the Kitty Kat Club and, while McLean no longer runs that bar, it retains, and thrives on, his unique mark.
The Varsity Theater (where I happened to work as a candy girl while attending the U in the 1980s) has been similarly blessed by McLean’s visionary wand, providing an ethereal, storybook stage for everything from wedded happily-ever-after to rock ’n’ roll hoochie koo.
Think about those spaces: The Loring Cafe and Bar (now Lurcat), the Loring Pasta Bar, the Kitty Cat Klub, the Varsity Theater. All beautiful, preservation-worthy spaces that, under someone else’s charge, could have been turned into a Gap, a Starbucks, condos — or worse.
About the thing of which McLean has been accused: I have no firsthand knowledge of anything except the power of a particular time and place. I do know this: “Here and now” is different from “then and there.” Tempting as it is to apply revisionist morality to another era, we can never be in that moment again, can never feel the influence of that particular zeitgeist.
So what I would suggest is this: Follow the story, sure, but do not rush to tear down these iconic establishments — these poems to Minneapolis — like some ISIL mob destroying tombs in Palmyra. Visionaries with talent (flawed, tempestuous, rebellious) are not born every day, and their work is not easily replaced.
Kay L. Hansen is a writer in Minneapolis.