For nearly half a century, “Sweet Lou” Snider banged out tunes at the piano bar at Nye’s Polonaise Room, taking requests, doling out marital advice and luring a mix of old timers and hipsters to pass around the microphone.
The effervescent singer with perfectly coiffed hair made it possible for anyone to sing along at Nye’s, once named the Best Bar in America by Esquire magazine.
“She made everyone feel like they were sitting in someone’s parlor sitting around a piano instead of at a watering hole in Nordeast,” said composer and songwriter Drew Jansen. “A lot of people, including me, say she was Nye’s. You can’t separate the two.”
Regulars walked into the retro northeast Minneapolis bar — with its dark wood paneling, red carpet and gold-flecked booths — and were flung back in time. And chances are, the fast-talking Snider would be holding court at the piano.
“You would walk in, and she would recognize you and give you a smile. She made everyone feel like they were welcome,” Jansen said. “It didn’t matter if you were Luciano Pavarotti or just [someone] with a barely passable voice. You were a star when it was your turn to get on that mike. That may be her biggest legacy.”
For Jansen, Snider was the start he needed. “She gave me my first gig,” he said. Snider wanted a two-week vacation, and tapped Jansen, a singer and piano player, as her sub.
“It was one of the hardest jobs I ever had, because people walked in expecting to see Lou and then they would see this punk kid from Little Rock, Arkansas, sitting behind the piano,” Jansen said. “So almost every night, it was people walking in and then walking out.”
They returned when the gregarious, 4-foot-10 strawberry blonde was back behind the curved piano bar, where she started at age 31.
The mother of three tried to make a go at office work but her heart just wasn’t in it, said her daughter Luanne Annable of Nelson, New Zealand. Instead, she reveled in becoming the maven of the piano bar, working six nights a week while raising a family.
As the years passed, Snider was at the piano only a few nights a week until she retired at age 76. But even then she couldn’t completely walk away, agreeing to sub whenever asked.
“It was like she was hosting her own party every night,” Jansen said. “She got a lot back from the people who adored her.”
On Sunday, “Sweet Lou,” also known as Louella Mae, died of cancer. She was 81.
From Sinatra to Elvis to the latest pop
Jansen said people gravitated to Snider for her sunny disposition, belying the marks of a childhood tragedy.
Snider’s mom was dying of cancer and her father spiraled into depression, worried he couldn’t care for the couple’s four children. So he shot them and killed himself, Annable said.
Remarkably, the children survived. Shot in the back, Snider endured three surgeries and wore leg braces as a child. In her later years, she used crutches, leaving them near the piano bar, where few gave them a second look.
Being a barroom entertainer had its advantages for her children, they said. “We were very lucky. Most of my friends came home to an empty house because their parents were at work,” Annable said. Her mom didn’t leave for work until 8:30 p.m.
“Even though she didn’t come home until 1:30 a.m., she was up in the morning, making breakfast and getting us off to school,” said her son, Klint, of Cambridge, Minn. “She was super mom.”
Afternoons, she practiced, learning new songs, working on arrangements, he said. “She would type the words on paper and then write the key changes,” Klint Snider said. “The rest was all in her head.”
At Nye’s, with the help of a beat box, she was a one-man band playing songs as they were requested, whether it be old-time standards from Frank Sinatra and Elvis to Patsy Cline to pop music that was on everyone’s playlist. Snider’s fingers danced along the keyboard, her clipped but rich contralto inviting the barroom to sing along.
“She liked that she could never predict what the night would be,” her daughter said. “She liked that you just went in there and got what you got with whoever came in.”
People go to Nye’s and leave their troubles at the door as they walk into another era, said waitress Roxanne Eggert. And Snider was there to make sure they had fun and sing if they had the desire, transforming the shy into performers.
“My sister came in to see the place, and the next thing she knows, she’s singing,” Eggert said. “Everyone left uplifted. It’s magical. … Lou helped put Nye’s on the map.”
Snider is also survived by her husband, David, of Ramsey, and son Ken of Burnsville. Services will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday at First Memorial Funeral Chapel in Brooklyn Park.