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Not Your Father’s First Avenue

As rock-club operators go, 34-year-old former TV exec Dayna Frank isn’t typical. And neither are the changes she’s making to Minneapolis’s most iconic music venue.

Not Your Father’s First Avenue
Photo by TJ Turner/SIDECAR

(page 1 of 3)

For more than four decades, the dim, cavernous confines of First Avenue have hosted some of the most legendary happenings in Twin Cities music. It’s where Prince tested out new material and filmed Purple Rain. Where punk legends Hüsker Dü and the Replacements dominated the local rock scene. And where bands like U2, R.E.M., and the Red Hot Chili Peppers played to intimate crowds before graduating to the 10-times-larger Target Center across the street.

But on this rare quiet day in First Avenue’s Mainroom, the giant black stage sits empty and the smell of fresh paint lingers in the air. Dayna Frank, the club’s new executive vice president, leads a crew of construction workers and planners around the building, plotting out the next steps of its seemingly constant renovation.

Frank is petite and casually dressed, her dark brown hair pulled back into a neat ponytail that gives her a youthful look. The 34-year-old Golden Valley native isn’t who you’d expect to see running the state’s most iconic rock club. And she never pictured herself in the business, either.

Long before bands had Twitter accounts, before Spotify, iTunes, and Pandora, fans connected with their favorite musicians at First Ave., lining up along  the sidewalk waiting for shows, tracing their fingers over the names on the Hollywood-style stars painted onto the one-time bus depot’s LP-black exterior. Gruff bouncers eyed music fans from Mohawk’ed head to combat-boot-shod toe as if to assess whether each cool kid were cool enough to pass through the club’s hallowed doors.

While it may not be the most glamorous metaphor, these days the club’s past, present, and future seem to be represented by the bathrooms that service its side-room venue, 7th St. Entry. On the right, the former unisex facility, now the men’s room, is dimly lit and covered in an absurd amount of paint, with layers of graffiti and stickers coated in thick black tar. The mirror is scuffed and scratched, the floor bleak gray cement. And the toilet is topped with a steel seat that looks like it belongs in a prison cell.

But on the left, the newly added women’s restroom glimmers like a jewelry case at Tiffany’s. It’s lined, floor to ceiling, in sparkling, bleach-white tile and has a staff person stationed outside to ensure only one well-behaved female enters at a time. It’s surely the nicest rock-club bathroom in the Cities and indicative of the way Frank’s management has flushed away some of the club’s aloof, grungy past in order to broaden its appeal.

Surveying the mainroom from its second-floor balcony, Frank presents a friendly-but-commanding demeanor as she explains the club’s recent changes. “The first thing we did was clean it inside and out,” she says. “Now, every nook and cranny in the building is beautiful. It’s all repainted; every speck of dust is cleaned. You can actually walk through with the lights on!”

Frank paid frequent visits to the landmark venue, in all its grunge and glory, throughout her childhood. (Her maiden First Ave. show was the Pixies—as an 8-year-old.) She graduated from Hopkins High School and studied photography at NYU. After working in New York for a short time, an interest in film led her to Los Angeles (where she still resides three weeks a month). There, she became an assistant at the powerful Creative Artists Agency and then a junior executive at a production company, helping develop Hollywood films.

Just as Frank’s career was blossoming, she received distressing news from her father back home in Minnesota. Byron Frank had worked for years as First Ave.’s accountant (the reason an 8-year-old got into a Pixies show), alongside a childhood friend who was the club’s original owner, Allan Fingerhut. In 2000, Byron had negotiated the purchase of the property and had become the club’s landlord, but it was not a profitable time for First Ave. (When the New York Times reported on the club’s financial troubles, it noted the business had recently lost “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”) By 2004, the two business partners were embroiled in a bitter and much-publicized dispute. The partnership that owned the building, which included Byron and other investors, ultimately served Fingerhut with an eviction notice. Fingerhut then closed the club and took it into bankruptcy.

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