Local Current Blog

First Avenue just gave a star to Byron Frank, instrumental in saving the club 15 years ago

Photos by Jay Gabler/MPR

This week, a new name was added to the constellation of legends watching over the intersection of North 1st Avenue and South 7th Street on First Avenue’s iconic exterior. The star belongs to Byron Frank: not a musician, but a man nonetheless instrumental in shifting First Avenue’s reputation 15 years ago, and a big reason it exists today.

Back in 2000, Frank served as the club’s financial advisor, and helped his childhood friend, First Ave’s cofounder and then-owner Allan Fingerhut, purchase the property that had already been its home for 30 years. Just four years later, the business was spiraling and Fingerhut encountered 25% revenue losses, which he assumed — from his home in Los Angeles — were a result of mismanagement. The pair became entangled in what became a very public business dispute, and Fingerhut emerged from L.A. to fire the club’s management team, notably longtime leader Steve McClellan, in order to take hold of the reins himself.

“I’d have to drop dead before I would ever allow this club to close,” Fingerhut declared. Nonetheless, in November 2004, he filed for bankruptcy and shuttered First Avenue, to city-wide outrage.

Though Frank never imagined himself as a nightclub owner, he sprung into action and purchased the club from bankruptcy court, along with Steve McClellan and Jack Meyers, for $100,000 — enlisting the help of notorious stage diver and then-mayor of Minneapolis, R.T. Rybak, to rush the club’s liquor license transfer. Ultimately, First Avenue was inoperative for a mere 17 days.

Frank set out to improve staff morale (the new retirement and health insurance plans definitely didn’t hurt) and reclaim the trust of audience members who’d grown wary of the venue they sometimes called “First Attitude.” He also installed some much-needed infrastructure upgrades including air conditioning and fire sprinklers, with improvements totaling $1 million by 2009.

Frank kept a document titled “First Avenue Words to Live By” in his upstairs office. It read: “We will do things only one way — First Class. We will treat everyone with respect. We will dare to dream,” and “We will always try to be happy but never satisfied.”

In 2009, Frank suffered a health-related setback, and would have put the venue up for sale if his daughter Dayna, First Avenue’s current CEO, had not stepped in to help run the business. Over the past decade, she has continued her father’s efforts of broadening First Ave’s appeal and solidified its spot as one of the country’s top independent promoters.

Earlier this year, First Avenue general manager Nathan Kranz told the Star Tribune, “Ever since [the Franks] took over, the money that’s been made has been reinvested back into the company, which almost never happened before.”

In 2010, the 435 white stars, which originated as a marketing tactic that established the club’s reputation for booking soon-to-be superstars, were repainted and reformatted. Roughly ten percent of the stars are left blank for staff to fill in at any moment. For his birthday this year, Byron Frank was gifted a physical reminder of the legacy he helped nurture.