Turn out the lights, the party is ending at Lee’s Liquor Lounge.
The homey, blue-collar Minneapolis corner bar turned hipster hangout will close May 14 after 62 years in business, and a quarter century as an eclectic live-music venue.
The wood-paneled, neon-signed saloon in the shadow of Target Field is losing its parking lot to make way for construction of the Southwest light-rail line.
“It’s hard to build when they keep nailing you in the ankles,” said James Rhines, Lee’s general manager for the past four years.
Rhines said the 84-space unpaved parking lot is essential to the business. The lot is owned by the city, the state and Hennepin County, but Lee’s had use of it through a handshake deal between the city and the bar’s previous longtime owner, Louie Sirian.
The lot will be used to house construction equipment.
Lee’s owner Craig Kruckeberg, who bought the 300-capacity bar in 2015, said he’s been working with the city for six to nine months to solve the problem but he got trumped by the light-rail.
“They got my hands tied,” Kruckeberg said. “I’m hoping there’s enough of a public uproar [over Lee’s closing].”
Kruckeberg is in limbo: Should he close temporarily and do upgrades to his 1891 building if he can secure a long-term lease on the parking lot, or do something else with the property at 101 N. Glenwood Av.?
Last Friday, he decided to close the bar.
Fittingly, Texas twanger Dale Watson, who immortalized the place in his 1998 ditty “Louie’s Lee’s Liquor Lounge,” will be the final act, playing on May 12 and 14.
Rhines said business was “up and down but OK.”
Meanwhile, he is trying to make sure that bands he’d booked for Lee’s this spring will be able to play elsewhere in the Twin Cities.
At Lee’s, Rhines has tried to fill a void left by the 2013 closing of St. Paul’s Station 4, a home to young metal and punk bands. He also has continued the eclectic tradition of Lee’s, with local and regional Americana, blues and country acts plus free weekly swing-dance lessons.
A neighborhood bar that once catered to workers at several manufacturing plants in north Minneapolis, Lee’s turned into an off-the-beaten-path honky-tonk in the ’90s, thanks to musician and talent booker Nate Dungan.
His band, the entertainingly twangy Trailer Trash, became a mainstay at Lee’s, along with a variety of acts, from original rockers like the Dust Bunnies to Janie Miller’s Patsy Cline show and nationally known singers Wanda Jackson, Billy Joe Shaver and Tiny Tim.
“This is a bar like no other,” said Dungan, who has performed in his share of them and will play at Lee’s Saturday with Trailer Trash. “It was one of the last old real saloons. It was a bona fide working man’s drinking bar by day. And it became a hipster bar by night.”
But owner Sirian refused to modernize it. For years, he didn’t take credit cards, serve coffee or have an ATM.
Under Kruckeberg, some upgrades happened, but parking remained a challenge.
Dungan sees change as inevitable.
He recalled what Minneapolis guitar hero Slim Dunlap once told him: “When a bar closes, the scene vanishes without a trace.”