Local Current Blog

Inside the Minnesota History Center’s First Avenue exhibit

Jay Gabler/MPR

This Saturday, May 4, the exhibit First Avenue: Stories of Minnesota’s Mainroom opens at the Minnesota History Center. We were able to take a look inside. Here are a few of the things we learned!

There are still many Minnesotans who know First Ave best as a bus station. While many Minnesotans may think of First Avenue as the legendary rock club it has become, some older residents might see it differently. Before the building became First Avenue, the building was first a Greyhound bus station. Passengers would grab a bite to eat at a cafe that is now the 7th St Entry and catch the bus behind where the main stage is located today. (Simone Cazares)

The Mainroom went deeply disco in the ’70s. After the Greyhound bus station moved in 1968, the building became The Depot in 1970 and then Uncle Sam’s in 1972. Uncle Sam’s was part of a national franchise, and everything in the club from the decorations to the drinks had a patriotic theme. Instead of having live bands, most of the music played at Uncle Sam’s was disco spun by DJs. Even though disco was created and appreciated by diverse music lovers around the world, Uncle Sam’s was a segregated club that used strict dress codes and security to drive African-American customers away. (Simone Cazares)

Booking is a hands-on job. The exhibit features a mock-up of the office formerly occupied by the club’s longtime talent booker and manager, Steve McClellan. As the main person responsible for booking bands at First Avenue in the ’80s and ’90s, McClellan had calendars full of all the bands he had booked over the years. Visitors can get a glimpse of his handwritten booking calendar and take a look at some of the bands he booked during his time there. (Simone Cazares)

First Ave may have birthed the Minnesota Historical Society’s most important artifact. According to exhibit developer Erin Cole, many Minnesotans regard Prince’s Purple Rain suit as the single most iconic item in the Historical Society collections. It’s on display in a section of the exhibit devoted to the artist who catapulted First Ave from a haven for regional music lovers to an internationally-known landmark. (Jay Gabler)

What it takes to get a star on the wall. In 1990, First Avenue staff hatched a plan to distinguish the exterior of the building from other venues by painting performers’ names outside the Mainroom and Entry doors. Fast-forward to today, and more than 450 names have been highlighted on those signature stars that stretch across the building’s facade. What does it take to achieve an honor such as this? One panel in the exhibit notes that while there are no set requirements for receiving a star, it doesn’t hurt to sell out a show at First Ave, have strong ties to the venue, or be based locally. (Lydia Moran)

There’s a semi-secret setlist hall of fame. Backstage at First Avenue is what the venue calls its “setlist wall.” The wall is covered with set lists from as far back as the ’90s and each list is taped up with bright blue masking tape. Even in one of the venue’s bushiest hallways, where musicians and staff members walk through every show, the venue still tries to maintain the setlists and keep the memories alive for years to come. You can see the wall in a video tour hosted by legendary photographer Daniel Corrigan. (Simone Cazares)

Many of the greatest artists to play First Ave have handled turntables, not guitars. As Cole pointed out, although First Ave is most famously associated with Prince and the Replacements, the classic alt-rock era was only a fraction of the venue’s history. In the 21st century, First Avenue has become a haven for hip-hop, with acts like Atmosphere and Brother Ali lighting up the Mainroom stage in a city famed for its indie rap scene. (Jay Gabler)

How bands hit the road, and stay rolling. In the modern-era portion of the exhibit sits its largest artifact: Doomtree’s longtime touring van, nicknamed “Mountain,” which the hip-hop collective donated to the History Center. Cole explained how she was pleasantly surprised when Doomtree’s Lazerbeak called the Center to offer the vehicle. Mountain is intact — sans engine — with various items found during the cleaning process encased beside it, and video footage of the collective’s touring antics projected on an inside wall. In addition to Mountain, the exhibit features other touring-related material including an interactive game called “Get to the Gig!” where visitors drop cards into a pegboard and watch as they either land at First Avenue, or encounter snags such as “flat tire!” and “blizzard!” and end up at “parents’ basement” or “the impound lot.” (Lydia Moran)

How many Minnesotans’ lives have been changed at First Avenue. Throughout the exhibit, curators remained mindful of the varied level of experience museum visitors may have with First Avenue — from those who knew it as a Greyhound station, to someone who saw their first concert or DJ set at the venue just this year. On their way out, visitors are invited to write their most memorable First Avenue experience on cards, or add their name to the wall of stars with an erasable marker. Beside a collection of band shirts are t-shirts inscribed with real-life experiences patrons have had at the club: everything from “I met my wife there” to “the bathrooms were terrible.” Additionally, upcoming show calendars hang near the exit — a reminder that the venue is still as active as ever. (Lydia Moran)

No matter how many times you’ve see it, it’s a magic moment when the Mainroom screen rises. Don’t miss the audiovideo presentation screening at the heart of the exhibit, on a miniature replica of the Mainroom stage. Catch a glimpse in the walkthrough video below, shot by Nate Ryan and hosted by Brian Oake and Jill Riley.