It’s so crowded around the piano bar that the doorman repeatedly yells at patrons who block the front door. Tucked into the corner behind the elevated circular piano hub — like Capt. Kirk at the helm of a time capsule that crash-landed from the 1950s — Daina De Prez exudes the warmer, jovial touch that’s equally at the heart of Minneapolis’ most famous bar. Even when she repeats the news that has haunted Twin Cities traditionalists and fun seekers for more than a year.
“Nye’s has been here 65 years, but now it’s closing April 3,” she announces through her microphone. “We don’t know what the future holds, but we know it’s been a helluva ride.”
And with that, she launches perfectly into “Those Were the Days.”
We thought it’d never end. Even up until a few weeks ago, any talk about closing Nye’s Polonaise Room often drew a very Nye’s-like “yeah, whatever” reaction. First we heard it’d end in August. Then New Year’s. The long confirmed April 3 date still has some folks thinking/hoping it’s an April Fool’s joke.
It’s for real, though. A decade after Esquire named it the best bar in America and six decades since its inception in that most hopeful era of postwar, pro-immigration 1950s prosperity, Albin “Al” Nye’s namesake Polish palace on the southern edge of northeast Minneapolis will close for good.
The owners of the historic — but not historic enough! — supper club/piano bar/polka hall are moving ahead with redevelopment plans. The staff is storing up tips. The musicians are lining up other gigs. The patrons are turning out in droves, soaking up the vibes one last time.
They’re dancing like polka kings. Singing like glee club members. Drinking like fish.
“Business has been very good, which is bittersweet for all of us,” confirmed Rob Jacob, who has owned Nye’s with his brother Tony since 1999. “But we’re not going to act like furniture salesmen and keep our closeout sale going forever.”
As has been widely reported, the Jacob brothers are partnering with Minneapolis developer Schafer Richardson to build a six-story apartment and retail complex where Nye’s now stands. They say the old hangout can’t stand up much longer. The repairs required are too much even for them, proprietors of the successful Jake’s City Grille chain.
It’s obvious the Jacobs stand to make a lot more money with the new development. It’s also obvious, however, that the place as we know it is indeed in sad shape.
The bathrooms look like they might not pass a building inspection in Tijuana. The carpet in the dining room is so faded and worn it’s hard to tell a floral pattern from a 20-year-old mustardy sauerkraut stain. Structurally, the whole facade sort of looks like it’s hunching at the seams, tilting downhill toward the river.
“The place is simply falling apart,” Rob Jacob said.
A final three-day blowout dubbed the “Last Polka” is set for April 1-3, with music inside and out to accommodate the expected swell of bodies. And maybe ghosts, too.
“I’d appreciate it if you don’t bang your glass on my bar!”
The bartender in the polka room yells at a customer from halfway down the long wood bar. Nye’s staffers have never shied from chastising customers. You should see them now. Never mind that the bar is going to be in service only a couple of more weeks.
Seated in his perch on the slender shelf of a stage, in the shadow of his late dentally challenged bandmate Ruth Adams, trumpeter and World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band leader Joe Hayden wraps up the night’s second or third version of “Pennsylvania Polka.” He stops to sell some hats and T-shirts — collector’s items now. One of the buyers is Eric Larson, a farmer from LaMoure, N.D., who’s asking about the big-city weekend crowds.
“It’s been very tame — three fights in 20 years,” Hayden says. “It’s hard to get mad at anyone when polka is being played.”
Forget calling it the end of an era. It’s the end of about three or four eras. That’s how many generations you can spot at Nye’s on any given night.
Grandmas who get their hair done once a week bump elbows with hipsters who look like they haven’t washed their hair in a month. Lawyers and hedge-fund managers compete equally for a spot in the gold-flecked vintage vinyl booths with mechanics and professors.
“You see people here that range in age from 21 to 81,” said Mike Liebl of Burnsville, back for his first trip to Nye’s since his early 20s, which was 20-some years ago.
“I think as long as you’re Minnesotan, you get this place,” said Nora Perry, a Minnesota native who now lives in Montclair, Va. She flew back just to hang out one last time at Nye’s, her and her friends’ go-to spot fresh out of college in the early ’90s. “Where else can you go to dance to polka music every weekend? For a lot of us, that’s such a part of our heritage. It brings back memories of weddings, of our families.”
Nye’s brings Brett Hammond’s family together. Members of the Hammond clan of northeast Minneapolis have been hanging out there regularly for almost 40 years. He’s only 30 himself.
“It’s the one place Northeast people can come and feel comfortable with ourselves,” he said, going on to disprove Hayden’s theory that you can’t get mad when polka is in the room.
“Yeah, I’m pissed,” Hammond stewed. “I don’t want to go to some nice, clean, hip new bar. We don’t need any more of those. We only have one Nye’s. It means more to us than 100 of those other bars combined.”
As his St. Dominic’s Trio plays the Van Morrison rarity “Like Lovers Do” — a hard one they’ve worked up over five years of Tuesday night gigs in the polka room — Terry Walsh has to move his Telecaster guitar neck out of the way to let a customer into the men’s room.
“It would be so cool to have you guys playing here when they’re blowing up the building,” a woman yells from one of the booths when the song ends.
“What’s the song they played when the Titanic was going down?” Walsh responds.
Next door behind the piano bar, host John Eller holds off on a Fab Four request because Tuesday-night regular Jon Clifford has wrapped a pink boa and giant glasses around the veteran club musician’s head.
“Clearly, I can’t sing a Beatles song in this get-up,” he says. He instead launches into a version of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” that makes at least two people in the crowd weep.
The longest tenured musical act at Nye’s besides the weekend polka band, the New Primitives are also the unlikeliest band to have fit in there: a reggae- and Latin-infused rock band with African-American and Hispanic members and a hippie-ish look.
“I think our success there speaks to how eclectic and all-encompassing the place really is,” said New Primitives co-leader Stan Kipper, who remembered feeling uncomfortable the first few months of their 13-year Thursday night run. But then some of the older early evening Nye’s regulars heard he was the son of Obie Kipper, who worked at the nearby post office for decades.
“Then I was cool to them,” Kipper said with a laugh. “That’s the kind of place Nye’s is: It was cool for my dad’s generation, and mine, and now a younger generation.”
None of the bands has gotten wealthy playing at Nye’s, but they all talk about it being more fun than it is work. As if playing four hours every week isn’t hard work.
Many better-off musicians have come to join in on the fun in recent years, ranging from jazz great Diana Krall to East L.A. kingpins Los Lobos to indie-rock guru Jim James of My Morning Jacket. Just a week ago, the hotly buzzing New York roots-rock band Lake Street Dive came in after its sold-out First Avenue set.
The Nye’s music veterans have had so much fun that they’re looking to keep up their weekly gigs elsewhere. The New Primitives are moving farther northeast to Shaw’s Bar on Tuesday nights, where De Prez will play for Wednesday happy hour. St. Dominic’s Trio and Eller head south to the Driftwood Char Bar for their Tuesday twofer.
Even the World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band is shopping around. Hayden said it plans to play regularly at VFW halls in Richfield and other suburbs on weekends. He’s not sure he wants to continue playing as often, though.
“I’m sad,” he said, “but my wife is happy about this. Nearly every weekend for 20 years is a lot of weekends.”
Leaning against his stool in the piano-bar version of a batter’s box, Kenny Snider can’t help but smile even though he and other family members just came to Nye’s straight from the funeral for his mother, Louella Mae “Sweet Lou” Snider.
“She’d love knowing we’re here,” says Kenny, whose mom helmed the piano on weekends for nearly five decades and was a big reason Nye’s became Nye’s. “She loved the people more than she loved the place.”
Sweet Lou’s replacement, De Prez, has been talking about Lou all night and keeps it up as she introduces Kenny to the crowd. “He’s been coming here since he was 3 years old,” she says.
Kenny chooses Elvis: “Like a river flows/Surely to the sea/Darling so it goes/Some things are meant to be/Take my hand /Take my whole life too/For I can’t help falling in love with you.”
For the most devout of Nye’s regulars, the bar’s closing is not the first death in the family during this damn mean decade. Burying polka leader Ruth Adams in 2011 maybe was the beginning of the end.
“Some people saw Ruth as this sort of caricature, but she was very sweet and very knowledgeable about music, and about life,” said Kari Steenberg, a patron from north Minneapolis who sings at the piano bar most weekends. “Her spirit is still in this place.”
Snider’s passing a month ahead of the closing date seemed all too symbolic.
Steenberg was in her 30s and “scared as hell,” she recalled, when she first walked up to Snider 15 years ago and asked to sing Patsy Cline’s “Why Can’t He Be You.” Snider liked that she wasn’t just another “Crazy” wannabe, and that Steenberg is actually a good singer (in no way a requirement in this place). Another Nye’s star was born.
“These people became my family,” Steenberg said. “We’ve been through births, deaths, divorces, hookups and everything else together. I don’t know if any of us would have ever crossed paths if it wasn’t for this place.”
She had only to point behind her. There was Vera Strandmark, another frequent Nye’s singer from Richfield, who wouldn’t be out of place in a “Golden Girls” episode. She was passing along the microphone to a transgender patron who’s also a regular (and another strong singer). A couple seats down was a thirtysomething jock-looking guy who had just finished mumbling out Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Watching Nye’s die will be like losing another oddly lovable, irreplaceable friend.
“We won’t have this again,” lamented Steenberg. “It’s the last place where everyone fits in.”