When his two-year stint as a truck driver in the U.S. Army ended in the late 1960s, Allan Fingerhut could have easily gone to work for the namesake corporation that made his family one of Minneapolis’ wealthiest. Instead, he took a much rougher and wilder road to create one of Minnesota’s richest cultural landmarks.
The original owner and longtime backer of First Avenue nightclub, Fingerhut died Monday at age 76 surrounded by family at his home in Northern California. Daughter Rain Fingerhut said he suffered from Lewy body dementia.
“He only showed dire signs of this little-known disease within the past two months,” Rain said.
Fingerhut had not been formally involved in First Ave since 2004, but he still factored heavily in its story as recently as this year, appearing in a TPT TV documentary and Minnesota History Center exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the venue where Prince filmed “Purple Rain.”
“I have many friends who shared a long and impactful ride in the music world,” said Steve McClellan, former First Ave general manager, “and for many of us, it started with Allan Fingerhut.”
In a skeptical 1970 write-up about the old downtown Greyhound bus station’s rebirth as a rock club originally called the Depot, Minneapolis Star columnist Jim Klobuchar described Fingerhut as “a boy impresario [who is] squat, mod-groomed, flawlessly mustached and lathered with suntan oil.”
The stylish scion was the second of three children born to Rose and Manny Fingerhut, co-founder of the Fingerhut catalog retail empire. After graduating St. Louis Park High School in 1962, he studied art and photography in New York and then joined the Army as the Vietnam War escalated.
He had no experience as a bar owner or rock promoter, but with musician Danny Stevens’ help he was confident the club would work.
“It really looked like it was meant to be a rock club when we went in there,” Fingerhut recalled in 2015.
He got a crash course on opening night, April 3, 1970, when British rocker Joe Cocker’s crew saw the packed house and demanded more money. Fingerhut paid up, and the shows were legendary.
When Ike Turner made similar demands before a gig a few months later with then-wife Tina Turner, though, veteran booking agent Marsh Edelstein remembers the young club owner rounding up pennies and other coins to fulfill the request.
“I don’t know how he did it, but he came up with tons and tons of change,” recalled Edelstein, who said that “sounds just like the Fingerhut family” and credited the surname for helping make the club go.
“Allan had a big name … and could back up his ideas financially.”
After paying out to other rising legends such as B.B. King, the Kinks, Frank Zappa and Rod Stewart’s Faces into 1971, the Depot faltered financially and closed. It reopened the next year as part of the Cincinnati-based Uncle Sam’s disco chain, which paid Fingerhut for the space through 1979.
With disco clubs quickly fading, Fingerhut once again made the decision to invest in rock ’n’ roll.
“Allan, to his credit, believed in us,” said McClellan, who then oversaw the venue’s conversion to the more experimental rock club Sam’s in late-1979 and then finally First Avenue at the start of 1982.
When Prince transformed the club into an international tourist destination in 1984, Fingerhut became friendly with the similarly petite singer.
“Everyone thought he owned the club,” Fingerhut recalled years later. “And I was OK with that.”
As the club temporarily flourished in the mid-’80s, Fingerhut turned his attention back to visual art. He opened the first Fingerhut Gallery in Edina and would later run an art publishing business and more galleries in California.
Fingerhut’s tenure at First Ave came to a chaotic end in 2004, when he filed for bankruptcy on the club and shuttered it for three weeks during a series of lawsuits with his longtime accountant and childhood friend Byron Frank, who would take over as First Ave’s primary owner.
McClellan still credits Fingerhut for the original vision behind the club and for his 34 years of fostering it. First Ave’s current owner Dayna Frank, daughter of Byron, also recognized him as the originator.
“Thank you, Allan, for having the crazy idea 50 years ago to put a rock club in an abandoned bus station,” Dayna Frank said. “First Avenue past, present and future are all eternally grateful for your dreams and contributions to our music community.”
Rain Fingerhut, one of his four children, said her dad’s illness as well as the COVID-19 lockdown led to quality family time for him and his wife, Rose Fingerhut, this year.
“These past two months have given the family more clarity and resolve in knowing who our father really was,” she said.
“Without a doubt in our mind, we know now more than ever that dad’s intimate legacy was not only one of music, art, and creativity, but also one of joy, having vision for the people and projects he loved.”
A memorial service will be held at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis at 11 a.m. Monday. It will be open to the public and can also be viewed via a Zoom link.