Imagine going to First Avenue without having to show ID, wear earplugs or put up with the icky toilets.
That's the hassle-free, music-loving experience offered by "First Avenue: Stories of Minnesota's Mainroom," an immersive exhibit opening Saturday at the Minnesota History Center that recounts the lore of Minneapolis' world-famous nightclub as it approaches its 50th birthday.
The exhibit is loaded with vintage photos, film clips and artifacts — including the Ford Econoline van that carried Twin Cities hip-hop collective Doomtree on tour for years.
Nicknamed "Mountain" (it even has its own Twitter account, @mountaingood) the van had to be cut in half so the History Center staff could move it into the building, not to mention all the Cheetos dust they vacuumed up. But such road essentials as a deck of cards and a Dr Pepper make it seem lived-in once again.
Kids, and the kid in grown-up music lovers, will find hands-on experiences. You can write your name on a star like the iconic ones that grace First Ave's facade. Solve a puzzle on how to stuff too much equipment into the back of Doomtree's van. And scrawl whatever you want on a graffiti board, just as clubgoers have done for decades in those notorious bathrooms.
Not to be missed is longtime staffer Dan Corrigan's touch-screen tour of backstage, filled with all kinds of insider tidbits, and a short film of musicians (Dave Pirner, Jellybean Johnson, Craig Finn, Sophia Eris) talking about the club in a cleverly designed area that replicates the main stage, complete with video-screen curtain.
Witness footage of both a young and an old Curtiss A celebrating John Lennon; the youthful Replacements; the raging Babes in Toyland; Grant Hart talking about a Hüsker Dü reunion ("It'll be in federal court"); our next superstar Lizzo in action, and Joe Cocker, in full-color glory, throwing down on the club's opening night.
Here are 10 things the exhibit will teach you about First Avenue:
1. Kiss me on the bus: The building opened in 1937 as a Greyhound bus depot. It still has the original floor of tan and green terrazzo squares, even though many clubgoers, under the cover of darkness, imagine it as a black-and-white checkerboard.
2. A little help from their friends: As documentary cameras rolled, the club made its debut as the Depot on April 3, 1970, with raspy-voiced Woodstock hero Cocker packing the place for two nights. Also booked the first week were the Butterfield Blues Band, Mitch Ryder and Poco (billed as "formerly Buffalo Springfield"). Other performers in the early years included Jethro Tull, Iggy & the Stooges and B.B. King, as well as such local acts as the Del Counts, White Lightning and Al Jarreau.
3. Let's dance: Renamed Uncle Sam's, the club operated as a "danceteria" for the latter half of the '70s as part of a national chain. It became simply Sam's in '79, and began adding more live music. It adopted its current name on Jan. 1, 1982, in honor of the street where it's located. Museumgoers can dance on a 1970s disco floor, complete with blinking lights, or geek out over DJ Spinlove's turntables, loaded with a pre-release copy of Prince's "Erotic City" (the superstar often brought in records for DJs to test-drive).
4. When you were mine: Even though "Purple Rain" put First Avenue on the map, Prince headlined the 1,500-capacity mainroom only nine times, starting March 9, 1981. He debuted the music for "Purple Rain" there on Aug. 3, 1983. Then in November, he rented the club for a month to shoot the film. The cops shut down his final First Ave performance — on 7/7/07 — because it was after 3 a.m. Before the show, club staffers had to cover up a mural, depicting Leonardo da Vinci's "Leda and the Swan," because it offended his beliefs as a Jehovah's Witness.
5. All the young dudes: U2, R.E.M. and Nirvana all landed at First Avenue before they became stars. The exhibit has the posters to prove it. Tina Turner rocked the place before making her big comeback. Other Rock Hall of Famers who performed there include Rod Stewart, James Brown, Ray Charles, Paul Simon, the Kinks, George Clinton, Cheap Trick, the Ramones, the Pretenders, Beastie Boys, Green Day, Metallica, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Radiohead.
You can crash a replica of the club's funky backstage green room, as well as the overstuffed office of notoriously cranky First Avenue manager Steve McClellan, who helped keep the place afloat for three decades.
6. You got the silver: Those iconic silver stars on First Avenue's facade were first painted in 1990. (Gold leaf was added to Prince's star after his death in 2016.) They recognize performers who have played sold-out gigs there as well as key staff members. In the summer of 2010, the building was repainted for the club's 40th anniversary. There are now more than 500 stars, but some are blank so names can be added.
7. Left of the dial: The 7th Street Entry, the side room where newcomers often play, opened in 1980 in what was the bus station's cafe. The exhibit re-creates the Entry's dusty doorway and shows videos of local faves rocking the low-ceiling, 250-capacity room, including the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Cows, Babes in Toyland, Run Westy Run and Trip Shakespeare.
8. Rapper's delight: Atmosphere's Slug, a prince of the Twin Cities hip-hop scene, says you can count on four hands the number of rap acts that played First Avenue before 1996. But since then, it's become a mainstay for Atmosphere, Doomtree, Heiruspecs and many others. (Slug boasts that he's been at First Ave so many times, he's vomited in every room in the building.)
9. Fall on me: On Aug. 12, 2015, pieces of the mainroom ceiling started falling during a concert by rockers Theory of a Dead Man. Two fans were hospitalized, and First Ave closed for three weeks for repairs.
10. Artists only: In recent years, the club has engaged local visual artists — including Aesthetic Apparatus, Burlesque of North America, Amy Jo Hendrickson and Squad19 — to create limited-edition posters for gigs.
Much of the exhibit takes its lead from Star Tribune music critic Chris Riemenschneider's 2017 book, "First Avenue: Minnesota's Mainroom," published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. With the show on display for a year, there will be a special celebration of First Avenue's 50th anniversary next April.